It’s a late summer evening in the middle of September. I stand on my deck, casually sipping from a pint of Guinness. The sun is setting on the horizon, and I can’t help but gaze in relaxed wonder at how the reds, oranges, and yellows mix with the blues, indigos, and every other shade in between to make this recurring spectacle.
Where I live the air is cooling off, leaves are starting to fall to the ground, and there’s a certain aroma in the air that tells you the seasons will be changing soon. To me that aroma can only be described as fresh. And then, as the evening’s brisk late summer air washes over the olfactory bulbs in my nostrils, causing my brain to decide it smells fresh, I am suddenly overwhelmed by a memory.
I feel myself reliving a moment from my childhood. I’m chasing a few of my friends from the neighbourhood around the house in a game of tag. I’m not very fast, and can’t be any older than seven. My friends are either much faster than me or somehow agile enough to dodge my attempts at making them “it”. I can feel the brisk evening air flowing through my hair, rushing past me, filling my lungs. Finally, I close in on my best friend and dive for the ankle. Proudly, I take a second to scramble to my feet, exclaiming his new misfortune at being it, and brush myself off. The waning light of the distant sunset washes over me. It’s so real. So tangible.
I snap back to the present day. It must have been over 20 years ago, but feels like it happened only seconds ago. It couldn’t have been seconds ago, though. Reality coupled with two decades of life between now and then proves that. Besides, my father wouldn’t have had anything nice to say about seven year old me enjoying a nice, hearty pint of Guinness.
It started me thinking, you know, time is a really weird thing. When I was a kid, the summers between school years seemed almost infinite. I seemed to spend decades outside, being with friends, playing sports, and getting bored on family road trips. Now each day is a general blur of activity, from the first coffee to the last perusing of Facebook before bed. The days bleed away into weeks, weeks to months, and lately it seems, the months to years. Where does all the time go? Why does time seem to run at different rates depending on what I’m doing? Is time travel possible? How much time do I get to enjoy this delicious Guinness before the pint glass is empty?
Okay, that last one was a joke. But seriously, what is time?
This thought got me reading. I’m familiar with the topic, but it may surprise you to learn that the concepts and theories surrounding time are mind-numbingly complex and vast. It took me quite some time (hehe) to get through the whole wikipedia article, let alone even get my feet wet with the sources the page is built from. If you find yourself with a free afternoon and a yearning interest, I encourage you to check it out! I just want to share some facts about time that blow my mind.
Time has fascinated human beings since, well, the dawn of time (or human civilization). One early group of people saw a pattern in the journey of the sun and moon across the day and night sky. They were smart enough to take this knowledge and make primitive calendars. From this they learned that the sun’s path through the sky could be used to predict when the seasons would change, thus aiding in their survival.
The standard unit for measuring time is the second (duh), which is defined as the time it takes a Cesium-133 atom at the ground state to oscillate exactly 9,192,631,770 times (whoa). It’s coordinated by 200 atomic clocks worldwide, and if they were left to run for 20 million years they would all deviate by only one second (see Science).
Having studied geology in school (extra points if you guessed that on my first post!), I was taught to think over extreme timespans of 500 million years or more to try to understand how the Earth has evolved since its birth. This is a picture representing the geologic time scale:
The chart unfolds from left to right. On the left, all of geologic time from the Earth’s accretion onwards is represented. As you can see, most of it (maybe 5/6ths) was the Precambrian, or the time before any life besides bacteria and microbes existed on Earth. Can you picture that? If you could travel back to any time in the red region of the chart, not only would you not see any plants, birds, dogs, cows, fish, or anything living at all, but you’d most-certainly need an oxygen mask if you wanted to make it a return journey. As the chart unfolds towards the right, all of the living things that can be found in the fossil record, from trilobites to saber-toothed cats, tardigrades to woolly mammoths, existed. Then, in the upper right corner you find the Quaternary Period. It’s the most recent +/- 2.5 million years, and our current civilization can be found in the smallest sliver of the Quaternary, the Holocene (the last ~12,000 years).
The invention of agriculture, language, trade, civilization, writing, religion, culture, love, the Egyptians, the Mayans, Genghis Khan, Nikola Tesla, automobiles, Albert Einstein, every war, spaceflight, the computer, a man on the moon, the internet, and most human beings that have ever lived can all be found in that tiny sliver.
If you want to go beyond that, the geologic time scale only accounts for roughly one-third of the history of the universe as it’s understood today. Neil Degrasse Tyson recently helmed a remake of a very popular show called “Cosmos” which dove deeply into the underlying fundamentals of the universe and the history of people trying to make sense of it. If you haven’t watched it, go do that. If anything it’s a fantastic insight into our world. One segment of the show illustrates the history of the universe as a cosmic calendar, with our entire existence fitting snugly into the last second of the last day, December 31st.
Take a deep breath. If you need a break, go ahead and take one now. Go on, I don’t mind. Drink some water, go for a walk, maybe play with a cute puppy. Because beyond the immense amount of time that there has been, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Remember that I’m no authority on mathematics or physics, but I try to understand some of the concepts that all of the numbers bring about.
Time is a difficult concept to grasp, sometimes even on a basic level. My perception of time varies depending on what I’m doing (for example, “oh my gosh this class will never end“, or, “I never want this golf game to end“). My judgement of time can sometimes let me down (by thinking it will take 10 minutes to get to work when in fact the stream of red lights means I’ll get there in 20). And to be honest sometimes I can barely read my watch (I’m serious). But at the extreme, and when you throw in space, time gets downright bizarre. To illustrate, let’s say you’re flying through space in your spaceship, minding your own business, when you get an interstellar phone call from your friend. Wanting to keep it short (imagine the long distance charges), you ask to catch up over dinner and hang up. Your friend and you are both about 25, let’s say. Then your spacecomputer chimes in and let’s you know it’ll be changing course to get you home because you’re low on fuel. No problemo, you think. Little do you know that to save fuel the spacecomputer plotted your trip home by first slingshotting you around a black hole. Well, that’s unnerving. But, the spacecomputer’s got this, the slingshot ride goes off without a hitch and you make it home in time for dinner. The only thing is, not only are you late for dinner, but you’ll also have to make dinner for all your friends… at the retirement home.
Welcome to the world of relativity and specifically time dilation. These theories have been developed for a very, very long time, culminating in Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s mind-boggling when it comes to the math, but I’ll explain it as best I can through the story I just told. So, when you wanted to get home to make it in time for dinner, you had to slingshot around the black hole. Black holes are massive. Very massive. And I don’t mean big. I mean that in comparison to stars they’re small (mostly), but there’s way more stuff packed into them. They are so massive, in fact, that they suck everything in that approaches them. Not even light can escape their gravitational pull. But, your trusty spacecomputer figured out how to slingshot around it, sparing you a very bad time. Now, if your friend could somehow watch you slingshot around the black hole, they’d notice that you seem to slow down to a crawl as you approach the black hole, seemingly taking your sweet time to get around it. Years pass for your friend, then decades. Much, much later, your spaceship touches down at home. You disembark to find your friend has aged much more than you have, and you’ll have to spend quite a few dinners catching up. Well, just what the hell happened here?
The calculations that spawned the theory of relativity laid out a startling realization: time and speed are relative depending on where you stand in observation. While you were slingshotting around the black hole, time dilated for you, causing your apparent time to slow down relative to your friend. If you had some way of observing your friend as you slingshot around the black hole, you’d notice them speed up drastically compared to you, living years of their life while you continue on your way. It’s a truly strange thought experiment, but it’s the law of the land.
To take that example to a more relatable level, you realize that any time you move fast, say in a car, you experience time more slowly than someone walking on the sidewalk. I know, it’s crazy right!? But wait, no, that doesn’t mean drive fast so you’ll get to work on time. The effect is truly minuscule in reality. You’ll experience maybe 0.0000000001 seconds less than the person on the sidewalk, and the last time I checked you can’t get much done in that span. It is because of this fact, however, that the discovery of relativity is so important. Without it, the creators of GPS systems wouldn’t have known they had to account for the Earth’s mass and their satellites positions above it in their calculations, and Siri would all have us horribly confused and lost.
Another interesting side-effect of this phenomena is that if you were to leave Earth in your spaceship and constantly accelerate at 1G towards the Andromeda galaxy (~2,480,000 light years away), you’d get there in… 2,480,000 years… right?
Wrong. You’d get there in 60 YEARS*. Of your own perceived time that is. In actuality you’ll be pushing just over 5,000,000 years old. BUT, you’d feel as young as a spry 80-ish year old! Can you imagine how much retirement money you’d have saved up! I’m kidding. There’s no way banks will exist by then. But hey, that would be crazy cool right?
*You’d need an absurd amount of fuel. I’m talking Jupiter planet-sized fuel tanks.
There are a bunch of popular theories about time in the modern science world. Some scientists say it flows like a river, in one unchanging direction albeit at different speeds sometimes. Some say it’s cyclical, extending beyond our physical universe, never-ending. Some say it doesn’t exist at all. But, I have to say that the theory that makes most sense to me at the moment is that the past and future are meaningless imaginings. This theory predicts that there are only rates of change of all the matter and energy in the universe, and that there is only different states of the present “now’s“. It’s another doozy to wrap the ol’ noggin’ around, but it makes sense in a weird way: with this theory, time travel is impossible (sorry Marty McFly). Therefore you can never have time travel paradoxes where you accidentally go back in time and kill your grandpa before your dad was born (and why anyone would do that is beyond me).
Wow. That was a long, drawn out and partially exhausting foray into math and physics that I can barely understand. If you followed me this far, thank you. If you have any comments or contradictory info to what I’ve written, leave a comment and let’s get some discussion going! I’m always game for talking about stuff I want to learn more about, and it’s even better if I’m wrong.
I suppose my main point with this post is that, whatever time actually is, we only have so much of it. We should all try and use the time we have and touch as many lives as we can in the best ways possible. I constantly take time for granted by procrastinating – it’s one of the areas I’m most rusty at. Through this blog project I aim to change how I judge and use my time, with the goal of helping others not take it for granted and use it to their benefit. If I can motivate anyone else to do the same I’ll have succeeded.
I’ll be taking advantage of a free WordPress course called Blogging 201 over the next two weeks to try and refine my blog and reach out to as many like-minded people as possible. If you follow me, thanks in advance for bearing with me as I learn all about this platform and how I want to use it. You can also follow me on Twitter @TheHematiteBlog.
There’s much to come, but for now here are three more random facts about myself:
- I can’t stand slices of tomatoes, but I love them diced and in tacos.
- When I was a kid I stole eggs from my parents fridge in hopes they would hatch and I could start a farm.
- I once took courses on how to blow bubbles with chewing gum.
And before I forget, the same rule applies. Only two of those are the truth!