Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

No Time Like the Present

“No time like the present” may be more than a apt phrase. It may be the literal truth.

Infinity-Time1Scientists have concluded that time, like boredom, is a state of mind, an abstraction, not a physical fact.

“Your emergency is not my emergency: is just another way of saying you have your time and I have mine.

Timelessness is a hard concept to grasp. We’ve had good times and bad times. But that may just be a mirage. In reality, we collectively have had what you might call a timeout.

Blame this conundrum on Albert Einstein, whose theories of relativity demolished the notion of universal time.

Einstein and relativityThink of it this way. If you are walking down the street and a professional cyclist whizzes by, you think he is going fast. But if a car speeds by at the same time, the motorist thinks the pedestrian and cyclist are both going slow. Nobody’s sense of time is the same relative to the other. It is uniquely your own. Like an emotion, it has a formless existence.

British physicist Julian Barbour says, “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”

Instead of a time as a river, as Isaac Newton envisioned, or time as a galactic companion to space, as Einstein speculated, Barbour insists time is just a series of “nows.” “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”

Julian Barbour

So what about rocks and fossils and history books? Barbour calls them records of the past, but only valuable for their use in the moment. “The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. The point is, all we have are these records and you only have them in this Now.”

Einstein’s theories begat quantum mechanics, which, to his undying dismay, posits that at the atomic level everything is chaos. Barbour suggests even that is too generous. The Quantum Universe, he says, isn’t that organized. It is dimensionless and, of course, timeless.

A universe that defies linear or even neural exposition can make science seem pointless. How can you prove what you are unable to imagine, let alone test?

Barbour sees it a little differently. The demise of time as an operating premise frees the scientific mind from an unreal restraint. Scientists can hypothesize on a grander scale.

For moralists, the loss of time and the emergence of a universal now may seem like an open invitation to live in the moment, draw deep breaths and do whatever gives you pleasure without regret.

On the other hand, a universe with no bounds may reinforce the spiritual awe of a greater power in control in ways beyond our comprehension.

At a practical level, we can stop stewing over the past and worrying about the future and focus on now.

As the effervescent 90-year-old Dick Van Dyke says, “We all have a terminal condition.” You never when your time will come.






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