Julian Barbour

July 11, 2009

Julian Barbour was born in 1937 and grew up in the village of South Newington in North Oxfordshire, England. As a boy he became very interested in astronomy. For this reason, he decided to study mathematics at Cambridge, after which he commenced a PhD in astrophysics in Munich. However, at this time he became deeply interested in foundational issues in physics, above all the nature of time. He came to the conclusion that time itself does not exist. If one did not see objects move and things change, then one could never say that time passes. Time is nothing but a measure of change.

But physics had been developed under the assumption that time exists and flows independently of the objects in the world. He felt this was quite wrong and that physics must be recast on a new timeless foundation.

Since 1963 he has been working on this project and the closely related problem of the origin of inertia. He completed a PhD on the foundations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity at Cologne in 1968 and then decided to become independent, fearing that an academic environment and the associated pressure to publish as many research articles as possible would deflect him from his long-term objectives. For 28 years he supported his family and research by translating Russian scientific journals. This left him free to develop, in collaboration with the Italian Bruno Bertotti, a theory of time and inertia. Another major topic of interest for him has been the implications of this work in quantum cosmology.

Julian Barbour also became very interested in the historical development of ideas about time and motion, the subject of his Absolute or Relative Motion?, Volume 1, The Discovery of Dynamics (now retitled as simply The Discovery of Dynamics and reprinted as a paperback). In 1996, he retired from his translating work and has since then concentrated entirely on his physics research and on writing. He has summarized his ideas about the non-existence of time for non-specialists in The End of Time, which has been published in hardback (1999) and paperback (2000) in the UK and hardback (2000) in the USA (with paperback to be published fall 2001). Articles about the main ideas in this book were published in The New Scientist in October 1999 and Discover (December 2000). A further important period of research began in 1999 in collaboration with Niall O’Murchada and students; details can be found on Julian’s website www.platonia.com. In 2008 he was appointed Visiting Professor in Physics at the University of Oxford. His current research is supported by The Foundational Questions Institute (fqxi.org).

See essays by this author:
The End Of Time: A Talk With Julian Barbour