Read more from the Being Truly Human April 1996 Newsletter
By Alan Thurley
Our world, and indeed the Universe, is made up of solids, liquids, gases and plasmas1, the four (known) states of matter. Additionally, the world and the Universe are awash with energies, some of which we know and understand, others which we do not know or are barely aware of. Matter, energy and the apparent spaces between the worlds and stars in the Universe are subject to time. So what is time?
We all think we know what it is but when it comes down to it, we have no idea at all. We, humankind, have experienced time since we first became aware beings, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, and to some extent so have all creatures since life first appeared. We have from antiquity been aware of the cycle of day and night and the repeating seasons. There has been a recognition that plants develop over many days, as do babies, and that all creatures are limited to a number of seasons of life. Because this planet has a moon which is unique in many respects2, there was, and still is, an awareness of an intermediate period between a day and a year, and of a much longer irregular period between shadings of the moon or sun to various degrees (eclipses). For most of our developmental history, these natural cycles were accepted without question, as indeed they are today.
Eventually man found the need to divide up the day into shorter periods in order to perform rituals or exert controls over the population. This was the start of man’s self-imposed slavery to conformity. The initial division of the day was by simple means, the emptying of a cistern of water through a hole, or the burning of a length of wax candle, a process exclusive to the rulers and priests of the period. It was not until the Middle Ages that mechanical devices were made to subdivide the day. These clocks were the first reliable instruments for measuring time. The consistency of timekeeping improved rapidly and shorter periods could soon be described. It was not until this century and the rise of electronics that the subdivision of time has been possible with such amazing precision. The second, 1/86400 of a standard day, can now be subdivided to such an extent that laser pulses 7 to 15 femtoseconds long are now resolvable. (1 femtosecond is one thousandth of a millionth of a millionth of a second. This is the same relationship as one second to 30 million years).
You will notice that we now have a standard day. The real day varies in length throughout the year, which in turn itself is now standardised. In fact these days, the period called one second is now derived from the rate of transition between two excited states of a specified caesium isotope under controlled laboratory conditions3. We are no longer connected to the natural periods we can observe for ourselves in the world; they are not consistent enough for us! But is this really what time is?
Einstein tells us that time is a dimension of the Universe, interchangeable with the dimensions of space. What do we understand by dimension normally?
We say that measuring a length of wood and also its breadth and thickness gives its dimensions. Three measurements mutually at right angles define the size of the piece of wood. These same three measurements can determine the position of any point in space. They are the only things we need to know to find where a point in space is located. Because it needs three numbers to specify this, we say that space is three-dimensional. So what happens if you only supply two numbers? This will only specify the position of a point on a flat surface4, a two-dimensional thing. Similarly, one measurement can only determine position on a line, which is therefore one-dimensional.
What then of the point itself? It has no size and therefore cannot itself have a dimension. Obviously it must exist or we could not specify its position in other dimensions. To exist, it must have duration, as indeed must any object or position in any dimension. Now we have another characteristic which must be included in our measurements, duration, which of course is another word for time.
So we have proved Einstein’s theory that time is a dimension of the Universe, and without any recourse to mathematics. It is also pretty obviously not what we commonly call time, which can be shuffled about and controlled. You cannot put its clocks forward or back an hour to suit yourself. Indeed, it has no clocks. It just is; the same as any other dimension just is5.
With three dimensions of space one can move about and inspect them at any point in space. With time we have a problem. For some reason we are unable to move in time other than to what we call the future. The past is irrevocably gone. It is a primary determinant of physical life that it can only travel one way in time6. However we can look at it logically and agree that the fact that we missed some event does not negate it. We are sure that if we could travel through time we would be able to observe it exactly as it was experienced by others. So time is apparently linear. It starts when the Universe starts and ends when the Universe ends, and everything in between is always there, if only you could travel in time to get to it.
This suggests that if we could repeat our life we would find it identical in all respects, as would everyone else. But effectively that says that our life is mapped out in precise detail, totally invariant, because the dimension of time is invariant7, what we usually refer to as determinism. So we have a rigidly determined existence, however much it may look like freedom of choice.
Not according to quantum physics.
This century has seen the birth and growth of the new science of nuclear physics, an investigation of the structure of the world in the smallest possible detail. It has been shown that everything we think of as real is made up of molecules, the smallest component of any specific thing, and that in turn molecules are made up of atoms. Beyond this, even atoms are found to be comprised of smaller components, of which the electron, proton and neutron are stable, and in various combinations make up all the 92 natural elements8.
Now it has been consistently found by physicists that, whereas individual atoms can be characterised by values of mass, energy and position, the sub-atomic particles cannot, primarily because they never stop moving. For instance, if we try and find the position of one of these particles, we inevitably give it energy as we look for it, which changes both its position and its direction of movement. So it is impossible to define the position of, say, an electron or photon at the same time as knowing where it is going. The same applies in reverse. If you know where it is going, you cannot tell where it is until it gets there, because, if you look for it, you will change its path and it will not get to where you expected. Scientists can no longer claim to be observers only in these experiments.
This is found to be an absolutely fundamental attribute of sub-atomic physics, and it is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle after its discoverer. It means that in the sub-atomic world every particle is elusive and impossible to tie down9. The whole subject can only be dealt with in terms of probability; where a particle probably is, where it will probably be.
So what of that rigidly fatalistic view of time? How can that be valid in view of this fundamental discovery?
It can’t. It can only be resolved in terms of four dimensions of space, of a universe which includes an infinite set of realities, of which we experience only one. In fact the course we take in life is governed by probabilities arising from each and every moment of our lives. For each of us, the universe we see is self-consistent, determined by choice, chance and probability, and certainly not immutable.
So what of time in all this? Time remains unchanged and is common to all the probability worlds. It is still interchangeable with distance, as Einstein said. The length of a journey can always be stated in terms of how far away your destination is, or of how long it will take to get from here to there.
Another of Einstein’s statements was that the speed of light is a constant, and that nothing can go faster than that in the space-time universe. Indeed only photons, the individual particles of light, can travel at light speed, because they have no mass. Einstein also tells us that any particle with mass will find its mass increases as its speed increases, so that it would never reach the speed of light. It would require infinite energy to do so. Also, for any object moving at close to the speed of light, time would appear to run more slowly, until at the speed of light time would stand still. If this is true, then a photon does not age between being emitted at some remote point in the universe and being detected on earth. Thus it could be said that at the moment of detection the photon converts into a value of time and distance according to when and where it was emitted.
All this is rather complicated, but we are left with the suspicion that photons in a sense create the universe by generating distance and time.
Continued in part 2
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