Thursday, June 26, 2008

Agnostic Time

No one keeps track of time better than Ferenc Krausz. In his lab at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, he has clocked the shortest time intervals ever observed. Krausz uses ultraviolet laser pulses to track the absurdly brief quantum leaps of electrons within atoms. The events he probes last for about 100 attoseconds, or 100 quintillionths of a second. For a little perspective, 100 attoseconds is to one second as a second is to 300 million years.

But even Krausz works far from the frontier of time. There is a temporal realm called the Planck scale, where even attoseconds drag by like eons. It marks the edge of known physics, a region where distances and intervals are so short that the very concepts of time and space start to break down. Planck time—the smallest unit of time that has any physical meaning—is 10-43 second, less than a trillionth of a trillionth of an attosecond. Beyond that? Tempus incognito.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that for some philosophies time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality. If so, then what is time? And why is it so obviously and tyrannically omnipresent in our own experience? “The meaning of time has become terribly problematic in contemporary physics,” says Simon Saunders, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “The situation is so uncomfortable that by far the best thing to do is declare oneself an agnostic.”

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