Audio version for those of you who are either too lazy to read, or would rather hear my horrible voice.
I began this blog with a post entitled “Space”, so it stands to reason that I eventually write one named “Time.” Standard Wall O’Text™ warning applies.
How often have you ever asked yourself the question, “What is time?” Well, the bad guy (called Dr Soran) from the film “Star Trek Generations” gives us the wonderfully heartening definition of, “They say time is the fire in which we burn.” Now, I’m being a bit misleading – Soran’s actually quoting from a poem by Delmore Schwartz, but as an archetypal socially-reclusive nerd, I’m honour-bound to cite Star Trek as a philosophical source where possible. Granted, that’s not the best film I could quote from (just think of all the fun we could have with the Moby Dick and King Lear allegories in The Wrath of Khan), however Soran’s played by Malcolm McDowell, therefore naturally all opinions are irrelevant.
We’re getting sidetracked. Back to the matter at hand. Now. I am not very often a ray of sunshine and sparkles in terms of happiness, which I never deny, so you can maybe guess I’ve asked myself that question one too many times. Stop backing away, I am going somewhere with this. I think.
Physics gives us a bunch of empirical answers. The Egyptians first quantified time back in the second millennium BCE. Our unit of the second - each little tick or beep you hear from a watch, a timer, or this irritatingly loud clock on the wall of my office - was first laid down over two thousand years ago by the people of Babylon. The reason we have the rather random number of sixty in a minute, and sixty minutes in an hour, is because the Babylonians used quite a different number system to us. With our numbers, we count 0 to 9, then essentially “reboot” with 10 to 19, and again with 20 to 29, and so forth. Because we reboot every ten numerals, our number system is called Base 10. You use it every day. Next time you’re serving someone at a till, tell them their set of cups is “£2.50 in Base 10”. Brilliant fun. Anyway.
The Babylonians, however, rebooted after sixty numerals. Think about that for a moment. Such a system would be utterly alien to us nowadays – they had an individual numeral and name for the first sixty digits of the number line, rather than lazily making combinations after ten like us. So next time you complain in French class about how to pronounce “trois”, have a bit of sympathy for Babylonian children of millennia gone by. There. Easiest math lesson you’ve ever had. Thank me later.
Why they chose sixty is down to something so extraordinarily simple, something I’m sure you’ve even done yourself (albeit differently) to form a picture of the numerical world in your mind as a child – it’s all because of how they counted on their fingers. Counting each digit on your hands as 1, you can make 10 quite easily. Unless you’ve been playing with fireworks. Don’t play with fireworks, children. I’ve treated someone who had a couple of fingers blown off before. It leaves a terrible mess on the floor and my uniform. Think of the cleaners. The way the Babylonians did it was, they used the bones of the fingers. Look at your left hand. Now back to me. Now back at your hand. Now back to me. And I’ll stop that there. You’ve got three of them per finger, so twelve in total. We’re not counting with the thumb on this hand. They used the thumb of that hand to point to each bone in turn, counting each as 1. Every time 12 was reached, they would extend a digit on their other hand. Every digit on the other hand meant “multiples of 12”. They had and you hopefully have five digits on the other hand (Babylonians weren’t known for their reckless uses of gunpowder), 12 x 5 = 60. Quod erat demonstrandum. Patronising lectures to you all in both mathematics and ancient history, with gratuitous Latin. Ladies, please direct all dating requests to the comments section.
Blargh. Naturally, I start a post with the intention of discussing one thing, and end up rambling about something completely different. Back to time. That’s all well and good. We can quantify time. But time isn’t just a quantity, it’s a dimension. Sort of. Let’s not get into a discussion of the physics behind it, because that involves a pile of nasty maths and things called light cones… and I’m a chemist, we prefer just to fudge everything until something breaks the trend. Suffice to say, in addition to your up, down, left, right, forward, and backward, you also have past and future, backward and forward in time. We are in constant motion in one direction along this axis, and circumventing that to actually travel in time is (perhaps luckily) only within the realm of science fiction. There’s no symmetry. This concept was created by Arthur Eddington eons ago, and is called “time’s arrow.” So that adds a little more to our picture. We know how much time there is, and where it’s going. But where did it come from?
I’ll spare you a lengthly lecture on the Big Bang. This is the twenty-first century. Unless you’re from the Amish community, in which case, why on Earth are you on the Internet reading a blog, you probably know what the Big Bang theory is. Not the television show. At the very least, you’re bound to have watched at least one documentary on it in your life, be it Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series that I watched re-runs of as a child, or maybe more recently, you’ve watched one of the many productions by Brian Cox in which he’ll have described it all to you in this strangely… pausing manner, while gesturing… at a desert… to explain the awesome power that deserts have, in metaphorical terms to… express whatever point you’re trying to make. Did you read that in his voice? I apologise to those of you listening to my horrible impression in the audio version. I am Northern Irish. A Mancunian accent is naturally not among my vocal repertoire. But you know what I meant.
Accepted theory states that time began at the instant of the Big Bang. If that’s raising a few niggling qualms in your head, good. I like it when science does that to people, it’s how we get new theories. Most of these new theories nowadays involve the existence of a multiverse – essentially a giant water tank in which our universe is but one bubble. Let’s hope there are no sharks. That should solve that paradox that’s currently confusing your brain – “If there was no time before the Big Bang, how did it ever start”? So, we’ve got numbers, we’ve got directionality, we’ve got a mysterious origin story, but what does time look like?
Some argue that time is circular. Perhaps it is. But I believe that it all depends on the fate of the universe. A few decades ago, many physicists believed our universe would eventually stop expanding, and contract in on itself, thus collapsing everything back into a singularity, ending time, and closing the metaphorical circle, which may or may not begin anew. However science has moved on since then, and we now know that the universe is instead completely bonkers. It’s still expanding alright, but it’s getting faster, not slower. So that ballses things up a bit for the concentric community. Under current thinking, barring some sort of multiversal catastrophe, the universe can end one of two ways. One, it keeps expanding forever, until galaxies are so far apart that they all eventually just die and decay in the cold. Two, it expands so far, so fast, that space itself rips apart – the bubble bursts – like a balloon stuck to the gas canister. In the first one, the universe keeps existing, just with nothing in it but stray photons; and in the second one, the universe explodes. Neither offers much in the way of circularity. And don’t worry, children, you can sleep easy. The universe isn’t going to explode this evening. I think. Personally, I don’t like to give time a shape. In my mind, time is boundless and relative. But what do I mean by relative? Well now, that is a kettle of fish indeed, so if you don’t like fish or kettles… well… you just don’t have much of a life, do you.
Relativity. That thing you always hear them talk about when Einstein is mentioned. Relativity basically means time passes at different rates depending on how fast you’re going, or how much gravity’s in the area. If you travel really fast, or a lot of gravity’s getting (to use the modern vernacular) all up in your shit, time will pass slower for you. Also, you may want to stay away from the bathroom. I don’t know what gravity wants with your shit, but I doubt it will look pleasant. There’s also stuff about mass and energy converting into each other, but that’s getting too much into it. Satellites up in space experience less gravity than us peons down here on the surface, so they actually have to have corrections applied to their chronometers every so often so your GPS doesn’t send you into a volcano caldera instead of the M2, or so your television doesn’t show you “Strictly Come Dine With Master X Factor Chef Kitchen Dancing, Get Me Out of Here”, or whatever the hell you all watch, at the wrong time. It’s really quite cool. I’m not making it sound that way, my brain to keyboard converter apparatus is horribly underfunctional, but believe me, it is cool.
So, a planet with a bigger gravitational field than ours will experience time slower than us. A planet orbiting much quicker than us will experience time slower than us. The differences will barely be more than microseconds, but they’re still differences. Things get noticeable when you get up to the level of black holes. Gravity really comes into play there, so much so that if you’re at the event horizon (the hole) of a black hole, time should essentially stop for you. But Karl, you temporally scaremongering hoodlum, you. I hear you say. I’ve been to space. I didn’t feel any different. And quite rightly so. You wouldn’t. Because this is unfortunately where I have to bring in the sporting science, biology.
Your brain has evolved with relativity in mind. Your experience of this universe will only ever happen as quickly as your brain computes it. In fact, let’s have a computer analogy, because I haven’t done one of those yet. If you’ve ever used a really old computer, you’ll know that it takes a while to load something. If you try to run Microsoft Word on a system with mid-1990s RAM and processor speeds, it’ll take whole geological eras simple to render that god-awful paperclip, but it will do it (unless it overheats, but that’s just being pedantic), it just takes longer. Likewise, if you’re travelling at 90% of the speed of light in your little shuttle while playing video games, your brain will still render the image your eyes are receiving of Super Modern Mario Black Ops World of Duty Warfare 2 or whatever you’re playing. I could have made that sound rather bad if I transposed some of those words. It’ll just render it slower, but since you can only experience things once they’re processed, to you it’ll all still feel normal and happy. You just might get a little confused when you drop of out of hyperspace FTL star warp and find that 9000 years have passed in the time it took you to finish “World 1-5: Ramirez’s Castle”.
I get the feeling this is dragging on, so I may start to wrap things up. Partly because it’s now eight o'clock, and I should probably go home.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I didn’t answer my initial question. Congratulations. The more psychoanalytical among you may have noticed that I never intended to answer my initial question. Although if you’re psychoanalytical, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of you reading my things – go away. Anyway. This is because the question is essentially unanswerable. We can describe time empirically, and that’s what I’ve done over the course of this horror – I’ve told you how it’s measured, how it moves, where it may or may not end up, and how you interact with it, but I haven’t given you anything substantial. It’s like explaining a colour to a blind person. I can tell them things that are that colour, I can tell them what the colour looks like in relation to other colours, I can even explain the scientific principles behind light absorption and reflection. But that won’t tell them what it looks like, it won’t let them form a mental picture of that colour, because they’ve never experienced it. And conversely, time is a person behind the curtain of reality. Doing a lot of work, keeping the show moving forward, but never actually showing its face. And stealing all the food at the after party.
For an ironically circular book-end, I’ll leave you with another quote from the same Star Trek film. Later in the film, Captain Picard muses on Soran’s view of time, saying, “Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives, but I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived. After all, Number One, we're only mortal.”
And naturally, if you’re going to derive philosophy from anything in this universe, you could do a lot worse than Jean-Luc Picard.