Time is such an interesting thing. I can't think of anything else that is quite as familiar and at the same time so strange. On the one hand time is well known and on the other it is not known at all.
For instance the National Institute of Standards and Technology just recently unveiled a strontium atomic clock that makes the famous cesium atomic clock seem inaccurate. Two of these clocks can go for 5 billion years before differing from one another by one second. From this it seems time is well known.
However on the other hand there are, at the very least, some extremely difficult questions about time to answer. When did time begin? When will it end? Was there a beginning? Why does time only move in one direction?
Perhaps one of the most disturbing problems with time for scientists is the fact that different theories deal with time in conflicting ways. In fact, the two most successful theories in physics (both launched by Einstein, by the way) have conflicting ways of treating time. In the general theory of relativity, time is dealt with as being flexible and fluid. When you are moving at different speeds, you experience time differently. This is called time dilation.
According to this theory, information cannot be transferred at a rate faster than the speed of light, and when something is travelling at the speed of light, it experiences no time at all. Thus the faster you move, the less time you experience.
Contrast this with quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanical view of time is that it is immutable, that it is not flexible at all. One strange consequence of this is quantum entanglement, in which information can apparently be transferred in some way instantaneously. Entangled particles can "communicate" with each other no matter how far apart they are in an instantaneous fashion.
What makes the story even more bizarre is the fact that both theories have been shown to be correct. Every time you look at a cell phone clock you are verifying general relativity because to give you the accurate time the signal is being bounced off of a satellite in space and thus the time dilation effects have to be accounted for to give you the proper time. And entanglement has been proven experimentally as well.
It is because of these kind of difficulties that the subject of time is actually an active area of research in physics. It seems like something that would be left to philosophers, but physicists have a need to understand time, which potentially could lead to other important discoveries.
There are many different theories for how time works. Some people still believe there is some master clock in the background that time can be measured by. Some are of the view that time seems to move one way; in the direction of increasing entropy which may require some explanation.
Entropy is a measure of disorder. For instance a broken egg is more disordered than an unbroken one. Since breaking an egg is an irreversible process (it is unreasonable to expect the pieces of the egg to reassemble themselves in any realistic period of time) this provides an "arrow" of time according to some scientists. This, however, is unsatisfactory since it doesn't give the full story of time.
Advancing into more complex theories that deal with time, I must talk about the many worlds interpretation, in which every possible outcome happens, and thus time progresses at each junction, whenever a different possibility plays out in your world the other possibilities happen in some other world (i.e. in this world you lose a dollar on the lottery, whereas in some other world you hit the lottery, and in yet another world you are hit by a bus that crashed through the window of the store you bought the ticket at and so on).
Recent work on time has built on the Cordustheory. In this theory time doesn't truly exist at all, it is an emergent phenomenon. This theory posits that particles are actually one dimensional, but give off forces in three dimensions. Tthese one dimensional particles are called particules. Each of the particules has its own frequency at which it vibrates. The speed of vibration, combined with the forces and motion across the particules, give rise to what appears to be time according to this theory. Of course this theory has its detractors just as any other theory does.
It is amazing to think that science may be able to reach far beyond what anyone thought before. Perhaps one day, the wonderfully mysterious time will not be so mysterious any more. Or maybe some mysteries are meant to go unsolved.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student.