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


Funding Science

This weekend finds me at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona where I’m speaking on panel discussions and giving a reading from my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. I’m glad to spend time with friends and have a little breath of fresh air after news of this week’s bitter and divisive election.

As I’ve stated in an earlier post, I hesitate to spend a lot of time on political subjects in this blog, but it’s been hard to escape political topics this week. That said, I thought I’d share one of the most interesting articles I read in the run-up to the election, partly because it hits close to my “day” job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. This was Scientific American’s article grading the presidential candidates on science.

Unless something radical and unprecedented happens in the electoral college, we now know Donald Trump will be our next president. He received Scientific American’s lowest grade on science. I won’t give a blow by blow of everything he says in the article. I’ll leave you to read it if you’re interested, but I will take a quick look at two topics near and dear to me: Space and STEM education.

On the subject of Space, Trump is quoted as saying, “Space exploration has given so much to America, including tremendous pride in our scientific and engineering prowess. A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country.” He goes on to say, “Observation from space and exploring beyond our own space neighborhood should be priorities.” On the surface, I have no real problem with this.

The potential problem comes when Trump speaks further about priorities. As reported about a year ago in the Washington Post, when asked about space, Trump said: “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” I think fixing potholes on Interstates—where it seems most federal money for this sort of thing would go—is an important thing, but it’s hard to imagine that it would cost so much as to leave little left over for science.

On the subject of STEM education, Trump says, “There are a host of STEM programs already in existence. What the federal government should do is to make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone. This means we must allow market influences to bring better, higher quality educational circumstances to more children.” He then goes on to say, “The management of our public education institutions should be done at the state and local level, not at the Department of Education. Until more choices are provided in our cities, those who tout their concern about educational outcomes cannot be taken seriously.” It’s pretty clear from this that Trump believes the federal government should not provide more funding for STEM education. The problem here is that not all state and local governments have access to the kinds of corporate funding he imagines coming in to educate kids. What’s more, not all talented kids come from those places that might benefit from such corporate funding.


With these things in mind, I’d like to leave you with some food for thought from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. During John Galt’s speech at the end of the novel, she writes: “You proclaim yourself unable to harness the forces of inanimate matter, yet propose to harness the minds of men who are able to achieve the feats you cannot equal. You proclaim that you cannot survive without us, yet propose to dictate the terms of our survival, asserting your right to rule us by force—and expect that we, who are not afraid of that physical nature which fills you with terror, will cower at the sight of any lout who has talked you into voting him a chance to command us.”

There’s no doubt, science and science education are important to the national interest. What’s more, scientists and science educators deserve to be fairly compensated and adequately funded. It’s not clear a Trump administration will prioritize spending on space or STEM education, which leaves it to the rest of us.

For my part, I’ve given talks at schools along with science fiction and comic conventions—work by the way, which is funded through sales of my books, not the federal government. I’ve encouraged the education of my daughters in all aspects of math, science, and technology. I’m also a member of The Planetary Society which has been doing great work at providing much-needed support for space science. I encourage you to get involved with STEM programs in your area, helping out where you can or even just attending public programs when they’re offered. If those aren’t available, there are exciting citizen science projects offered through Zooniverse.org.