About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

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9780671799649: About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Examining the consequences of Einstein's relativity theory, an original work explores the mystery of time and considers black holes, time warps, time travel, the existence of God, nature of the universe, and humankind's place in the cosmos. 35,000 first printing. Tour.

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About the Author:

Paul Davies is a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He is the author of more than twenty science books, including The Mind of God and God and the New Physics.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

Time is at the heart of all that is important to human beings.
Bernard d'Espagnat

WHOSE TIME IS IT ANYWAY?

Time must never be thought of as pre-existing in any sense; it is a manufactured quantity.
Hermann Bondi

In a dingy laboratory in Bonn lies a submarine-shaped metal cylinder. It is about three meters long, and rests comfortably in a steel frame surrounded by wires, pipes and dials. At first glance, the entire contraption looks like the inside of a giant car engine. In fact, it is a clock -- or, rather, the clock. The Bonn device, and a network of similar instruments across the world, together constitute "the standard clock." The individual instruments, of which the German model is currently the most accurate, are cesium-beam atomic clocks. They are continually monitored, compared, tweaked and refined via radio signals from satellites and television stations, to cajole them into near-perfect step. At the International Bureau of Weights and Measures at Sèvres, not far from Paris, the data are collected, analyzed and broadcast to a time-obsessed world. Thus originates the famous pips, the radio time signals by which we set our watches.

So, as we go about our daily toil, the Bonn cesium-beam clock keeps the time. It is, so to speak, a custodian of Earth time. The trouble is, the Earth itself doesn't always keep good time. Occasionally our clocks, all supposedly linked to the master system in France like a retinue of obedient slaves, must be adjusted by a second to track changes in the Earth's rotation rate. The last such "leap second" was added on 30 June 1994. The planet's spin, accurate enough to serve as a perfectly suitable clock for a thousand generations, is now defunct as a reliable chronometer. In this age of high-precision timekeeping, poor old Earth doesn't make the grade. Only an atomic clock, man-made and mysterious, serves to deliver those all-important tick-tocks with the precision demanded by navigators, astronomers and airline pilots. One second is no longer defined to be 1/86,400 of a day: it is 9,192,631,770 beats of a cesium atom.

But whose time is the Bonn clock telling anyway? Your time? My time? God's time? Are the scientists in that cluttered laboratory monitoring the pulse of the universe, fastidiously tracking some abstract cosmic time with atomic fidelity? Might there be another clock, perhaps on another planet somewhere, faithfully ticking out another time altogether, to the joy of its makers?

We know clocks need not agree: the Earth clock gets out of sync with the Bonn clock. So which one is right? Well, presumably the Bonn clock, because it's more accurate. But accurate relative to what? To us? After all, clocks were invented to tell the time for entirely human purposes. Are all humans "on" the same time, however? The patient in the dentist's chair and the audience listening to a Beethoven symphony experience the same atomically tagged duration in quite different ways.

So much of what we believe about time is a result of cultural conditioning. I once met a mystic in Bombay who claimed he could alter his state of consciousness through meditation and so suspend the flow of time altogether; he was unimpressed with talk of atomic clocks. In a lecture in London some years ago, I found myself sharing the platform improbably with the Dalai Lama. Our task was to compare and contrast time as it enters into Western scientific thinking and Eastern philosophy. The Lama spoke with quiet assurance, but unfortunately in Tibetan. Though I tried to follow the translation for enlightenment, I didn't receive much, regrettably. Culture clash, I suppose.

After my lecture, we had a tea break, and the Dalai Lama took my hand as we walked out of the building into the sunshine. Someone dropped to his knees and presented His Holiness with a daffodil, which he graciously accepted. I had the overwhelming impression of a gentle and intelligent man with insights of value to us all, but prevented by the trappings of his office from effectively communicating them to the assembled Western scientists. I came away from the occasion with a deep sense of missed opportunity.

THE QUEST FOR ETERNITY

Eternity? thou pleasing, dreadful thought?
Joseph Addison

In the madcap world of modern Western society, where time is money, railways, airline schedules, television programs, even cooking are subject to the tyranny of the clock. Our hectic lives are firmly bolted to the treadmill of time. We are slaves of our past and hostages to the future. But was it always thus? Running like a common thread through the history of human thought, East and West, North and South, is a belief that the entire paradigm of human temporality is rooted in some sort of monstrous illusion; it is but an elaborate product of the human mind:

And likewise time cannot itself exist,
But from the flight of things we get a sense of time....
No man, we must confess, feels time itself,
But only knows of time from flight or rest of things.

Thus wrote the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius in his first-century epic De Rerum Natura. From such unsettling ideas it is but a small step to believe that the passage of time can be controlled or even suspended by mental power, as we discover in the following haunting words of the sixteenth-century mystical poet Angelus Silesius:

Time is of your own making,
its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought
time too stops dead.

For such temporal relativists, true reality is vested in a realm that transcends time: the Land Beyond Time. Europeans call it "eternity," Hindus refer to it as "moksha" and Buddhists as "nirvana." For the Australian aborigines it is the Dream Time. Angelus Silesius again:

Do not compute eternity as light-year after year One step across that line called Time Eternity is here.

In our struggle to come to terms with mental and physical reality, nothing vexes us more than the nature of time. The paradoxical conjunction of temporality and eternity has troubled Man through the ages. Plato concluded that the fleeting world of daily experience is only half real, an ephemeral reflection of a timeless domain of pure and perfect Forms, which occupy the realm of eternity. Time itself is but an imperfect "moving image of Eternity which remains forever at one," but which we human beings incorrigibly reify: "The past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence.

The abiding tension between the temporal and the eternal pervades the world's great religions, and has led to generations of heated and sometimes violent theological debate. Is God inside or outside of time? Temporal or eternal? Process or Being? According to Plotinus, a third-century pagan, to exist in time is to exist imperfectly. Pure Being (i.e., God) must therefore be characterized by the utter absence of any relation to time. For Plotinus, time represents a prison for human beings, separating us from the divine realm -- the true and absolute reality.

Belief that God lies outside of time altogether also became the established doctrine among many early Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius and Anselm, starting a tradition that continues to the present day. Like Plato and Plotinus before him, Augustine places God in the realm of eternity, "supreme above time because it is a never-ending present." In this existence, time does not pass; rather, God perceives all times at once:

Your years are completely present to you all at one because they are at a permanent standstill. They do not move on, forced to give way before the advance of others, because they never pass at all...Your today is eternity.

Thus, the God of classical Christianity not only exists outside of time, but also knows the future as well as the past and present. These farreaching ideas have been subjected to detailed analysis and received some sharp criticism by the medieval church, as well as by modern theologians and philosophers. The core of the debate is the daunting problem of how to build a bridge between God's presumed eternity on the one hand and the manifest temporality of the physical universe on the other. Can a god who is completely atemporal logically relate in any way at all to a changing world, to human time? Surely it is impossible for God to exist both within and outside of time? After centuries of bitter debate, there is still no consensus among theologians about the solution to this profound conundrum. These tangled issues are reviewed in greater depth in my book The Mind of God, for those readers who are interested.

ESCAPE FROM TIME

The great thing about time is that it goes on.
Arthur Eddington

Although theologians and philosophers wrangle over the technicalities of the logical relationship between time and eternity, many religious people believe that the most powerful insights into the subject are provided, not by academic debate, but by direct revelation:

I remember that I was going to bathe from a stretch of shingle to which the few people who stayed in the village seldom went. Suddenly the noise of the insects was hushed. Time seemed to stop. A sense of infinite power and peace came upon me. I can best liken the combination of timelessness with amazing fullness of existence to the feeling one gets in watching the rim of a great silent fly-wheel or the unmoving surface of a deep, strongly-flowing river. Nothing happened: yet existence was completely full. All was clear.

This personal story, recounted by the physicist and Anglican bishop Ernest Barnes in his 1929 Gifford Lectures, eloquently captures the combination of timelessness and clarity so often said to be associated with mystical or religious experiences. Can a human being really escape time and glimpse eternity? In Barnes's case, as happens so often in reports from Westerners, the experience came totally out of the blue. But Eastern mystics have perfected special techniques that allegedly can induce such timeless rapture. The Tibetan monk Lama Govinda describes his own experiences thus:

The temporal sequence is converted into a simultaneous co-existence, the side-by-side existence of things into a state of mutual interpenetration...a living continuum in which time and space are integrated.

Many similar descriptions have been published of deep meditation, or even drug-induced mental states, in which human consciousness apparently escapes the confines of time, and reality appears as a timeless continuum.

The Indian philosopher Ruth Reyna believes the Vedic sages "had cosmic insights which modern man lacks...Theirs was the vision not of the present, but of the past, present, future, simultaneity, and No-Time." Sankara, the eighth-century exponent of Advaita Vedanta, taught that Brahma -- the Absolute -- is perfect and eternal in the sense of absolute timelessness, and thus the temporal, though real within the world of human experience, has no ultimate reality. By following the path of Self-Realization through Advaita, a truly timeless reality may be attained: "timeless not in the sense of endless duration, but in the sense of completeness, requiring neither a before nor an after," according to Reyna. "It is this astounding truth that time evaporates into unreality and Timelessness may be envisioned as the Real...that spells the uniqueness of Advaita."

The yearning for an escape from time need not involve refined meditative practices. In many cultures it is merely a pervasive yet subconscious influence -- a "terror of history," as anthropologist Mircea Eliade expresses it -- which manifests itself as a compulsive search for the Land Beyond Time. Indeed, this search is the founding myth of almost all human cultures. The deep human need to account for the origin of things draws us irresistibly back to a time before time, a mythical realm of timeless temporality, a Garden of Eden, a primordial paradise, its potent creativity springing from its very temporal contradictions. Whether it is Athena leaping from the head of Zeus or Mithras slaying the Bull, we encounter the same heady symbolism of a lost, timeless, perfect realm that somehow -- paradoxically, timelessly -- stands in creative relation to the immediate world of the temporal and the mortal.

This paradoxical conjunction is captured in its most developed form in the "Dreaming" concept of the Australian aborigines, sometimes referred to as the Eternal Dream Time. According to the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner:

A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long, long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither "time" nor "history" as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any aboriginal word for time as an abstract concept. And the sense of "history" is wholly alien here. We shall not understand The Dreaming fully except as a complex of meanings.

Although the Dream Time carries connotations of a heroic past age, it is wrong to think of that age as now over. "One cannot 'fix' The Dreaming in time," observes Stanner. "It was, and is, everywhen." Thus the Dreaming retains a relevance in contemporary aboriginal affairs, because it is part of the present reality; the "creator beings" are still active today. What Europeans call "the past" is, for many aboriginal people, both past and present. Stories of creation are often cast in what Europeans would call the recent past, even as recent as the era of white settlement. No incongruity is felt, because, for the Australian aborigine, events are more important than dates. This subtlety is lost on most European minds; we have become obsessed with rationalizing and measuring time in our everyday lives. Stanner quotes an old Australian black man who expressed this cultural gulf lyrically:

White man got no dreaming
Him go 'nother way.
White man, him go different,
Him got road belong himself.

The concept of "white man's time" as a "road" down which he marches single-mindedly is an especially apt description, I think, of Western linear time. It is a road that may perhaps lead to progress, but the psychological price we pay for embarking upon it is a heavy one. Fear of death lies at the root of so much we do and think, and with it the desperate desire to optimize the precious duration we have been allotted, to lead life to the full and accomplish something of enduring value. Modern man, wrote J. B. Priestley,

...feels himself fastened to a hawser that is pulling him inexorably toward the silence and darkness of the grave...But no idea of an "eternal dream time," where gods and heroes (from whom he is not separated for ever) have their being, comes shining through to make modern man forget his calendars and clocks, the sands of his time running out.

But even those of us who are trapped within Western culture, for whom a magical, mystical escape route from time is unavailable, can still discern the powerful ancient sym...

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