Monday, January 16, 2006

There is no such thing as time

Picture: at our distance we can look at the outreaches of this nebula in a nanosecond. But to actually travel between them would take many light years.

I am not a physicist but I would very much like to understand the reality we are living in before the instant that I am no longer there.

One thing I do grasp is the vastness of our universe and the nearly infinite minuteness of the particles or strings that make it work.

I also appreciate that for mere practical purposes we use our concept of time to express distance. For instance, when we say that a particular star or galaxy is so many light years away.

A consequence of the vastness of our universe, and some of the physical laws governing it, is that the universe we can ‘see’ in a star filled night, ‘is’ not actually there the way we see it.

Most of what we see are the mere images of stars and galaxies at many different distances – and reflecting situations at many different instants - that happen to meet our eye at the same juncture.

It is even true when we ‘see’ our own sun. We don’t. At any given point we only see the image (the light) of our sun as it took off a few seconds (or minutes) before.

We use the concept of time to express a succession of realities. And we know that this succession cannot be measured for the entire universe as one fixed sequence. Enter Einstein’s relativity theory. It all depends on your point of view and on your speed.

Yet, in the end, I feel, that if we would simply travel a long enough distance and would bring along a camera of infinite fine resolution, we would be able to make a snapshot of our universe very close to what it ‘is’ and what it looks like at that particular instant. The problem is, of course that such a journey in itself would take an infinite number of instants, so for all practical purposes, it is impossible. And I am not quite convinced that the concept of warps or other theories of long distance travel would by any means be truly helpful.

In the meantime, we are making all sorts of fuss of this concept of ‘time’. Why? The main reason, I believe, is that we have set our minds to either ‘go back in time’ or go forward in time, and travel to the future. But both ideas are utterly ridiculous. We cannot tinker with time as a distinct phenomenon. The only way to go back in time is to look at old photo albums, much the same way look at our sky as a collage of pictures, taken from events at very different, actual, instants.

I believe, that the image of time moving and "going by" is misleading. What goes by are our experiences. (Ernst von Glasersfeld)

When we say, for instance when the weekend is approaching, “Wow, the week went fast”, we are simply referring to our experience of the (speed of the) week’s events, not to the actual speed of time.

Time is a construct of our mind, indicating that there is an – inevitable – sequence of experiences, events, actions followed by reactions etc. We do need time to arrive at the concept of speed, but there is no flow of time separate from events and mere causality. And it is quite clear, especially from Einsteins theory of relativity, that the actual sequence of events in different places, relative to one another, can differ according to relative speed etc. I do not wish to question all that, however difficult it remains to fully grasp.

“When I punch the ‘post’ button, this blogposting will be in my past, but it will still be in your future. The passage of time is a measure of motion." I here paraphrase a thought placed somewhere on the web by one John Merryman.

My wish is to eradicate time as a distinct phenomenon in our discussions of the properties of our universe, however vast or however small.

I am confined to what I am - and when I am - at every given instant.

(To be continued)


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