Sunday, November 2, 2014

Recent Advances In Time

(There's a kicker towards the end.  If you are feeling frisky, you can skim down to "I get carried away myself sometimes.")  

When physicists start talking about time they leave the layman in the dust in a hurry.  They think about time a lot though, and they do talk about it, and if you just let your mind wander along with them it can be interesting.

There’s a very nice “small” literary magazine here on the ‘Net called “Lapham’s Quarterly.”  The new issue has time as a theme, and some of it is very interesting indeed.   In particular, an article called “The Grand Illusion,” by Jim Holt, gave me a couple of jolts.   (All subsequent quotes are from the Holt article.  Used for educational purposes!  Certainly I’m not making a nickel on it.)

Evidently it’s all relative, in fact time seems to be even much more relative than science fiction fans or physicists have been given to believe since Einstein’s discoveries.  It depends not only on how fast you are going, but also on where you happen to be and in what direction you are moving.  Proximity to certain structures in the universe will produce permanent time distortions.  Distance from the event and relative motion are meaningful in ways that can seem very strange.

“Suppose . . . that Jones is walking uptown on Fifth Avenue and Smith is walking downtown.  Their relative motion results in a discrepancy of several days in what they would judge to be happening ‘now’ in the Andromeda Galaxy at the moment they pass each other on the sidewalk.” 

After the quote the writer puts in some snark about what may be happening in Andromeda.   I’ll spare you the details.  The people who understand these things can be a bit condescending. 

Gravity is now believed to have a controlling influence on time.  Not just affecting the speed of light traveling through the universe, but even adjusting time itself.  Black holes stop time all together, creating a “no-when” situation.  Time is completely absent where their influence is complete.   Close by but outside the event horizon the relative value of time merely changes.  I believe that the movie Interstellar plays with these ideas.  

When these geniuses consider the future of the universe, and they do, they apparently fall into two main camps.  Some believe, or are at least very suspicious with some evidence, that the universe will continue to expand until all mater of any kind will be reduced to its component protons and electrons.  This is the “ending in ice” possibility.  Even the sub-atomic particles will be so far apart that no interaction is possible.  Amazingly, even then some of them believe that further interaction may be possible.  Maybe they’re talking about quantum relationships, I don’t know.  Most of the scientists will admit that they don’t understand that stuff either.

The article does not speculate on how long this ultimate expansion into nothingness might take, wisely omitting a number that would confuse us even more.

There is also an “ending in fire” possibility.  This alternative would see a reassertion of gravity that would halt the expansion of the universe and ultimately cause everything to collapse back onto itself, resulting in a “Big Crunch.”  This crunch could get really strange.

“Some cosmic optimists have argued that in the final moments before such a Big Crunch an infinite amount of energy could be released.  This energy, the optimists say, could be harnessed by our deep-future descendants to power an infinite amount of computation, giving rise to an infinite number of thoughts.  Since these thoughts would unfold at a faster and faster pace, subjective time would seem to go on forever, even though objective time was about to come to an end . . . a virtual eternity.”

I’m not sure that that hypothesis will be testable, but aren’t these scientists great?  They’ll think about anything.  Some of them really do get carried away.

I get carried away myself sometimes. 

Something of a long time ago I was considering the whole phenomenon of one’s “life flashing in front of one’s eyes” in the instant before death.  Unlike the Big Crunch, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for this event.  People have experienced it and then not died; they can then tell us about it.  I don’t mind letting my mind wander sometimes over things like time but generally I do like to keep my feet on the ground.  Plus, we all have a personal interest in the existence of this pre-death thought process.  If it really happens, it will probably happen to all of us someday. 

If your entire life is going to “flash” in front of your eye, we’re talking about some kind of time distortion here.  A lot has happened to me, and compressing it all into an instant would take some doing.  I have some experience with time distortions, both natural and chemically enhanced.   (Relax! Maybe I’m talking about nitrous oxide at the dentist!  But I’m not just talking about that.)  They exist, and when they happen they are very compelling; they become the reality of the “moment.” 

I wish that I had never thought about this whole idea.  I wish that I had just treated it all as foolishness and moved on without looking back.  This could turn out to be the greatest horror of life on earth.

Some people may look back on their lives with joy, enjoying all of the fond memories, reliving all of the successes, lovingly scanning the catalog of their happiness in those last milliseconds.  For them it could be Heaven.   Some of us would feel quite differently.  Death for some of us represents nothing more than a wonderful opportunity to never be reminded of those things again.  Imagine the pleasant anticipation of freedom from those memories interrupted by a fucking emotional onslaught of everything, in detail.  And now imagine that some fantastic time distortion makes it seem that this rehash is going on for a long, long time, maybe even that “virtual eternity” of the Big Crunch. 

Our very own Big Crunch!  Just as we were imminently scheduled to come to an end!  It’s too horrible to consider.  That might be the reality of Hell.  What could be worse than Hell turning out to be real after all?  Some kind of supercharged quantum physical event?  As Kurtz said:  the horror! 

Time; our time on earth.  It seems to flow, that’s enough for me.  There is a past; there is the present; there is a future.  Let them be each thing in turn, and then let them be gone.  Gone quickly, with as little suffering as possible.  That’s my Christmas wish for all of us.  An end to suffering.  Preferably in life, but at least let death be an end to suffering.  And quantum physics, rather than ourselves, be damned. 

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