It’s About Time

Whether by coincidence or by some mental callisthenics of my own I was drawn to the subject of time in more than a couple of ways this week. First, I had the good fortune to listen to an episode of ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ a light-hearted look at scientific and philosophic subjects provided by the BBC. It can currently be located on the BBC Sounds website or app and has the rock star turned scientist Brian Cox in conversation with the Comedian Robin Ince and a panel of invited experts in the subject under discussion. It can be found here. The experts in this case were: Mark Gatiss (actor/comedian), Carlo Rovelli (theoretical physicist) and Fay Dowker (professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College London).

The discussion centred on whether time can be considered a universal constant or whether it is a purely subjective construct used for our convenience to measure or relate events in our consciousness. It was pointed out that time is not universally the same – as they put it, no universal ‘now’. Even on our tiny planet ‘now’ is different in Australia and Aberystwyth. We find it convenient to apportion our solar day into 24 hours of sixty minutes each containing sixty seconds. But if we were on Jupiter… Our ‘day’ would be just over 10 earth hours so we could not keep the same ‘time’ if we were to measure Jovian rotation for the purpose of planting crops there or arranging a dinner party with fellow Jovians.

The same issue arises when we consider travel. Heading to our nearest stellar neighbour Proxima Centauri would take 4.2 years at the speed of light. Bringing back pictures of our holiday on beach on a planet we found there would take another 4.2 years but when we got back our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren would be too old to see the photographs while we would still be in our prime. I’ll come back to this ‘problem’ of interstellar travel later.

Carlo introduced the concept of the ‘Block Universe’ where time is not a continuum but all events; past, present and future; co-exist but where only the present is directly available to us experientially. Fay Dowker argued that only the past and present are available – the former through our memories – but that the future is, as yet, unwritten. The Block Universe is the current standard approach to theoretical physics as consistent with the theories of general and specific relativity proposed by Einstein. Generally it meets the needs of theories of quantum mechanics and quantum gravity. It has the advantage of being theoretically provable whereas Fay’s approach is what most people would accept as rational but which is unproved and unprovable at the moment.

That’s enough quantum to be going on with. The interesting question arising from this approach is the question of free will. If you take the Block Universe concept as given then the future is already written and free will doesn’t exist. Mark Gatiss offered the solution of the multiverse concept where all possible events and conclusions exist simultaneously but this didn’t seem to meet the approbation he might have expected. I find it odd to think that at any point I can choose to do one of many things and yet these choices have already been made. So I’m not a committed fan of the Block Universe… yet.

So where am I going with all this? Really, I’m trying to define the concept of time to my own satisfaction – and finding it immensely difficult. I am tempted to fall back on the concept of increasing entropy. Everything in the universe tends to decay into unavailable energy meaning the potential to do work. Perhaps our need to define time is being expressed wrongly. We should be considering measuring entropy as the passage of ‘time’ rather than inventing hours, minutes and seconds to inaccurately define increasing entropy. This, however, gets us into trouble with general relativity. It also brings into question the concept of individual memory. I know that on my seventh birthday I had chicken pox and got a ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’ annual as a present. Both ‘facts’ are concrete in my mind, I’m mentally scratching the sores and reading Champion’s wonderful adventures. But… I am the only person alive who ‘knows’ this. Is it a reality? Is it any more or less real than my belief at age six that I could actually fly? Both ‘facts’ are unprovable but equally fixed in my mind. So are both real in the Block Universe? Conceptually I am aware that the ability to fly is improbable but in the Block Universe it is as much a fact as chickenpox sores and calamine lotion.

I’m leading towards the concept of time travel. Could we create a situation that allows us to travel Terminator-like into the past? And if we could do this then because of the symmetry of physical laws could we not then also travel into the future? And if we could travel temporally then could we also travel to other physical locations in the universe instantaneously? This would allow the trip to Proxima Centauri to take place while still allowing me to show off my beach tan photos to my children. What is to stop us?

After the Six Nations Rugby match had finished and England had disappointingly failed to defeat Scotland at Twickenham, the second brush with temporality yesterday was the film ‘Next’ staring Nick Cage, Jessica Biel and Julianne Moore. Created in 2007, it largely missed the mainstream consciousness but it is an interesting exploration of the concept of time. IMDB gives it score of 6.2 so it isn’t total trash. The concept is simple, the plot more confused. Nick is a man with an unusual ability to see a few minutes into the future but only with regard to events which would affect him. He hides this ability by becoming a stage magician and casino shark. This brings him to the attention of the FBI who are trying to find a nuclear bomb about to explode somewhere in Los Angeles. The plot meanders and his abilities change from seeing two minutes into the future to more than two hours. Despite all this, the idea of being able to see into the future and avoid actions which might inconvenience him is both attractive and thought provoking.

Could it work in practice? In the Block Universe it would be straightforward. Combining it with a multiverse concept offers the ability to explore every possible outcome to an action and then pick the most beneficial. I’m planning my next visit to Ascot now!

The Long Game

Lots of people both expert and pseudo-expert have questioned the UK Government’s strategy in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have suggested massive incompetence of the Executive which announced it was alternately following then ignoring then selecting then directing ‘The Science’ and since science logically is based only on facts and is essentially unchangeable then this seemed an impossible task.

Some have sympathised with Johnson’s position, having successfully cut us off from all our European trading and support partners at the beginning of 2020 he would have expected a relaxed discussion over the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement in the twelve months until the tarmac had set on the Kent lorry parks. However this was not to be as the inscrutable orientals had other plans.

His chief adviser, the equally inscrutable Dom Cummings, realised the potential of Covid-19 early on. By February he had spotted the opportunity to rid his fiefdom of all its unproductive elements in one go. Supported by rogue elements of SAGE – the ‘Scientists‘ he embarked on promoting a plan of something called ‘herd immunity’, dripping the poisonous idea into the blond buffoon’s ear. It seemed ideal, let the virus pass through the population and create a permanent immunity in record time making him, via his blond puppet, the Superman of Capitalism. This would get rid of swathes of the old, the poor and the infirm, a permanent drain on the public purse. It had worked with measles, smallpox and chicken pox. Simples!

The only snag was that these examples were generally non-lethal and most had a vaccine to protect those most vulnerable. When the world at large pointed this out, the strategy of ‘herd immunity’ was quickly dumped, never to be spoken of again. Or was it? Let’s look more closely.

The general strategy adopted by the rest of the world except Sweden was to restrict contact through lockdown, test for infection and trace those potentially infected, isolating, testing again and reducing the numbers of infected as fast as possible. New Zealand, with a land area of 268,000 square kilometres similar to that of the UK, but with a tenth of the population, was hugely successful by immediately closing borders and locking down its population with a ‘zero-Covid19’ strategy.

And it worked. Twenty five deaths overall, comparable to the Isle of Man which had 24 deaths over the same period. Extrapolate upwards to account for the difference in population and the comparable death rate would be 300 while the UK boasts a ‘world beating’ 42,000 using the most sympathetic measuring protocol or 65,000 excess deaths if measured by the Office of National Statistics. So why do we seem to be doing so badly?

  1. Our first deviation from the advice offered by the World Health Organisation was to keep our borders fully open throughout the pandemic. Where Spain closed its borders within weeks (and New Zealand within days) this conveniently situated island opened its borders to every potential carrier in the world, only latterly imposing a voluntary two week ‘stay at home’ instruction to visitors from a rapidly changing list of countries with still no testing at ports or airports.
    At the height of the pandemic in March we were still taking in 1.4 million visitors a month. Now we are locking down selective towns and cities we are still taking in 3,800,000 visitors a month (Source: visitbritain.org). More than half a million of those came from the most infected country in the world, the USA. If we had closed our ports and airports to foreign visitors on the same date as Spain stopped flights into Tenerife on 12th March then our infection rate would have been measured in hundreds rather than tens of thousands per week.
    So why would we not do this? We had almost a month advance warning of what every other country was trying to do. Importing infection into the country would only spread it wider and faster across the population. Which would be the best way to achieve herd immunity….. oops!
  2. Next the WHO recommended a strategy of ‘test, test, test’ suggesting that countries put all their efforts into a testing and tracing regime which quickly identified infected people and then traced and, where possible, isolated those capable of spreading the infection. Most countries like Germany, Italy and inevitably New Zealand took this to heart and rapidly created and then improved a testing regime which did the job and gave them a platform on which to prioritise their health services.
    What did the UK do? After ignoring the testing regime for some time it then offered a paltry 4,000 tests a day. Clearly the Executive didn’t see the need for mass testing. In fact even in late September the Prime Minister was saying: “Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”
    Most recently the ‘NHS Test and Trace’ app has experienced a huge number of problems by being inefficiently designed. The fact is that it isn’t an ‘NHS’ app but one developed privately by a company linked to the Tory party and under a massive £12billion contract which was never subjected to competitive tender. The app failed to track thousands of contacts of infected people, its software was designed to set too high a level on purpose and the private company operating the ‘trace’ component of the system failed to contact even half the affected contacts.
    One has to be concerned about a process which may tell you at any given moment that someone you may have been in contact with may have contracted the virus and therefore you must isolate yourself for fourteen days. This might well cost you your job, your livelihood, your possible promotion or even your relationship. Who, under the circumstances, would answer the call from an unlisted number bearing such news. The lack of an effective testing system and inability to trace infected people is crucial to reducing the spread of the disease. Promising then failing to deliver a system seems almost deliberate considering that the lack of control inevitably leads to much higher infection rates and eventual progress towards herd immunity. Umm!
  3. The final part of the slow progression towards widespread infection is the contradictory series of restrictions, u-turns and selective lockdowns which change on an almost daily basis. If you had to point to areas of societal activity where infection spread was most likely then that would be schools, universities and social gatherings.
    So what does this government do? It bans outdoor meetings with friends but allows indoor drinking with strangers. It bans children playing football together – the same children who spend all day together in the foetid environment which is the modern school. It insists that you go to your unsterile workplace wherever possible, travelling on enclosed public transport and, with ‘Eat out to Help Out’ to encouraging city lunches and busy dining the spread is almost guaranteed.
    If you then encourage young adults to mix in a carefree university environment and then confine them to their halls of residence you are doing almost everything you can to create super spreading environment. Super spreading leads to a higher percentage of the population becoming infected and progressing towards the holy grail of herd immunity.

The Government did all this and more under the guise of ‘following the science’ while conveniently ignoring the science if it conflicted with more mercenary considerations. Whatever we may believe, some facts are indisputable. The UK has an unenviable record in comparison with the rest of the world both in the number of cases and the appalling level of additional deaths. A considerable number of Tory donors, friends and hangers-on will have made a considerable amount of money after this pandemic dies away. The effect of the Government’s actions combined with the disastrous negotiations of a ruinous exit from the European Union will be with us for a generation.

There is an old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times”. It’s impossible not to imagine that these are ‘interesting times’ brought on in part by a virus which originates in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Which sci fi author could have imagined it?

Travelling in France – Baie de la Somme

The Baie de la Somme has been a regular feature of our trips to France over the years. Just a few hours drove from the Calais ports it often provides a first night of relaxation before heading into the more challenging regions of southern France or Northern Spain.

On this occasion we arrived mid-afternoon on a Thursday at our preferred aire in Le Crotoy. The books described this site as ‘Le Crotoy 1’ because there is another aire at the far extent of the town. Our choice hosts more than a hundred motorhomes some of whom have a stunning view of the bay and across to St Valery some12 km away by cycle path

The site provides a ticket machine (€7 per night in 2017) and a ‘Euro Relais’ stand for fresh water, waste disposal and, if necessary, power.

Acres of space mean that units are not squeezed together and the approach to alignment and to tables, chairs and sunshades is typically French laissez faire. The ground is rock-hard packed sand in the middle but the edges which are highly prized pitches have some grass and, in the wet season, some mud. Clearly it had rained recently in the following picture and one young French boy a,used himself for hours cycling through and then scooping up mud to hurl in every direction while keeping up a running conversation with himself and his imaginary friends.

Once the amusement palls it is time to head into the village, a few minutes walk away along a well formed path at the side of the small marina. One of the attractions of the site is the plethora of wildlife, particularly birds which crowd every area and entertain the passers by with their calls.

The village provides everything the visitor could want including a good tourist information centre but excluding post boxes. We struggled to find one single postbox on our walk through the village and back along the coast paths but, as the French would undoubtedly say, ‘tant pis’. There are restaurants to numerous to mention, all providing a sumptuous feast of fish and crustacean delights from produce caught and landed each morning. After dining well you cold enjoy a leisurely walk along the paths and alleys coming across a wide variety of interesting hotels and turreted homes. There is even a Pierre et Vacance centre jut at the other end of the village.

The lasting image, as you head back to your well-appointed accommodation, is of the sun setting over the bay and gleaming off the water.

The bread man arrives early each morning and circles the aire tooting his horn and inviting you to supplement your cornflakes with a warm baguette or croissant. Your memory, as you pack off and head further into your vacance, is inevitably going to be of the beautiful scenery and quiet relaxation and your plan the inevitably return as soon as possible.

All the Aires Book, Northern France N 50.13.094 E 001.37.992.