Time is omnipresent. It is the essence without which reality has no meaning. It is inseparably woven in the fabric of the universe, chronicling its history every moment: inflation of universe since beginning, formation of galaxies from cosmic dust, creation of elements in the nuclear furnace of stars, origin of organic life from these elements on a miniscule planet, evolution of complex organisms which now ruminate on the nature of the phenomenon of time.
The movement of cosmic bodies in our vicinity gives us the measure of time: rotation of Earth on its axis, its revolution around the Sun, Moon’s revolution around the earth. We are born with a biological clock which is aligned to this astronomical clock. It regulates physiological processes and behavioural patterns. Though these two clocks are synchronized, the biological clock keeps ticking independently of the external clock. This explains the jet-lag after a long intercontinental flight across many longitudes.
Plants and animals too, it would seem, have an innate sense of time. Plants measure the changing length of the day for flowering. As do birds for breeding and migration.
Palolo worms live in coral reefs in the South Pacific. In the early morning of two particular days during the last quarter of the moon in October and November, the rear ends of all the worms break off and swim to the surface for breeding.
A bee on finding a source of food returns to the hive and performs a dance in the hive. Movements of dance, inform its mates about the location of food relative to sun’s direction. Outside the hive sun’s direction changes with the advancing day. Bee alters the motions of the dance to keep them aligned with Sun without venturing out. This is an incredible example of the precision of biological clocks.
One would expect that a feature thus entangled in the architecture of the universe and life on earth would be unequivocally understood. But time remains the most intriguing aspect of our reality. Like human consciousness, it is readily felt but defies simple explanation.
This ambiguity about time’s nature is reflected in our language. None can win over time, though we kill it often. Time is the universal constituent of our reality yet it is priceless. Time slips through our fingers like sand but some are able to save it judiciously. Time is invisible but it often weighs heavy on the mind. Poets can hear its chime. Some see footprints of their dear ones in its sands.
The astronomical time I spoke about is on a scale experienced in our world, on our tiny little planet, an insignificant collection of dust, revolving around a middling star. This measure changes in the boundless universe. The Sun rotates on its axis in about twenty-seven terrestrial days. It also revolves around the centre of our galaxy. This revolution takes about 225 million years and is called the Cosmic year. When last we were in the position we are today in our galaxy, Dinosaurs had begun to arise. Only 58 cosmic years have elapsed since the origin of the universe but about 14000,000,000,000 terrestrial years. Our brain cannot even begin to fathom this number. It did not evolve to understand Cosmic time, a concept that is useless in its struggle for survival. But neither did the universe evolve to bring about intelligent life on one of its planets. Its truth thus may follow a logic that is counterintuitive to human reason.
Science only makes the riddle of time murkier. Newton in the seventeenth century postulated the eternally inviolable absolute Time and Space. The universality of the time was unquestionable. Planets in space and life on earth moved on a rhythm set by a cosmic clock. This irrefutable sanctity afforded time a divine status and doubts about its nature could not be entertained.
Einstein upended this cosmic balance with his theory of Special Relativity in 1905 and General Relativity in 1915. The bottom dropped from the universe of Time and Space. The truth was more bizarre than the wildest of imagination. Each planet, each star, every moving body, carries its own time. No time is universal. Time fell from its high pedestal. It became a humble fourth dimension of the Spacetime.
The flow of time is its universal attribute but most difficult to explain. Are we the mute bystanders on the banks of the river of Time as it flows by us? Or are we flowing in this current? We know the direction of the flow of time instinctively. We see eggs splatter on the floor, windshields smashed on roads. Never do splattered eggs coalesce into whole or glass-bits gather into a windshield.
Science tells us that the flow of time is an illusion. All equations of physics, Newtonian or Einsteinian, are time invariant. They are true in both directions of time, present to future and present to past. Einstein believed that ‘for us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future only has the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one.’ This is not only counterintuitive, but seems to negate the basic laws of life. We feel the truth of our past in our very bones, but cannot remember a single facet of our future.
Relativity explains that the future of one planet can be another’s past, when two are astronomical distances apart and are moving at speeds comparable to light’s. It would then appear that the past, present, and future of every particle in the universe are frozen forever in the spacetime matrix. Each body weaves its own past, present, and future as it moves across this medium.
However meaningless may be the concept of flow of time for science, it is the lynchpin of our lives. Time is the thread on which are strung beads of our experience that make our life stories. Without it we are but a haphazard collection of moments.
Quantum physics with its bizarre theories of matter but uncannily accurate predictions of phenomena in real world, is most inaccessible to the human mind. In this esoteric branch of physics, past, present, and future are mere possibilities. Observer purveying time and space influences which possibility will crystalise into reality of the moment. An event carries in it all the innumerable histories that it could have had. Richard Feynman, the maverick genius and perhaps the most celebrated theoretical physicist of the second half of twentieth century, worked out a method to predict the contribution of various histories in shaping an event. He called this phenomenon The Sum Over Histories. Uncannier is the assertion of Quantum science that the future influences the past. This has been proved unequivocally in the Delayed Choice experiments. One can roam in this outlandish world of strange happenings only with the aid of mathematics. Any attempt to picture the reality of the Quantum world in our mind will always be doomed. ‘Anyone who claims to understand Quantum theory is either lying or crazy,’ was Feynman’s opinion.
Our brains evolved to enable our genes survive and proliferate in a world where genes of millions of other species were fighting for the same resources. Mind constructs a reality of our physical world which most adequately serves this purpose. Any understanding beyond this is a spill over, not the intended objective of Evolution. (I speak of Evolution as if it has a purpose. I cannot emphasise more strongly that evolution is a blind process working on a few simple laws). World may have many dimensions, but we can only conceive three. These suffice us to negotiate space on our planet in all facets of living. An ant, if it had a mind, would probably have seen only two in the same world. Is time then a dimension, which the human mind has not evolved to understand? Mind perhaps constructs an image of it which makes us feel the flow of the river of time from eternity to eternity.
Science has unraveled many mysteries of the human mind. Artificial intelligence accomplishes many tasks which were earlier the sole domain of mind. But no algorithm can make a computer understand simple notions like goodness, cruelty, morality and beauty; Concepts which the human mind knows instinctively. Is time also one such abstraction, beyond the reach of extant science, but within easy grasp of the human mind?
Whatever be the true nature of time, this understanding, when it dawns, will not change the way human mind perceives time. Winds from the future will eternally blow ephemeral moments in our present and embed them forever in our past. We will continue to yearn and rue our past, suffer and rejoice in the present and will always look towards the future with hope and foreboding.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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