Piercing The Illusion of Time

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Various clocks connected by horizontal and vertical lines in spaceNOVA

The Illusion of Time

Time is scarce these days, especially with the holidays looming. (Yes, it's scarcely two weeks from Thanksgiving).

But even in this busy season, it's still worth taking an hour to tune into the new PBS/NOVA series, The Fabric of the Cosmos, especially since the next episode, "The Illusion of Time," which airs tonight (check your local listings) suggests that time itself – or at least what our perceptions and experiences tell us it is – could be an illusion.

Time seems to flow: Faster during fun hours and frantic holiday seasons; far slower during long meetings and lengthy conference calls. It also seems to flow one way: There's no undoing what was done yesterday. Shattered vases don't get unbroken.

But as "The Illusion of Time" explains, physics confounds our everyday experience of time. Instead of a simple one-way flow, the more accurate view of time may be that it is a place where everything happens all at once – past, present and future.

As Brian Greene demonstrated in the first episode of the series, "What is Space?" the fabric of space is woven inseparably into the fabric of time: They're utterly intertwined. To be in space is to be in time: To move in space is also to move in time. And, as Einstein first realized, since light has a specific, finite speed of about 700 million miles per hour – regardless of frame of reference – moving more quickly in space literally means moving more slowly in time.

We move far too slowly to feel this effect – one would have to travel at a healthy fraction of the speed of light to experience slowed clocks in action. But scientists have tested the phenomenon, and it holds true. The time that we know might not be the time that actually is.

As Brian Greene asks, "How could this be? How could we be so wrong about something so familiar?" That's where research at the Department of Energy's Office of Science comes in. Because what we think we know – what seems so comfortable and familiar – may not fully reflect reality. Experiments in the physical sciences can help us see through those illusions and discover a better understanding of our world. They may even open the way to new and unexpected applications.

That's why people like Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) who appears in tonight's episode, does research on dark matter and extra dimensions. It's why scientists at Fermilab are probing quarks and other fundamental particles that can reveal the secrets of spacetime, and others are researching the ghostly particles known as neutrinos. And it's why thousands of other scientists across the Office of Science study matter and energy, space and time, looking to pierce the illusions that reveal an even greater world of wonder.

So tune in for this latest episode. It'll only take an hour…and that's hardly any time.

For more information on DOE's Office of Science, please go to: http://science.energy.gov/.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.