On Time: its measurement, history and existence

 

What is time? Why do we measure it? Why do we value the concept if none of us really understand what on earth time really is?

If you ask any young child (or person) what time is, they will usually mention the passing of day and night, the past, present and future, about toenails and hair growing and potentially the existence of seasons, as indicators of the existence of time passing. Do these accurately reflect time though?


Dali's clock
The future, by definition, does not exist. It is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario.
— Michael Chabon, The Omega Glory

 

I love this descriptor as it opens the universe up to a whole myriad of mysterious events that are yet to unfold. A magic oracle of sorts. Echoing this sentiment, in Jewish mysticism, the anointed rabbis have for thousands of years laid credence to the claim that the past, present and future are merely elaborate illusions created by our minds. The spiritual reasoning for this was to protect our fragile minds from the “mind-blowing” knowledge of the vastness of our universe. In other words, the mystics knew that our brains were not capable of contemplating infinity, let alone how big this space that we occupy actually is in reality.

So we need time to not go insane? Our linear interpretation of time is literally a protective mechanism, without which we wouldn’t be able to function in this world. Seems pretty legit, but is it?

Oh no, not Einstein agaaain!?

It is impossible to write any meaningful treatise on time without considering the influence our good old friend Albert Einstein had on our perception of time as a physical thing. Einstein framed time in the narrative of so-called “space-time” - a physical phenomena that is affected by gravity (and what gravity is, no one really knows either – but that's a whole other story,) so much so that large objects like the Earth, warp space-time, to make it appear to run more slowly than when there are no gravity-exerting objects around.

A couple of weeks back I was playing with Luke's younger daughter Rata on the trampoline, we had several smaller balls in the trampoline and one large football. Rata had just learned all the planet's names in our solar system and I was trying to explain to her why the planets all orbited around the sun. I used the large football as the sun and stood in the middle of the trampoline, causing it to bend inward at a point. Rata then rolled the nine smaller balls toward the “sun” … naturally, the balls all proceeded to roll around the sun in an elliptical orbit.

“Rata, you see the fabric of the trampoline? The way it bends when there is a heavy object at its centre? Well, this trampoline represents everything around us, that is what we call space-time,”

In response, she just rolled her eyes and said

“Yeah duh Chris, I already knew that”.

(I was like, amazing Rata, cos I don't even really understand it myself.)

Oh well, the next generation of kids have us outwitted, outsmarted and outclassed, this much is sure.

Can we Control Time with our Minds?

 
 
 
 

In the last decade there have been some major observations made in the animal world, where researchers were able to condition various types of animal to perceive time differently, birds and mammals. In Scotland, hummingbirds were trained to collect nectar from fake flowers to a different time schedule than they are used to and in Georgia they taught rats to wait for two days to eat their meals. So what does this tell us about our own perception of time?

For the longest time, researchers believed that all animals controlled the perception of time internally by some form of undetected clock or pulse generator in the neurons of the brain. This pulse model was supported by psychologist who also believed that the time perception phenomenon was somehow regulated within our minds by a magical clock. Well it turns out this model cannot be validated experimentally as humans make way too many mistakes when time is elongated – the model stands true for smaller increments of time, but not when we view time in the narrative of the lifespan of a human, for instance.

Nowadays, scientists are fervently looking for an alternative explanation of how time works in our bodies. Employing ever more elaborate MRI and CAT scans on willing participants. But even with all of this experimental work underway, we still seem to be a long way off defining time in any reasonable sort of way. In short, we are still baffled by the concept, not only us laypeople, but even the guys with the fancy white lab coats.

So we're back at square one, back 100 years, when Einstein himself said the following:

“My idea was to analyse the concept of time.... (I have found<sic>) Time cannot be absolutely defined.”

Time and Patience, your most trusted Allies

Life nowadays is very different to 100 years ago. It appears time is speeding up, just like universe’s expansion appears to be accelerating. The Internet, social media, transport, smart phones, TV shows, video games, standing in line at the supermarket - it seems we are being overrun by time-consuming activities that barely affected us in centuries gone past.

Our species is slowly adapting to this, but that process takes time. 500 years ago, we managed to realise with the help of telescopes that our planet is not at the centre of the universe. Now we are are planning a manned mission to Mars?! It seems things cannot get more crazy than they are right now.

Even twenty years ago, the majority of the planet got their news from one of three sources, the radio, the TV or the newspaper. Nowadays we have these devices in our pocket that mimic those three news outlets in one. Not only can we listen to the news on these devices, we can watch films, buy books, order food and find out what our friends think about said food (oh you gotta love to hate those Instagram foodies - I just had avocado on toast check it out!!)

 
 

 
 
Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow - that is patience. The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
— Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was spot on here. In these hectic times, our greatest ally is patience.

So how do we learn to cultivate that? There aren’t any universal approaches that would work for everyone here, but all I can do is share from my own experience. I have always been very patient, even from a young age.

Breathing.

I find breathing helps, if you’re ever in a frustrating situation where you have to wait, take three deep breaths where all you think about is the air going in and out of your lungs. This is a yoga technique that works wonders on calming your mind.

Delaying Gratification

The other thing that helps is training yourself to wait, just like you would a dog, that can be for meals or any treat you want to give yourself, extend the waiting period voluntarily. this will slowly train your mind to be patient.

Mindfulness

Yes, the old cliche, but it really helps to practice gratitude and being mindful in all of one’s actions. I guess this ties in with the previous two as well.

Context

Lastly, and most importantly, ask yourself how important the event or thing you are waiting for really is. Try to not do things that you don’t absolutely need to do. Like, don’t be upset when your favourite TV show isn’t on when it is supposed to be, instead pick up a book or a notepad and write a joke or even a poem. Poetry is amazing at calming down our nervous system.

Is there Life on Mars?

If you look at the finer details, in the context of Einstein’s General Theory of relativity, time does not appear to exist at all.

To make sense of this, we need to briefly examine what physicists refer to as the “intermediate zone” (not to be mistaken with the popular US science fiction show “The Twilight Zone” - but trust me, the intermediate zone is even weirder than any episode that show ever produced.)

Ok bear with, here comes the weird part.

There are events on Mars right in this precise moment that have already happened, events that are yet to happen, but also a quarter of an hour of events occurring that are neither in the past nor in our future. This 15 minute time frame is referred to as the intermediate zone – what we on Earth call “right now” - that special slice of time, no more than a few nanoseconds long where the past meets the future, the so called present (which doesn’t actually exist.)

This intermediate time varies according to the distance at which the observer is from the events occuring. Hence when observing the moon, these few nanoseconds turn into a few actual seconds on the moon and then on Mars, this slice of time expands to 15 minutes.

Hard to imagine isn’t it. That somewhere in our solar system, events are unfolding that in our time reference occupy some form of intermediate present - a present that stretches on and on for nearly 1000 seconds.

Pretty crazy huh?!

There is no such thing as past or future
— Carlos Rovelli
 
 

Reality is Not What It Seems

One of my favourite books from the last two years is by the great Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli - it’s called The Order of Time and is absolutely mind bending. In this book Carlo sets out to address our flailing concept of time and by about the third chapter the reader will find themselves throwing all previous notions of what time really is out the window. The book even makes you question the existence of time itself.

His life’s work has been trying to find the holy grail of physics, to combine the two contrasting unified field theories of Einstein’s General Relativity and quantum physics into one coherent universal field theory that explains the whole cosmos - a certain Theory of Everything (TOE). No easy feat, but Carlo Rovelli is closer than any physicist since Einstein, to actually being able to describe this theory in any meaningful way. He has one major asset on his side in that he understands BOTH Einstein’s theory and quantum theory (Einstein famously rejected the latter theory as hocus pocus and thus was ill equipped in later life to reconcile the two theories.)

Rovelli has so far framed gravity into an elegant theory known as loop theory, where all existence is broken down into tiny little loops of sub atomic grainy material that controls all of life. This theory builds on string theory and is one of the most comprehensive ideas we have at the moment for how time and our universe operate.

If I observe the microscopic state of things, then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’
— Carlos Rovelli

If you are interested in exploring this matter any further, I can only highly recommend reading Carlo Rovelli’s books. They are translated from Italian but this doesn’t affect the elegance of his subject matter. He writes in a way that will make even the least educated person feel smart, that is his gift, he is able to describe highly complex ideas in very plain English.

He is also a great public speaker (and very funny!), so if you’d rather feel like watching a video of Carlo, here he gives a great summary of his book “The Order Of Time” in a Q&A hosted by the Royal Institution.

Time’s Up

I hope this article was refreshing and inspired you to question your understanding of the nature of time. I think the take-home message should be that we should care less for time, as it apparently doesn’t even really exist in any meaningful way.

Just like pink elephants or flying spaghetti monsters living on the dark side of the moon, time exists solely in our imagination and as such shouldn’t keep us up at night.

Just don’t forget to cut your toenails!


 
 

MAKING TIME WORK FOR YOU

Join Cherie and guest speakers at our September Symposium, this Friday 13th September.

Booking on a first-come-first served basis, so book your place now!


 
 

Next Week’s article:

“How to interact with people in a meaningful way. Or why bonobo monkeys are considered hippies..”


 
 
Chris Von Roy

AUTHOR | Chris Von Roy

Having identified a rare and previously unknown type of salmonella whilst analysing poo samples for the German Army, Chris now spends his time thinking fondly of sharks, rapping about Shish Kebabs, and attempting to distil Cherie's endless waves of wisdom and inspiration into digital nuggets for the world to consume.