Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time. 3 “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”
As a nonfiction reader, I can’t be sufficiently grateful for having read this book. Frank instantly wins my respect by beginning with biology and our evolutionary history:
A Paleolithic farmer moved through his day and experienced time in a radically different way than did a merchant living in the great city of Babylon. The human encounter with time is fluid and malleable. It can and will change again.
Indeed. He describes a bit of the “flow” of time of the hunger-gatherers – though not nearly in the daily detail as in Homo Sapiens, but as a complimentary time-based perspective to those chapters – and moves on from there. He notes how agriculture changed us, of course, moving from active lives outside to life farming, with less physical activity, a smaller or more limited view of the night sky, and more.
He gives a brief history of astronomical and cosmological developments, describing, ironically, how at the same time in history we developed the ability to look more deeply at the stars in the night sky, we developed the technology that led to us blocking out the night sky completely. And thus, as we stopped looking up and wondering we ceased to meditate naturally: looking up at the stars and pondering moved from a pleasure for the masses to a fringe activity by amateurs and professional scientists.
Later, here is one of the first places I heard of “first sleep,” as opposed to having the “second sleep” and a break in between the two.
He describes electricity and its influence on our conception of time, of course, but then he gives a specific, detailed example of a radical transformation of our lives: the washing machine. Here is a device which single handedly reduced the workload of women from perhaps entire days (or more) in their week to less than an hour of total work – a device which freed amazing amounts of time for women, and probably allowed the women’s rights revolution. One single device – other than the general development of electricity, I can think of nothing so similar as the smartphone, and even then, no one has shown me that this directly makes us more productive simply by providing access to information.
If the washing machine gave us time, the smartphone gives us information and connects us to ideas, spreading them faster. But that does not inherently make it as important – or beneficial, I would argue – as the former.
Frank describes how time zones and town clocks changed our perception of time, as did trains and eventually undersea cables. Later he mentions concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics. In the latter chapters, he has an example of a person on Mars “plugging in” to time which hops from nanosecond to nanosecond, rapidly, with electronic apparatuses helping the brain to keep pace.
He closes with a description of the multiverse theory, how oil has so much energy it has changed our world with the automation provided by electricity, and by saying, “Human beings build universes, and universes support human beings.”
With electric power running appliances, each family had the equivalent of a small army of servants doing their vacuuming and their sewing, preserving their food, washing their dishes and of course cleaning and drying their clothes.
The simple act of walking down the street and calling a friend to check in is as profound and radical a shift in the experience, use and conception of time as anything that passed before, from the Neolithic to the industrial revolution.
(If I ever want to review physical concepts like relativity, quantum physics, time dilation, radioactive decay, or the like, these highlights are worth reviewing.)
Thus from the era of myth to the era of the Greeks we can see a finite set of questions emerge that would come to guide nearly all future debate and future cosmological imaginings.
Question 1: Is there a universe or a multiverse? Is what we see, all the stars and galaxies, all there is to the universe? Are there other collections of matter we can’t see? Are there other universes with laws that differ from our own?
Question 2: Is space infinite or bounded? Does space extend forever? Does it have a boundary? If so, what lies beyond the boundary?
Question 3: Does space exist by itself? Is a true vacuum possible, or does space exist only relative to the matter that fills it? Would space exist in a universe without matter?
Question 4: Does time exist by itself? Is time a real property of the universe? Or does it exist only relative to changes in matter? Would time exist in a universe without matter?
Question 5: Does the universe have a beginning and/or an ending in time? Did the universe come into being? Will it come to an end? If so, what came before and what will come after? If the universe is eternal, how is such a thing possible?