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See Inside September 2010

The Paradox of Time: Why It Can't Stop, But Must

For time to end seems both impossible and inevitable. Recent work in physics suggests a resolution to the paradox

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In our experience, nothing ever really ends. When we die, our bodies decay and the material in them returns to the earth and the air, allowing for the creation of new life. We live on in what comes after. But will that always be the case? Might there come a point sometime in the future when there is no “after”? Depressingly, modern physics suggests the answer is yes. Time itself could end. All activity would cease, and there would be no renewal or recovery. The end of time would be the end of endings.

This grisly prospect was an unanticipated prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which provides our modern understanding of gravity. Before that theory, most physicists and philosophers thought time was a universal drumbeat, a steady rhythm that the cosmos marches to, never varying, wavering or stopping. Einstein showed that the universe is more like a big polyrhythmic jam session. Time can slow down, or stretch out, or let it rip. When we feel the force of gravity, we are feeling time’s rhythmic improvisation; falling objects are drawn to places where time passes more slowly. Time not only affects what matter does but also responds to what matter is doing, like drummers and dancers firing one another up into a rhythmic frenzy. When things get out of hand, though, time can go up in smoke like an overexcited drummer who spontaneously combusts.

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