A Mystery of Time

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. —Albert Einstein

Some people seem to have a big problem with the idea of relativity. With all the uncertainties confronting us, they want to believe that at least some things in life are solid and certain.

Take time. It seems so precise: the difference between “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” can sometimes be measured in thousandths of a second. It seems so predictable: when something’s going well, we say it’s “running like clockwork.” It gives us a sense of control: as long as we can schedule our activities and stick with that schedule, we feel we’re on top of things.

For some of us, the last thing we want to hear about is time speeding up or slowing down, and being relative to the position of the observer. It all sounds so elastic and ad hoc – like driving on a highway made of taffy that shifts unpredictably, stretching here and shrinking there.

Besides, who can even understand what the Theory of Relativity is all about anyway? It’s probably based on complex mathematics that most of us couldn’t hope to understand. It would be nice if someone could explain it in plain English, preferably using only words of four letters or less. Or maybe they could create a helpful video that illustrated the concept.

Anyway, what does relativity have to do with the way we experience time in our daily lives?

Quite a bit, actually. First of all, there’s the extremely subtle but real way it affects us. For example, if we’re flying in a jet we may not realize that time is slowing slightly for us, compared to people down on the ground. But precise chronometers could verify that was the case. But beyond such esoterica, as Einstein demonstrated in his example involving a hot stove and a pretty girl, our sense of time in the world around us does vary.

This came to mind recently when I watched the James Bond movie, “A Quantum of Solace,” on DVD. While I haven’t really followed the Bond movies since Sean Connery stopped making them, I’d heard intriguing things about Daniel Craig’s version of Bond and decided to check it out. (Plus it had “quantum” in the title, which always grabs my attention.)

The movie was entertaining, although I’m still partial to Ronin for spy action in a movie. But what threw me for a loop was something in the “special features” part of the blu-ray DVD. One of the features dealt with various locations where parts of the film were shot. It turned out several scenes were filmed in Panama. One, an extravagant party hosted by the film’s bad guy, was filmed in the ruins of a place that used to be called the Union Club. Included in the feature were pictures of the building as they found it, as well as clips from the movie in which it was lit and decorated.

I was really shocked to see what had happened to the place. When I lived in Panama back in the 60’s, it was a very fancy establishment: the Union Club was the place to be amongst Panama’s upper class. I remember our family dining there once, presumably as guests of one of my dad’s business associates. It was a beautiful building, with a fantastic patio view across the bay to the rest of Panama City. Seeing it as just another ruined building, with a view across the bay to a forest of skyscrapers that also didn’t exist when I lived there, gave me a jarring sense of how much time had past.

One of the curious things about time is how our perception of it can differ, depending on our presence to its passage. For Panamanians who’d lived in the vicinity of the old club since the 1960’s and who had watched the towers rise across the bay, the gradual day-to-day changes were most likely unremarkable. They probably didn’t give them a second thought. But for someone like me who had been away for a long time, the sudden shift from previous memories to current facts would be jarring.

However, there is a way those Panamanian locals might also experience that jarring sense of time past. If they were to come across old photographs from the 1960’s that they hadn’t seen in a long time, they would probably be amazed to see how different things were back then. They might comment on how beautiful the old Union Club used to be, and how the land across the bay used to be just trees, fields and a small airport. If they were personally in some of the old photos, they might also comment on how much they had changed themselves. In any event, they would also have the distinct sense of time passing, as the fact of the present confronted the memories of the past.

Another curious aspect of such “time shifts” relates to our sense of space. In the mid-1970’s I visited the neighborhood in New Jersey in which I had lived during the 1950’s. I had memories of long walks to and from school back then, and remembered our church was somewhere in the general vicinity. But when I visited almost 20 years later, I was amazed to see how close together everything was. It wasn’t nearly as spread out as I’d recalled.

There is still another peculiarity relating to time: how things are in the present tends to overwhelm our sense of how they were in the past or how they might be in the future. For those of us who live in upstate New York, in January it feels like it has always been wintry. But by the time July comes around, summer is our norm and wintry weather feels like eons ago. In both cases, the present is our only reality and times that differ with it feel like fantasies. The only things that make other times feel real are photographs taken from those times.

We’ve all had these experiences, whether in seeing an old friend’s children for the first time in five years, seeing old pictures of ourselves, going back to someplace we hadn’t seen since our childhood, or even spending some boring hours at work or in class. Our sense of time has a strange elasticity to it, which is only visible when we are confronted with an alternative perspective – like memories or photographs.

When we think about it, our varying sense of time seems rather odd and mysterious. Why do we sense time this way?

Perhaps we can get a clue from relativity. Our sense of time seems to be a matter of perspectives. If we have only one perspective – our memories or the way things are around us right now – we have one sense of time. But when we’re confronted with an alternative perspective – photos from other times or images that conflict with our memories – we have a very different sense of time’s passage.

It is understandable that we might be uncomfortable with relativity; it is only human to want a degree of certainty and solidity in our lives. But if our response to relativity in life is to shut out all alternative perspectives, we are basically choosing a life of illusion. It would be like my choosing to believe the Union Club still exists in all its former glory.

The memories of that time and place are nice, but they have nothing to do with current reality.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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