Time Gentlemen, Please! | Blogging a dead horse

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Time Gentlemen, Please!

Want to know what time it is? Well, that's not such a straight forward question to answer. But I do my best.


Living in Asia for the past thirty years has taught me that a minute of English time is a lot shorter than a minute of Asian time. The number we attach to a moment is negotiable. A precise English moment becomes an Asian approximation ranging sixty minutes either way. While time stretches for some, for those waiting, it stops. Time is relative, and for some, irrelevant.


Experiments have taken place to see if this subjective time has any scientific validity. An electronic number generator flashed up a set of numbers on a screen at a speed that was normally unreadable. It was then attached to the wrists of people doing bungee jumps to see if that adrenalin fuelled moment of time-stopping terror really did give people time to notice more. Well, it turns out their guesses about the numbers were no better than random guesswork. Time always marches on one second per second no matter what we think, and the last moment does not concentrate the mind.


Time is a marker that notes a change of state, a moment of increasing disorder that is rarely recovered. In fact, outside of science fiction, it never goes backwards! Whatever you do, cannot be reversed. The energy you expended merely disappears and can never be recouped. You may believe that you have repaired the damage, restored order, set the clocks back and achieved equilibrium once again, but no, the damage is done and is irreparable.


We like to think we advance our societies by taking action, increasing efficiencies, and creating order out of the chaos. However, the energy is lost and as we chop down those rainforests to build condos, entropy increases, the void beckons, and in the greater scheme of things, our order is really chaos. We use things up, and break them down.


As a scuba diver when suspended in the ocean, with nothing around, nothing above or below, and nobody else in sight I have felt as if I am not moving and time is unimportant. This sense of stasis, I am told, is even more marked if one sits in a tin-can in space with nothing but emptiness and darkness around. In space, one can only tell if one is moving if one senses the acceleration provoked vibrating inertia. Without inertia, paradoxically the force inhibiting our movement, one can wonder how time ticks at all when nothing changes? And how do we tell that anything will change if there is no resistance? Without movement, without change, without resistance, in what sense are we alive?


We tell time through the movement of the sun, the casting of shadows, the burning of candles, the swinging of pendulums, in fact anything that we know swings to a communicable beat. Being in sync with everyone else, is one of the reasons we check the time. To be alive is to dance to a beat with others. But if we can see nothing to set the rhythm, we are lost, falling over our feet and alone. Events without schedules, diaries without dates, projects without deadlines, lives without transitions become empty gestures. The infinite may be divine, but it is featureless. The discrete ticks of the clock, the beginning and the end, have texture, layers, fossils, and practicality.


Time exists even when we aren’t looking and even when nothing happens, at least according to Newton. Aristotle on the other hand saw it as solely the measurement of change, an idea picked up by Einstein as he worked as a clerk in a dusty patents office in Bern. He had to look through many proposals for synchronising railway timetables with local times. Even with a centralised clock, a time lag could accumulate over distances. It was even harder to establish the time on a moving train.


When on board a train we can juggle, we can walk at our own steady pace, and we can take tea at our appointed time, despite racing through the countryside where the farmers are having lunch. Anyone who has taken the Trans-Siberian Express will know how hard it is to remember to adjust one’s watch to the vagaries of the dining car’s opening times while racing through various time zones.


Things get even more complicated when trying to agree on simultaneous events. The flash of two bolts of lightning can be seen as simultaneous from one point of view, but trains travelling towards and away can see the events as separate. How does one choose which point of view is correct?


In space we are on a spinning orb, racing around a sun that is rushing about a big glob of black holes that are themselves drifting off towards some great attractor as part of a greater cluster of galaxies. So, how can we have a point of view that is stable, solid, fixed and gives an accurate position from which to judge everything? Causality is a trick of perspective.


It gets worse! If one is accelerating one finds the shape of everything to be distorted. One’s nose is flatter. One’s rulers squish and stretch as one moves through this foreshortening space. The grid of dimensions we set before us is pulsating with bounce and squash. Looked at from the outside, this turns into a great cartoon world where one can run off the cliff and only fall when one notices. None of this makes much difference if we all live like The Simpsons, but when trying to control events on vessels that we send off the planet at great speeds these distortions begin to accumulate human scale problems.


Surely there is something that is incontrovertible, something solid against which we can judge, measure and make a note of in our calendar that everyone agrees on? There must be some big clock in the sky that ticks at one second per second. Newton thought so but what he did not notice was that the clock ticked off a discrete amount of space, something that Einstein became very interested in.


He came up with the idea that as that space squished and squirmed, the speed of a universal clock that we can trust, must be the maximum speed that was possible. That alone was standard because the tensions on the weave and weft of the fabric of space cannot change a maximum speed! Nothing can go faster than this clock and whoever looks at it must tell the same time. No matter which direction you are heading and no matter how fast you are accelerating, the maximum is just that, a speed for which there is no more.


The fastest things so far discovered are the energies on the electro-magnetic spectrum, such as light. You light a candle, flash a torch, reflect the sunlight, and see it just a little less than instantaneously. People tested light over distance and came up with a finite speed for it. It moves slower in water; slower in air; and slower still through glass. But in a vacuum, its speed must be something close to the maximum speed allowed.


Something else that Einstein noticed was that when accelerating one felt one’s weight increase. And gravity did much the same thing! Gravity made us feel as if we were accelerating through space, which would be exactly the same as if space accelerated through us. Large masses therefore suck space in and give less and less room for a clock to tick at all. Gravity is a gathering and compression of raw time!


Newton would have found all this very distasteful. He would have thumped his Grandfather clock with his stick and said, time ticks on regardless. The metaphors alone would have offended his nose. My talk of the suck of gravity may be evocative but nothing sucks. Gravity as a compression of a relationship is patent nonsense! And as for the popular characterisation of this as the bending of the warp and the weft of space-time, well, there is no warp and weft, there is no fabric, there are but imagined grid lines!


And imagination has given us the world of the quantum where metaphor turns entirely to mathematics. We are, so current thinking has it, a system of relationships modelled by layer upon layer of mathematical matrixes denoting fields of various kinds: magnetic, electrical, gravitational, radioactive, and so on. Matter, energy, things in general, are but energetic excitations of these fields. They are profound mechanisms that create the mundane and interact in discrete units, or quanta. Until the spark of existence happens, things are but potential that spreads over several places and in several possible states at once. In the underpinnings of this world, the past, present and the future oscillate and vie with each other for precedence.


At this scale, actuarial tables of probabilities rather than the hard logic of cause and effect best explain things. The sober, orderly monastic world of Mr Newton, which Einstein did so much to turn into a smoky bohemian café, gives way to the libertine’s clattering dice on a gaming table. Time ticks but now it merely measures how we become conscious of an uncertain future turning into the receding vagaries of the past. It has moved from being rigid, to flexible, and now to barely existing at all.


Somewhere in there, there must be a now, fleeting though it is. It must be the shortest fraction of a clock’s tick. This is Planck Time, named after the scientist who calculated it. It is imperceptible, though hard to dispute. Any passage of time less than that makes no difference even at the sub-sub atomic quark level of ever changing multi-charged coagulations of inseparable and puzzling entities.


Which does lead some people to believe that within this barely existing moment there lurks nothing more than a mysterious germ of consciousness. And what we think is what we get, because everything is a mere possibility unless we decide to measure it. The universe thus conspires to bring about whatever we believe is possible. Though whether there is a hierarchy of consciousness where, for instance, mine supersedes yours and you do not exist is not even debatable for I am merely imagining that you have a different opinion. Thus gods are invoked to humble us, which are just as likely to be the product of our own madness!

From Clipboard

Everything could be mindless, for the moment of awakening eludes us. We are only ever aware, after the fact. Change takes a discrete amount of time. And given the measured response-times of our brains, it is impossible to live in the moment. Our brains have to rally their thoughts. This takes a lot longer than the hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second that Planck calculated. Thus our intentions have already been shaped, and are just as likely to be thwarted as not.


In short, our true past shapes our future, not our fantasy. Our knowledge makes it easier to align us with its demands. Pulling back from the cosmic, or up from the atomic, we ring out the hours, one second at a time. The scale of things that we observe, determines our schedules. The constant re-iteration of observations, gives us our freedom. The synchronisation of our actions brings us together. We can make music and not a chaotic noise, until our energies are finally dissipated and there is sleep. Then the creative potential of creeping chaos sets it in motion once more and the clock is wound up and as it runs down, we set off up the mountain seeking enlightenment, only to return to sip tea with friends, and let it all pass.