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See Inside June 2010

Is Time an Illusion?

The concepts of time and change may emerge from a universe that, at root, is utterly static

As you read this sentence, you probably think that this moment—right now—is what is happening. The present moment feels special. It is real. However much you may remember the past or anticipate the future, you live in the present. Of course, the moment during which you read that sentence is no longer happening. This one is. In other words, it feels as though time flows, in the sense that the present is constantly updating itself. We have a deep intuition that the future is open until it becomes present and that the past is fixed. As time flows, this structure of fixed past, immediate present and open future gets carried forward in time. This structure is built into our language, thought and behavior. How we live our lives hangs on it.

Yet as natural as this way of thinking is, you will not find it reflected in science. The equations of physics do not tell us which events are occurring right now—they are like a map without the “you are here” symbol. The present moment does not exist in them, and therefore neither does the flow of time. Additionally, Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity suggest not only that there is no single special present but also that all moments are equally real [see “That Mysterious Flow,” by Paul Davies; Scientific American, September 2002]. Fundamentally, the future is no more open than the past.

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