The Atlantic

What Einstein May Have Gotten Wrong

The Swiss physicist Nicolas Gisin is using an old form of math to rethink the very basics of what we know about time.
Source: Dave Whyte / Quanta Magazine

Strangely, although we feel as if we sweep through time on the knife-edge between the fixed past and the open future, that edge—the present—appears nowhere in the existing laws of physics.

In Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, time is woven together with the three dimensions of space, forming a bendy, four-dimensional space-time continuum—a “block universe” encompassing the entire past, present, and future. Einstein’s equations portray everything in the block universe as decided from the beginning; the initial conditions of the cosmos determine what comes later, and surprises do not occur—they only seem to. “For us believing physicists,” Einstein wrote in 1955, weeks before his death, “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The timeless, predetermined view of reality held by Einstein remains popular today. “The majority of physicists believe in the block-universe view, because it is predicted by general relativity,” said Marina Cortês, a cosmologist at the University of Lisbon.

However, she said, “if somebody is called on to reflect a bit more deeply about what the block universe means, they start to question and waver on the implications.”

Physicists who think carefully about time point to troubles posed by quantum mechanics, the laws describing the probabilistic behavior of particles. At the quantum scale, irreversible changes occur that distinguish the past from the future: A particle maintains simultaneous quantum states until you measure it, at which point the particle adopts one of the states. Mysteriously, individual measurement outcomes are random and unpredictable, even as particle behavior collectively follows statistical patterns. This apparent inconsistency between the nature of time in quantum mechanics and the way it functions in relativity has created uncertainty and confusion.

[Read: Science is getting less bang for its buck]

Over the past year, the Swiss physicist has published four papers that attempt to dispel the fog surrounding time in physics. As Gisin sees it, the problem all along has been mathematical. Gisin argues

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