To Understand Your Past, Look to Your Future

You’re thinking about time all wrong, according to our best physical theories. In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, there’s no conceptual distinction between the past and the future, let alone an objective line of “now.” There’s also no sense in which time “flows”; instead, all of space and time is just there in some four-dimensional structure. What’s more, all the fundamental laws of physics work essentially the same both forward and backward.

None of these facts are easy to accept, because they’re in direct conflict with our subjective experience of time. But don’t feel too bad: They’re hard even for physicists to accept, an ongoing tension that places physics in conflict not just with common sense but also with itself. As much as physicists talk about time symmetry, they do not allow themselves to invoke the future, only the past, when seeking to explain occurrences in the world.

FRETTING ABOUT IT: Just as the boundaries of a guitar string (how it is pinned at both ends) determine how it vibrates, the distant past and far future of the universe may govern what happens today.Giphy /

When formulating explanations, most of us tend to think in terms laid down by Isaac Newton over 300 years ago. This “Newtonian Schema” takes the past as primary and uses it to solve for the future, explaining our universe one time-step at a time. Some researchers even go so far as to think of the universe as the output of a forward-running computer program, a picture that is a natural extension of this schema. Even though our view of time has changed dramatically in the last century, the Newtonian Schema has somehow endured as our most popular physics framework

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