Tag Archives: science

Time, It Goes So Fast. Except When It Doesn’t. Or Goes Backwards.

As someone with a whole lot of time on his hands lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how to spend the days, hours, minutes, and nanoseconds afforded to me. And I think I’ve got an answer: I’m going to think about time. And then my head is going to explode.

Because time has gotten very complicated. As Scientific American reported yesterday, physicists trying to solve the problem of time—i.e., why is it that “all the equations that best describe our universe work perfectly if time flows forward or backward” while we can only experience time in one direction?—have a novel concept: It’s all gravity’s fault. That is, gravity, rather than the entropic force of thermodynamics, is responsible for pushing things together, pulling things apart, and ultimately creating the complex system of the universe that we now experience, at least when we’re paying attention.

And then the neat thing they decide is that this means our universe exists in the past of another universe’s future—and, presumably, that that universe exists in our own past, back on the other side of the Big Bang. Also, Galactus is real. Here’s how SA puts it:

From that low-complexity state [the Big Bang], the system of particles then expands outward in both temporal directions, creating two distinct, symmetric and opposite arrows of time. Along each of the two temporal paths, gravity then pulls the particles into larger, more ordered and complex structures—the model’s equivalent of galaxy clusters, stars and planetary systems. From there, the standard thermodynamic passage of time can manifest and unfold on each of the two divergent paths. In other words, the model has one past but two futures. As hinted by the time-indifferent laws of physics, time’s arrow may in a sense move in two directions, although any observer can only see and experience one.

So, yes, your bong-smoking college roommate was right.

Of course, there’s another hitch in time, too. And that’s that the better we’re able to measure it, the more useless it becomes as a measurement. According to NPR, there’s a clock at the University of Colorado Boulder that “can keep perfect time for 5 billion years” without losing a second, or even an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Except that when you get that precise, the idea of “a second” changes depending where you are. At sea level it’s, well, a second, I guess, but the farther away you get from the Earth’s core—or any large generator of gravity—the faster time moves.

So two versions of this clock, which is apparently a jumble of wires surrounding a chamber where “strontium atoms are suspended in a lattice of crisscrossing laser beams,” would give you different times depending on their altitude, even though they’d both be functioning better than this Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Automatic, which costs $1,251,360 and which I just added to My Wishlist, in case you’re feeling generous this holiday season.

Where does that leave us? We’re living in the past of another universe that exists in our own past, and how we even measure the pastness and futureness of anything depends on where we’re measuring it from—all because of gravity. Which, as we know from careful study of Interstellar, can be controlled by LOVE. Because LOVE is always the answer to complex physics problems.

As a corollary, we also have an explanation of one of the greatest pop hits of the 1980s, by a band I believe we should rename the Big Bangles. Now that you understand the latest physics, this will all make a lot more sense:

(Note: I spent just over an hour writing this—at sea level.)