While I’m working on the formatting of So Absurd It Must Be True, Book 2 (yay! it’s almost here!), try to imagine this world… without time.
In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment, he imagines a cat in a box with a flask of cyanide. The flask will be broken – and the cat poisoned – if an atom of radioactive material decays. We know that it will decay, but when is a mystery. Therefore, until the box is opened, the cat is both alive and dead. Only when opened, can we learn the truth…
Yet, this isn’t just a lesson in quantum mechanics or a dire warning against letting a physicist house sit your cats! Rather, it teaches the simple lesson: that which has happened, cannot unhappen. The arrow of time moves ever onwards. Once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, dead or alive, it cannot be put back.
But what if time did not exist?
What would the world be like?
First, what even is time? At first impression, there seem to be two aspects:
- the physical phenomenon,
- our measurement of that phenomenon.
The former is constant; the latter often changes. For instance, before the advent of the railways, towns in Britain had their own local time => Oxford was five minutes behind Greenwich, and Leeds a further six minutes back. Local time didn’t matter when it took a day to walk from one to the other. But with the railway distance shrank, and time had to be standardized.
Still, we don’t believe Leeds was somehow operating 6 minutes in the past, or that Oxford – no matter how enlightened its professors – was five minutes in the future. They were in the same frame of time.
Before clocks, we relied on the movement of the heavens. There were no lie-ins or snooze buttons. You went to bed with the sun and arose with it. It was called midnight for a reason. But imagine you were floating in the void of space, without the sun or moon. Like movement, time needs a reference point (in fact, the two are linked). We know how long it has passed only by the action of something else: the sun or a clock, or how long your partner spends in the bathroom… 😂
Indeed, our perception of time can differ quite dramatically. People who spend long periods in a cave, see their sense of time go haywire. While older people routinely report time moving faster, as they’ve experienced more time by which to measure each moment. Proportionally, a week isn’t very long to a seventy-year-old, but it feels like an age to a thumb-sucking toddler.
As you see, it can be quite a struggle to separate the phenomenon from the perception.
Time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it. Einstein
If we turn this around, without time, there is no going from A to B. Time is the name we give to the movement of objects. Without time, nothing moves. And if nothing moves, we have nothing by which to measure time. As Tennessee Williams put it, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Or, to quote another great thinker of the Western canon, Oprah Winfrey, “You can have it all. Just not all at once.”
Next post – Saggitarius A*