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!

8th June 2020 – The New Normal

After 7 weeks confined to quarters, self isolating from this killer oriental virus, spread by G5 masts and infesting the ill-advised purchase of cheap Chinese nicknacks, we became just a little stir crazy. It’s easy to recognise the signs – when your partner breathes in and then, annoyingly, breathes out again. Then it’s just a case of hiding all sharp objects and whistling a happy tune until the urge to spill blood subsides. Since we needed some essential foods we decided to enliven our boredom and drive the couple of miles to our local supermarket. What a revelation!

I realised that I had almost completely forgotten how to drive after seven weeks – well more like nine weeks not behind the wheel. Lots of traffic on the road so I proceeded, as my police friends would say, ‘with due care and attention’ and parked up in the car park opposite the longest slowest conga line I had ever seen. We joined it and shuffled forward slowly until we gained entry to the palace of wonders. It was only by employing the steely determination for which I am renowned that I refrained from sticking my left leg out, hopping and then sticking it in again.

I have to say that our supermarkets in the North seem to have done a superlative job of organising their customers; including regular distance markings on the floor and a well signposted one-way system directing shoppers onward. Clearly the guidance was lost on many, particularly aged men and hordes of trolley dollies collecting for online orders who sped hither and thither willy nilly to and fro dodging the continuing soundless conga pausing only to glare at anyone halting for more than a couple of seconds at ‘their’ shelves.

Shopping swiftly over, we repaired equally cautiously chez nous and continued our mundane daily routine. Having cleared our sizeable garage and manicured our diminutive garden I had turned my attention to our chaotic loft space. Some years ago I had part-floored the loft but since then both MBH and I had squirrelled away a multitude of unwanted or redundant ‘stuff’ up there to the point where infrequent groaning could be heard ‘up there’ which suggested that the roof beams were straining but which I maintained was a recalcitrant ghost intent on evil revenge.

My daily routine therefore consisted of a couple of hours in the loft digging out forgotten treasures and extending the flooring until it became too hot to work. The rockwool insulation necessitates the wearing of a face mask (bought from China some months ago). My respect for our health workers rose a hundredfold. Anyone who can wear these masks for an eight hour shift or more, day after day deserves the salary of a politician with added daily attendance bonus.

This is often followed by an hour or so of archery practice in our back garden.

After lunch I spend a couple of hours on a jigsaw puzzle. Not particularly challenging you might think but this puzzle was one I found stored in a puzzle case in the loft. It had belonged to my mother in law and we had sort of inherited it when she died. She had joined perhaps a couple of dozen of the 5,000 pieces and then it had been packed away. Unfortunately the box with the picture showing the finished rustic scene had not been packed away with it so my challenge was to complete the puzzle ‘blind’ so to speak. Where this image is 40% blue sky, 30% thatched roofs and 30% flowers you start to get the picture (pun intended) of how difficult a task I had set myself. Added to that, I’m pretty certain that my dear mother-in-law had either lost or secreted away a few key pieces to make life more difficult still. I bet she’s chuckling as she watches my pathetic attempts for her position of absolute authority on high.

After dinner the dismal fare of the television channels is supplemented by one of a number of good books. At the moment I’m deep into the third of the Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom and this can usually distract me until it’s time for bed. As I close the curtains on the world outside I notice, as is usual, that we are inevitably the last ones still awake on our quiet cul-de-sac.

Goodnight all.

Rugby in Bed?

One of the true benefits of this weird lockdown situation is the lack of football being played. Add to that the willingness of national sports organisations to allow YouTube to display full matches on its excellent video platform and my happiness is almost complete.

One of the first to broadcast national rugby union matches in full was New Zealand. Now this country is renowned for a number of things – the setting for the Lord of the Rings films, a Prime Minister with balls (Jacinda Ardern), being one of the first countries to fully lock down against the virus and consequently one of the first countries to declare itself virus free. The only snag is that it insists on televising matches where New Zealand win and often against the Pommies. While I can stand to see England losing – let’s face it we should be used to it – it begins to pall after a while. I was pleased, then, to find that England Rugby has followed suit and we can now watch our heroes batter each other into glorious submission. Add to this the absence of need to get up early (yes, I’m that lucky now) and my Sunday morning looks like this….

07:30slowly regain consciousness, wince as I realise I’m half out of bed in the freezing cold and my toes are touching the rapidly heating radiator
07:45mumble grateful thanks as MBH brings a steaming hot coffee to my bedside or… alternatively.
07:47 mumble gratuitous obscenities as I stumble downstairs to make coffee while MBH snores loudly in our warm bed.
07:56struggle to locate the remote which has in the night insinuated itself between quilt and sheet and is hiding in a fold of the bedding close to one of us – but who?
08:00persuade our smart Roku box to locate the YouTube app and search agonisingly slowly for ‘New Zealand Rugby Union – Full Match New Zealand versus England 2017′ typing each letter slowly and painstakingly on an alphabetically arranged letter grid.
08:05 lie back and enjoy England, or Wales, or South Africa, or Australia being royally whupped by the All Blacks in blurred low definition on our 4K super screen TV due to a poor internet speed.
08:06drink lukewarm coffee and snuggle under the warm quilt.
08:56dash downstairs at half time to make fresh coffee, crumbly toast and ever so sticky marmalade which will hide both crumbs and stickiness amongst our bedding for us to find again tonight.
09:30bemoan the inadequacy of English Rugby Union, the reliance on the charge by the forwards and the kicking game of the centres who are clearly frustrated footballers
10:30head downstairs at last for a BLT and more coffee and a plan to repeat the same next weekend.