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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

It's About Time

A perception of time is unique to human beings among all creatures. While animals have been shown to react to the frequency with which events occur—it is instinctual, baked into their DNA. Humans alone recognize a distinction between future, present and past and it is only we who are consumed by its apparent reality. But what if time is a distortion of our senses, what if it isn’t real?

That is the thesis advanced by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. In his book, The Order of Time, Rovelli suggests that neither the Newtonian notion of a metronomic clock governing our universe nor Einstein’s relativistic space/time continuum are wholly accurate depictions but rather simplifications based on illusions our minds have constructed. We try to make sense of what Rovelli describes as a network of events by ordering them into a sequential flow from past to present when in fact, he argues, they are not ordered as we experience them but random.

Rovelli demonstrates his thesis by examining our concepts of time in relation to physical reality using the mathematics and physics of Einstein, Newton, Planck and Schrodinger. For example, Rovelli points to Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension that upends a sequential flow by observing that any two events occurring far apart may appear in one order when viewed from a particular vantage and in an opposite order viewed from another.

Bear with me here as we are venturing into the realm of quantum physics where established rules do not apply. Moving beyond Einsteinian physics, scientists have observed that as particles and intervals diminish in size, duration, and mass they no longer behave according to recognized principles. In the sub-atomic dimension objects can be in two places simultaneously, and actions affecting one instance may or may not have the same effect on the other.

Events, Rovelli advances, the way in which we describe an intersection of time and location where something may or may not occur are the real constituents of the universe, not particles or fields. Explaining the relationship between events requires a different understanding of physics. When we think of a storm, for example, we consider it a singular event when in fact it is a collection of discrete occurrences, a network of events. Traditional physics views the interaction of particles at a specific position in time and space as a causality when it is the interaction itself that defines both space and time.

If we cannot be certain of either time or space—that is, if particles can exist in more than a single location simultaneously as quantum physics experiments demonstrate, than our sense of an organized universe governed by certainty about the positions and speeds of all matter unravels. Lacking this framework our understanding of time is shattered. Entropy, which you will recall from a recent post by that name, no longer exists, and our sense of decay into disorder is backwards. Moving forward in time as we think of it is in fact moving away; from ignorance, from the unknown, toward understanding, from disorder into a different grasp of order.

So, what does this mean to us mere mortals? Ultimately time is the measure we apply to that period of existence we occupy; the interval between consciousness we call birth, and its apparent loss, what the living call death. In his poem, Days, the poet Phillip Larkin eloquently described it:

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

Is time something which we are running out of, or have we got it wrong? Perhaps it is just as well we do not know.

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