The ‘rebels’ who oppose the Big Bang theory have as their objective to face the concept of time; they are philosophers as much as cosmologists, dissatisfied with the Big Bang theory, indifferent to string theory and not convinced by the multiverse. Julian Barbour, a British physicist, author and major exponent of the idea of timeless physics, is one of these rebels – and is so deeply convinced of his hypothesis that he has repudiated the entire academic world.
Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time applied to physics and cosmology is as clear as it is radical: it affirms, in fact, that time simply does not exist
‘If you try to keep time in one hand, it will always slide between your fingers’, Barbour says. ‘People are convinced that time is there, but it can not be grasped and I think it is not possible to hold it simply because it is not there’. Barbour speaks with disarming English charm, revealing a resolute determination and a deep trust in his theory; his extreme perspective derives from years and years of in-depth studies in both classical and quantum physics.
Time: Isaac Newton thought of time as a river that it flows everywhere with the same scope; Einstein changed this view by unifying space and time into a single entity in four dimensions, but he also failed in the attempt to counter the view of time as a unit of measurement of the transformations of the world around us. As stated by Barbour, the question must be approached from a completely different perspective; that is, it is necessary to think that the changes create the illusion of the flow of time and not vice versa. Re-evoking the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour perceives every single moment as a whole, as an entity in itself, real and complete. Call these moments the ‘Now’.
‘As we live we move into a succession of Now,’ states Barbour, and the question to ask is: ‘what are these entities?’ According to the scholar every Now is a combination of all the elements of the Universe. ‘We have the strong impression that everything has a definite position in relation to something else and my aim is to succeed regardless of everything we can not see (directly or indirectly) and simply accept the idea that there are many situations coexisting at the same time. There are simply the Now, nothing more and nothing less. ”
Time: These You can now imagine as pages of a book, torn from the cover and thrown in bulk on the floor; in this case each sheet is in fact a separate entity that exists separately from time. Then placing the pages in a specific order, and observing them in their progression, we will have a linear narration; but it does not matter how carefully they are reordered, because each one will still be complete and independent. As Barbour states, ‘The jumping cat is not the same cat that lands’. The physics of reality is, according to the scientist, the study of these Now, considered as a whole. There is no past moment that flows towards a future, but, on the contrary, all the possible configurations of the Universe, every possible location of every single atom in the whole of creation, exist simultaneously. Barbour’s’ Now ‘is all in a vast and completely timeless Platonic realm.
‘ What really intrigues me, ‘says Barbour,’ it is the fact that the totality of all possible Now possesses a very particular structure. One can take as an example the landscape of a state. Every point of this territory is a Now; I call this land Platonia, as it is timeless and was created according to mathematical rules’. The problem of the ‘first’ of the Big Bang does not arise for Barbour, as its cosmology has no time. Everything exists in a scenario of configurations, the landscape of the Now. ‘Platonia is the real arena of the Universe’, he declares, ‘and its structure influences everything related to physics, classical or quantum, and has a role within it’. According to Barbour, the Big Bang is not an explosion occurred in a remote past, but only a particular place within Platonia, its territory occupied by independent Now.
About time: The illusion of the past emerges because every Now in Plato contains elements that appear as ‘memories’, to express themselves in the language of Barbour. ‘The only evidence you have of last week’s existence are the memories related to it. But memory derives from a stable structure of neurons that acts in the mind at this moment. The only certain proof that we have of the Earth’s past are rocks and fossils, but they are solid structures formed by mineral compositions that we examine in the present. I mean that all we have are these memories and we can only have them in this Now. Barbour’s theory explains the existence of these memories through relations between the Now within Platonia; some of these entities are related to others in the landscape even if they do not exist simultaneously.
These links give the appearance of memories aligned in a sequence that goes from the past to the future, but, despite this appearance, the current course of time from one Now to another it does not exist. “Think of integers,” he explains, “each integer exists simultaneously, but some are linked in structures, like the series of prime numbers or those of the Fibonacci series. Number 3 was not the number 5 in the past, just as the Now of the cat jumping from the table does not belong to the past compared to the Cat’s Ad that lands on the floor. Past and future, beginning and end, have simply disappeared within Barbour physics and no mistakes are made, as he is actually exposing physical theories. ‘I know the idea is overwhelming,’ he says, ‘but we can use it to make predictions and describe the world.’ With his collaborator he published a series of essays that demonstrate how relativity and quantum mechanics naturally emerge from the physics of Platonia. The timeless perfect arrangement of the Now in the scenario of Platonia is the most radical of the solutions to the enigma of the First, but its audacity reveals an alternative way to that followed by the history of science. In a time when the search for quantum gravity has multiplied the size and the discovery of dark energy has forced cosmologists to their blackboards, all the fundamentals seem close at hand.
Barbour wants to step back and offer the ‘timeless’ answer to a basic question: ‘What is time?’
This is an excerpt from the book by Adam Frank About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, available in print, taken from the chapter entitled “The End of Begininnings and the End of Time”, which deals with radical alternatives to the Big Bang.