Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Time & The Universe

People have looked to the stars for guidance for thousands of years. In some cultures, the constellations swirling above you on the date of your birth often dictated the type of person you would become, the ease or difficulty of your path through life, and countless other factoids of the self. One could be born under a bad star, portending omens of untold horror and strife for the life of the unfortunate soul or one could be blessed from birth simply because of the light shining down through the twilight tapestry of the midnight sky.

It is quite incredible when you stop to think about the precision that is involved with constellations (which are arbitrary anyway--they are merely collections of stars that have been interpreted by our ancestor's ancestors when the earliest civilizations began to sprout). One of the most common constellations that people in the Northern Hemisphere are aware of, aside from the Dippers, is Orion, specifically his belt. The three stars that comprise the belt, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka are 800, 1,000, and 900 light years away from our blue orb, respectively. Alnilam, the furthest star, is 5.8784998141351 x 10^+15 miles away; the other two stars are only slightly closer. Amazingly, though, from our vantage point, they appear to make up a belt positioned on The Hunter. Ever imagine what Orion (or any other constellation, for that matter) must look like from another planet in our solar system? Or another place in space-time entirely? It gives you a sense of the incredible precision that is involved with how we perceive things in the universe. It is because we are in exactly the location that we are in at exactly this point in time that we see things the way that we do.

The leading theory is that the universe began as an impossibly dense singular point and has become something with a diameter of 28 billion light years. That's only what is visible. And yet in spite of this incomprehensible size and the violence and unpredictability that makes the universe what it is, we are (arguably) able to accurately predict things based upon the location of pinpricks of light in the sky.

Essentially, everything can be broken down into mathematical values, thus meaning that mathematics can reasonably be called the language of the universe. Perhaps even Fate and Destiny are nothing more than mathematical calculations, predetermined by the universe itself before we even stepped foot onto planet earth. Think about it--there is a probability value associated with everything in life, from what you'll order at Starbucks tomorrow morning to who you will spend the rest of your life with. We've all had moments, though, where we felt something, like a strong breeze brushing against the fabric of our lives. Aren't most of these moments crossroads that we face or decisions that must be made? We feel like there is a single correct choice or we just know that taking this job offer over that one is the right course of action. It's both terrifying and fascinating to think that each and every choice that we make has an ascribed and unknowable mathematical probability and that, unbeknownst to us, certain choices or events have an infinitesimally higher chance of happening than others. Maybe, on occasion, we tap unknowingly and unintentionally into the pulse of the universe and get a sense of just what we have coming up in our lives.

Tarot readers and numerologists purport to do just what is outlined above. The cards or the numbers seem to spell out what lies ahead for each of us. If you believe that time exists as a single entity (a timescape, if you will) and that the past, present, and future are merely illusions of our limited consciousnesses, then wouldn't it stand to reason that the rest of our lives have simultaneously happened and are awaiting that happening? Isn't that belief at the core of soothsaying in general? It could explain why people have lucky numbers or why your birthday can be analyzed to describe accurately some of your quirks and foibles; we all have idiosyncracies but perhaps they are not as random as we think.

Even déjà vu might be explainable by mathematics and the timescape scenario. Perhaps through some quirk of our hard wiring we break the conscious hold that our minds have on our perceptions of time, and we are able to experience a moment in our lives both in the present and in the future; in those moments of déjà vu it could be that we are existing simultaneously in the present and slightly ahead of it, on some strange borderland at the fringe of present and future that allows us to peek around the bend before we fully turn the corner.

Our neurological hard wiring is critical in our perception of time. As it is, the time that most of us refer to is a man-made construct that isn't even stable; our concept of time requires mechanical contraptions to "keep" it for us. The fact that it is dark in New York between midnight and four a.m. has no actual meaning; we could simply shift the hours around and have a completely different structure to our days. Aside from the fact that time moves differently at different heights (yes, a watch at the top of the Empire State Building will move slightly faster than one at the base of the building, given a long enough timeframe). Here's an example of a playful way to look at the way we speak about time:

Let's say that if I'm on Hawaiian Time and go to bed at twelve forty-five a.m., Eastern Standard Time, I'll technically be going to sleep yesterday even though it's today. When I wake up it'll be tomorrow even though it will actually still be today, and I went to bed today, even though today would be both yesterday and tomorrow.

The bottom line is that our perception of time follows a predictable and undeniable pattern; we view time as an arrow moving perpetually forward. You've never seen an egg falling up from the floor onto the counter, uncracking in the process, right? As we view it, that would be time moving backwards and would thus be impossible. I posit that we are hardwired to view things this way but that does not necessarily make them so. Think about it: we've all had those moments of staring at the clock, perhaps in class, at work, or at the DMV, where the seconds seem to last for hours. During moments of great pleasure, time seems to speed up and weeks can seem to pass as days.

When it comes to longer periods of time, though, we have a hard time truly processing them; hence the reference to geological time and myriad other varieties. To us, four thousand years seems like a barely comprehensible period of time but it is not even a drop in the bucket of earth's history, let alone that of the universe. To think in terms of five hundred thousand years, three hundred and sixty-five million years, or four point five billion years is beyond our abilities to reconcile. Again, I propose that we cannot fathom what the true value of that time is because we are programmed not to be able to.

The best example that I can offer is the concept of eternity, or all-time. Most of us view eternity as, "a really long time," and leave it at that...but let's pick it apart a bit for a moment. Eternity consequently has no beginning or end and thus cannot be so easily packaged into past and future. Anything that happened before we came into consciousness is considered to be past and anything yet to happen is in the future...and yet we can view things with terminable ends and definable beginnings; eternity doesn't work that way. If you try to follow the concept of eternity in a logical sequence, it will hurt your head. If the beginning of the universe came about with the Big Bang...then what happened before the Big Bang? And what if the beginning of our universe happened as a result of the death or implosion of another? When did that universe begin? In terms of eternity (and religion, in some cases), the answer to the former question is: nothing. There was nothing and then there was everything. If such is the case, then perhaps what makes God God is the ability to comprehend and to accept and process eternity--to understand that there was no before, there will be no after, and that what currently is had no beginning and will have no end. Maybe when we pass on, that limit on our consciousness is lifted and we become one with whatever version of God we believe in.

Strong proponents of Free Will believe that everything that happens in our lives is random, and that we ultimately choose what will occur. Maybe Free Will is really just an unavoidable ignorance to the equation of our lives? Even random samples must succumb to certain laws of probability; chaos itself will ultimately reach a point of predictability, given a long enough timeframe. I suppose that that would make us all coefficients in the algorithm that is life. It's quite a humbling prospect if you think about certainly eradicates many of the ways we choose to differentiate ourselves! You simultaneously have no impact on the universe and serve as an indispensible piece of the puzzle...

Always remember though--you are your own unique snowflake...just like everybody else!