21 March 2011

Physicist chats about our perceptions of time at next Science Café

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Time: We spend it. We waste it. We savor it. The way we think about it, however, has evolved dramatically over the ages.

On Tuesday, April 5, physicist Harrison Prosper will take you on a conversational tour through a history of our perception of this phenomenon at his "It's about time" Science Café, presented by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. To get a good seat, or order dinner and drinks, you'll want to be there on time, too. The event begins at 6:15 p.m. at Ray's Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road, and lasts until 7:30 p.m.

"Our view of what time is has changed many times," Prosper said in a recent phone interview. The Florida State University professor of high-energy physics is on sabbatical and working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago. The lab houses the world's second highest energy-particle accelerator, the Tevatron.

Physicists are deeply interested in the concept of time in part because it plays such a defining role in describing other basic physical phenomena, such as velocity, energy, power, current and magnetic force. People have been trying to pin down exactly what time is for eons.

Then Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) came along, and put a decidedly different spin on things."From very early times, people thought that time flowed like a river: you are in it, and you are carried along with it. The past is done. The only thing that is real is the present. The future has yet to come."

"Newton said, no, time was more like a huge stage, and we are participants on this stage, in time and space."

In the 20th century, our view of time changed yet again, thanks to Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955). From Einstein's perspective, time appeared far more dynamic, as something that could be manipulated. 

Today's physicists have expanded their views about time even more. Perhaps, Prosper said, time has actual boundaries. Perhaps it can be realized in discrete units that don't have to follow a chronological order.

Sound intriguing? See you at the café.

Science Café is a forum for exploring — and even debating — new ideas in science and technology outside the formal academic setting. For more information about Science Café, including up coming topics, visit magnet.fsu.edu and search for "Science Café."