Understanding Time

Back in high school, I remember wondering what time actually is. I believe my interest really started by learning about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and realizing that clocks would measure time differently depending on how fast you’re going. It’s at that point that I consciously thought about the fact that clocks don’t measure something in the way you measure something with a ruler. Clocks are simply mechanical devices designed to move at a fixed rate. When I reached college and then graduate school, I learned about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in which time and space are all wrapped up in gravity.

While I was learning about General Relativity in graduate school, I was also learning about Lagrangian mechanics, which is basically a reformulation of Newton’s classical mechanics that endeavors to understand the motions of bodies by understanding the total energy in a system rather than the understanding the forces applied to a physical body. Newtonian mechanics requires that you know where and when a body exists in time and space to understand its behavior. Lagrangian mechanics doesn’t.

It’s with that background that I caught a fascinating episode of Science Friday on NPR the other day. In the episode, host Ira Flatow interviewed physicist Carlo Rovelli who makes a case that time might not even exist. You can listen to the interview at: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/a-case-for-why-time-may-just-not-exist/

In the interview, Rovelli discusses the idea that mechanical systems can be understood though their energy distributions and that time is not really a factor. The only place time, or change if you will, manifests is in the second law of thermodynamics, which quantifies how systems become increasingly disordered. He talks about relative time—how someone traveling near the speed of light will experience time differently than a person standing still. He also talks about how time near a black hole would virtually stop. One of the fascinating concepts he introduced is that as we move into space, we may need a new vocabulary of time, just as we developed a new definition of “up” when we discovered the world was a sphere. At that time, no one quite knew what “up” was. Was up over your head in Greece? If so, and you were on the other side of the planet, did that mean “up” was under your feet?

Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing Rovelli introduced in the interview was the idea that time and space may not “exist” as such, but simply be the way our brains interpret the action of gravitation on the energy fields that make up all existence.

There’s a lot of fodder in these ideas for a science fiction or fantasy writer. I certainly recommend giving the podcast a listen and I’ll likely be checking out Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time. Playing with the idea that time, space, and gravity are all interrelated led me to the Erdon-Quinn drive of my space pirate stories. One could certainly imagine a story where one finds a way to travel through time using these concepts. Of course, such travel may create ripples in the fabric of reality that would make the so-called butterfly effect look like simple child’s play to untangle.

Ray Bradbury, who played with the butterfly effect in his story “A Sound of Thunder” once told me a story of being at a carnival, when a performer named Mr. Electrico sat in an electric chair. When the switch was pulled, Mr. Electrico pointed a lightning rod at Ray Bradbury and said, “Live forever!” Pondering time and space in this way, I even begin to wonder if a person lives forever by existing at all.

I hope you’ll make time to travel to other realities with me in my books and stories. Learn more at http://www.davidleesummers.com

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4 comments on “Understanding Time

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    A subject near to my heart, as my best friend, a philosophy major, and I explored the ramifications over many a late-light joint back in the 60s. Be careful going down this road as a pure scientist; you’ll frighten the faint of heart!

    • Indeed, it’s pretty wild stuff! I once had an editor comment very firmly that time could not be treated as a dimension like space. I had to point out that Einstein did just that. If it was good enough for Einstein, it was good enough for my fiction!

  2. pendantry says:

    Your article reminds me of the first time (a long time ago, now) that I realised that looking up at the stars meant looking back through time. Blew my mind then (and still does, now).

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