Scientific Theories And Facts That Prove Time Is Way Weirder Than You Think

Time impacts every aspect of our lives. Yet, despite our seemingly intimate relationship with time, many would be hard-pressed to define it. So, exactly what is time?

For millennia, philosophers and scientists have proposed and argued theories about time, but very few have resulted in any kind of consensus. And while there still remains no complete definition, in its strictest sense, time is a unit of measure. We use it to describe an event, or the duration of or between them. This is true both in everyday matters, as well as in mathematics. Colloquially, we might say something like “time marches on” when speaking about life’s forward movement, while physicists would characterize this perceived experience as the “arrow of time.”

Beyond time’s symptomatic effects, however, the true essence of the phenomenon remains controversial and mysterious. While physicists can use units of time within their equations, questions such as "How does time work?" continue to confound the scientific community. Indeed, as the superficial layers of time get pulled back, common sense and intuitive ideas are challenged, making it difficult to talk about the existential without flirting with something more metaphysical. As a result, the riddle of time has actually led some philosophers and scientists to rethink the entire model of our universe.

In that spirit, let’s explore some scientific theories about time that challenge our own views about reality.

Photo: kengo / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • Time Is An Illusion

    Time Is An Illusion
    Video: YouTube

    You may have once heard – from a cool science teacher or over-exuberant guest at a "hip" dinner party – that time isn’t real. And while this statement isn't necessarily untrue, the core precept behind it (sometime called the B-theory of time) actually states that time is an illusion.

    Put more specifically, our experience of time (past, present, and future) has more to with our own subjectivity than any foundational feature of existence. Most modern physicists now subscribe to this view, explaining that the time we perceive through our human minds at a local level is vastly different than time’s innate behavior at a universal scale.

  • Time Is A Dimension

    Time Is A Dimension
    Photo: NASA / WMAP Science Team / / Public Domain

    We all understand the basic concept of three-dimensional space. Technically, it means that every point in our universe has a physical address, tractable by a coordinate along three perpendicular planes (X, Y, and Z for those who remember high school trigonometry). It's just one of the many interesting things about space. But does a point in space really "exist" without a time in which to do so?

    There is no known physical law requiring time to be a dimension, but Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity led to just that proposition. Referred to as the fourth dimension, time is now widely accepted to be seamlessly woven with three-dimensional space in a continuum scientists refer to as spacetime .

  • Time Is Relative

    Time Is Relative
    Video: YouTube

    Einstein’s assertions didn’t stop with the interconnectedness of spacetime. Special relativity introduced the idea that time and speed are directly correlated. Known as "time dilation," the principle states that time slows for things in motion — the faster something goes, the slower time passes. Countless experiments have proven the theory, showing that clocks in motion tick more slowly than their synchronized counterparts at rest.

    While undetectable at human speeds, the effects of time dilation become greater the faster one travels. In fact, taking a two-year roundtrip spaceflight from Earth at the speed of light would be the equivalent to 30 years here on the ground. Perhaps, then, humankind’s elusive fountain of youth is not a place, but a journey.

  • Time Is Objective

    Time Is Objective
    Video: YouTube

    Contradicting Einstein’s special relativity, and the greater scientific community’s current understanding of spacetime, some physicists and philosophers imagine time as an independent and fundamental property of our universe.

    The Newtonian view states that time is not merely an interpretation, nor is it affected by external factors. Also known as "absolute time and space," it posits that these features of our universe act as a sort of stage and backdrop for everything contained within it.

  • Time Travel Could Be Possible

    Time Travel Could Be Possible
    Video: YouTube

    One indisputable law of existence states that when the topic of time comes up, talk of time travel will soon follow. And while there have been innumerable books, movies, and TV shows dedicated to the subject, science has been short on evidence of time travel’s plausibility.

    Einstein’s theory of relativity once again comes into play here, revealing that time travel is indeed possible, though it would require moving close to the speed of light — something currently outside of our engineering reach. Still, if that technical hurdle proved solvable, the math only supports time travel into the future, not the past.

    Another popular concept that could allow for both forward and backward travel is through the warping of spacetime. Theoretically, this is thought to be possible by way of a wormhole. Again though, the option presents some currently insurmountable obstacles; namely, how does one create a wormhole? As the holy grail of travel, however, the concept is slowly transitioning from the realm of fiction to areas of hard science.

    Still, its potential legitimacy leads to many paradoxes and questions like: If time travel will one day be possible, why has no one come back from the future to tell us how to do it yet?

  • It May Be Impossible To Know What Happened Before The Big Bang, Since Time Didn't Exist

    It May Be Impossible To Know What Happened Before The Big Bang, Since Time Didn't Exist
    Video: YouTube

    By aiming their telescopes into the distant universe, cosmologists have the ability to look back into the past. This is possible because light takes time to travel, only revealing to us what was happening in the environment when the light left. While modern astronomers can peer back almost 13.8 billion years, they’re shy about 380,000 years of seeing our universe’s Big Bang.

    If we’re actually able to see back to the beginning of time one day, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know what came before it. One reason has to do with our limited methods of investigation. They rely (out of necessity) on the known laws of physics, and are thought to breakdown outside of our universe. Another reason is the nature of the universe itself. 

    It’s widely accepted that the Big Bang was the catalyst for spacetime, which probably means there wasn't space or time before it. Well, at least not in a form we can currently understand.