The Perception of Continuous Time is an Illusion

By Tyler MacDonald

A new study proposes that the crystallized structure of time is discrete and our perception of continuous, flowing time is an illusion.

A collaborative effort between researchers from the University of Waterloo, University of Lethbridge and Alexandria University has led to the discovery of the shortest meaningful length of time, and its longer than the currently believed Planck interval of 10 to 34 seconds. Furthermore, the team reveals that the existence of a minimum time makes changes to the basic equations of quantum mechanics, which could shake up our understanding of quantum mechanical systems.

“It might be possible that, in the universe, the minimum time scale is actually much larger than the Planck time, and this can be directly tested experimentally,” Mir Faizal, co-author of the study, said in a press release.

Currently, the Planck time is so short that no known experiment has been able to examine it directly – some studies have accessed a time interval as low as 10 to 17 seconds, but the great amount of theoretical support for the Planck time makes it widely accepted, including its implications for quantum gravity and loop quantum gravity.

“In our paper, we have proposed that time is discrete in nature, and we have also suggested ways to experimentally test this proposal,” Faizal said.

One test that the team conducted was measuring the rate of a hydrogen atom’s spontaneous emission – the emissions it observed were more in-line with the predicted rate of emission from its new theory as opposed to the older equation.

In addition to claiming that the minimum time may by larger than Planck time, the team also believes that the changes necessary to basic quantum mechanic equations could change our current definition of time.

Faizal also believes that since its proposition is that time is discrete, as opposed to continuous, time may be characterized by a crystal structure with discrete, regularly repeating segments. Furthermore, our perception of time as something that is continuous and flowing may be an illusion.

“The physical universe is really like a movie/motion picture, in which a series of still images shown on a screen creates the illusion of moving images,” he said. “Thus, if this view is taken seriously, then our conscious precipitation of physical reality based on continuous motion becomes an illusion produced by a discrete underlying mathematical structure.”

The findings were published in the Jan. 21 issue of The European Physical Journal.


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