Julian Barbour

Physicist Julian Barbour was in town to give a talk and I was very disappointed to miss it. I had child minding duties while my wife was about her gainful employment. Barbour has been mentioned on this blog before. In 2000-2001, when I heard about his book, The End of Time, I bought it right away. I got through the first couple of chapters but then found it so counter-intuitive, and so mind bending, that I couldn’t finish it. It’s a great thing to feel your mind being turned inside out. Perhaps it was fitting that I missed the talk—not having followed the argument all the way I didn’t deserve to go. Here is Barbour’s own summation:

“Two views of the world clashed at the dawn of thought. In the great debate between the earliest Greek philosophers, Heraclitus argued for perpetual change, but Parmenides maintained there was neither time nor motion. Over the ages, few thinkers have taken Parmenides seriously but I shall argue that Heraclitan flux, depicted nowhere more dramatically than in Turner’s painting below, may well be nothing but a well-founded illusion. I shall take you to a prospect of the end of time. In fact, you see it in Turner’s panting, which is static and has not changed since he painted it. It is an illusion of flux. Modern physics is beginning to suggest that all the motions of the whole universe are a similar illusion—that in this respect Nature is an even more consummate artist than Turner. This is the story of my book.”

J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich 1842

My own aesthetics is entirely Heraclitan, but I find it very interesting that Barbour’s ruling paradigm is the painted picture. His ideas are part of a larger contemporary constellation that diagrams a skepticism about progress and a sense that history is flattening out.


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