12. Time out

I am disturbed by the global obsession with time. Driven as it is by capitalism, which depends on borrowing time, the pressures exerted by time on us seem overwhelming; our beings seem obsessed by it. Our minds are restricted by the literal ticking of the clock; locked into the irresistibility and irreversibility of time.1 But difficult as it is to find the minutes to meet my daily commitments, the challenges of time as a construct to be explained by physics have steadily increased.

Such a quandary over time is not new. Human time and cosmic time are our inventions. We created the idea of time in our earliest cultures. Today the most pertinent question might be: what could make us less dependent on time? Meditation? Dreaming? Sleep?  Drugs? Or an end to the economic system which prevents us from following an easier and more desirable way of life?

Focused energy has been devoted to measuring time since our earliest records — mostly by priests in such diverse cultures as those of ancient Egypt, China, India, Peru and Central America. The Hindu Vedas, written two millennia before Aristotle, proposed that the Universe goes through repeated cycles of creation, destruction, and rebirth, with each cycle lasting 4,320,000 years.

Many of the ancients held beliefs about time which were based on intelligent speculation: The Incas regarded space and time as a single concept, named “pacha”. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning. And The Bible reads: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”2

Two thousand years later time remains a profound unknown, a construct which would appear to be closest to metaphysics. We struggle to understand how time will pass for those cosmonauts traveling in future generations who will age less swiftly than those humans living on earth.

And if speed is the determining factor in this difference, what is the impact – if any – on our own longevity from the high speed at which our planet is spinning as it rotates around our sun which itself is circling around our galaxy?

Modern Science has made notable breakthroughs in measuring time, including atomic clocks, digital time-keeping, calibrating the rate of decay of radioactive material, and discovering the speed of light itself which enabled cosmologists to estimate the very existence of the universe at around 13.5 billion years. I ask myself: Are the photons reaching our telescopes on earth actually the physical left-overs from that “Big-Bang” billions of years ago?

Personally, I remain disturbed by the many fundamental questions which have arisen over the past few decades about time. Not only are there different forms of time: like Cosmic time, quantum time and our Earth-bound time, but in physics and astronomy it is also very hard to specify with any exactitude the time in space-time itself: How and when did time begin? Why is the arrow of time tipped forward? (And, it is speculated, goes backwards in black holes?) Could time be sped up or slowed down, or even stopped? Could time take different forms in other universes? If our universe of galaxies ultimately implodes, might that end time?

The theoretical astrophysicist, Prof. Adam Frank, has speculated that if there is more than a single universe, then in this “multiverse” there might not be any time because there might be no universal flow to time in any direction.”3

Paul Dirac, the great physicist credited with predicting the existence of the black hole, asked the provocative question: “What is time itself?” And astrophysicists and other scientists have been trying to come up with answers ever since. One young student, Julian Barbour, was so disturbed by Dirac’s challenge that he spent thirty years pondering the question before coming up with an answer in his book,  The End of Time.

His ultimate conclusion was: There is no such thing as time. Instead he regarded each individual moment as a distinct unit, a “now”, the sequence of which he called “nows” which exist in a Platonic realm where “time” does not exist. Past and future simply vanished in Barbour’s vision.4

The concept of time as a measure of change was not challenged by Einstein in his formulation of “space-time” into a single four-dimensional entity which was blind to any distinction between past and future. In today’s cosmological formulations one must ask which part of the equation that describes space-time is arbitrary? Time is not treated as a separate entity. The implications for basic physics are disturbing for they imply that its laws are not fixed but variable.

In quantum physics particles, such as electrons, have no definitive properties and, strange as it may seem, the electrons can co-exist in many places at the same time. This challenges the very notion of space-time itself. Those scientists engaged in quantum cosmology have gone on to try and explain the entire universe as a quantum object. For example, Stephen Hawking in his celebrated A Brief History of Time  proposed a model of the universe in which no origin of time appears.

Prof. Adam Frank suggests that “by recognizing that we have invented and are re-inventing time, we give ourselves the opportunity to change it yet again.”5

I would add: That’s just like any myth. Most myths are attempts to explain or elucidate our human role on this planet. Alas, the complexities of time seem to make our life passage harder to understand. Frequently the layering and overlapping of the various interpretations of time seem of such a daunting order that, perplexed as I am, I should like to shout: “Time Out! NOW.”

1Paul Davies, About Time, (1995) p. 28
2Psalms xc, 4.
3Adam Frank, About Time, (2011) p. 292
4Julian Barber,The End of Time, (1999) p. 47
5About Time (2012) p. 319

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