The future of time

When you are meeting Mark Shumelda, you have to wonder, will he be early, late, or spot on time? That's because Shumelda is sort of an expert on time. And the philosopher hasn't discounted time travel either, which opens interesting interview possibilities.

When you are meeting Mark Shumelda, you have to wonder, will he be early, late, or spot on time?

That’s because Shumelda is sort of an expert on time.

And the philosopher hasn’t discounted time travel either, which opens interesting interview possibilities.

Like, this meeting could go on for days. Or the interview could be over before it begins. Or both.

The mind reels.

In fact, Shumelda showed up right on time.

And it was clear, after spending a little time with the guy, that time travel may be possible.

An hour vanished in what seemed like a moment.

Time travel is not just fodder for science fiction writers, the laws of physics don’t rule it out, said Shumelda, a PhD candidate from the University of Toronto.

And then he dove into a conversation that touched on quantum gravity, Higgs boson particles, multiple universes and the possible end of time.

He also conjured up Greek natural philosophers – guys like Heraclitus and Parmenides – and dove into linguistics, psychology, history, anthropology and art, along with his two main passions: physics and philosophy.

He also speculated about what might come next.

The Greeks just about covered the range of ideas concerning time.

Heraclitus said that things constantly change with the flow of time.

Parmenides thought that was bogus. He believed nothing changed and that time didn’t really exist.

This debate continues to this day.

Newton defended the idea of a master clock by which time is the same for everyone, everywhere.

Einstein blew that idea out of the water, proving time to be relative depending on your point of view and how fast you’re travelling.

Modern day GPS devices wouldn’t be possible without Einstein’s relative time.

Because of the speed and distances of the messages being sent back and forth between satellites, the system appears to lose 38 microseconds a day, relative to those of us on Earth.

That might not seem like much, but those microseconds would translate into thousands of kilometres in just a few days and the system would be unusable.

The question Shumelda is currently mulling over is, what comes after Einstein? What’s next?

And what sorts of technology can we expect with the next revolution in physics – quantum gravity.

Quantum gravity tries to meld Einstein’s general relativity with the newer field of quantum mechanics.

Right now, physicists have one set of rules for the big stuff – astronomical scales – and other rules for the really wee things (subatomic particles).

If someone could come up with a way to unify these two disparate sets of rules, the world would be forever changed.

But how it will be changed is still up for debate.

Julian Barbour, in his book The End of Time, predicted physics will get rid of time altogether.

If time plays no role in physics, if workable mathematical equations can be found that disregard time, scientists would have to agree with Parmenides, that time is not real.

Shumelda doesn’t buy into the Parmenides crowd.

He intuitively believes time is real.

But the questionable future of time is the subject of his thesis.

Shumelda has been working on this thesis with the University of Toronto for five years now.

But what’s five years to a guy like Shumelda? Time is relative, and Shumelda has three young daughters at home.

As of now, his thesis, which he hopes to complete and defend a year from now, is called Background Independence in Quantum Gravity.

But because explaining what the heck “background independence” is to a reporter might take a couple hours, he described it as, “on the nature of time in quantum gravity.”

If you can handle this sort of intellectual ambidexterity and, well, you’ve got the time, Yukon College is providing an opportunity to hear Shumelda speak about his research.

He’ll be holding a brown-bag lunch talk at Yukon College on Tuesday.

It will be the first in a series of talks the college hopes to hold to highlight the work and ideas of its researchers.

In his lecture, Shumelda will describe the history of our concept of time and explain why physics is so important to the modern idea of time and, of course, what comes next.

If you’re wondering what brought Shumelda to the North, it was his wife.

He followed her here two years ago.

When Yukon College discovered he was in town, working on his thesis, it offered him a desk at its research centre.

“I’m the only one there who is working on non-northern topics,” he said.

“But it’s been a great intellectual home.”

Shumelda is currently teaching the college’s first ethics course.

Besides a love for physics and philosophy, teaching is one of the reasons that Shumelda decided to pursue his PhD in the first place.

“I always knew I wanted to teach, and I thought I’d just end up going to teachers college after undergrad,” he said.

“But I had some professors in both the philosophy and physics department that were so stunning that it made me want to be just like them.”

Shumelda’s talk will run from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, December 6.

It will take place in the Glass Class, in the college’s main building.

Contact Chris Oke at

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