Posts Tagged ‘Time’

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

The_Little_Engine_That_Could1Anyone reading me for a while knows I have no great fondness for the changing of the years and the obligatory omphaloskepsis that accompanies the calendar flip it requires.

Not only does it mean more thinking about time and its passing, causing an infernal hesitation before jotting dates on checks and documents, it stirs shit that has taken 364 days to settle uncomfortably to the surface and forces contemplation of said shit.

In the grand scheme of quantum quandaries linear time doesn’t exist, an idea rejected out of hand by our puny biological built-in chronometers, so just try moving your head beyond the day-by-day plodding that can only feel to us like a train moving along a straight stretch track and hell-bent on a final destination not to be found on any map we know of.

Pausing at stations along the way is an illusion, as the train is always moving, and always in the same direction. It may seem we’ve dallied, stepped off to enjoy time on the platform, but it’s all just part and parcel of the ride.

Accepting that, we ignore the train and try our best to focus on the journey. Throwing ourselves into our personal odysseys (and occasionally under the train … bus … whatever …) and using our imagined stops along the way to gauge the distance traveled and judge progress feels natural to us, so that’s what we do.

Being confronted by the timetable on a regular basis hits hard though, and once a year there are few ways to avoid the slap upside the head. The turn of the page from one year to the next shows us an indication of how far along the track we’ve traveled, and the angst in our baggage is prompted to contemplate every stop we didn’t make, how much we have added to our load, how much we’ve lost, and how long we’ll keep moving.

Some choose to imagine an engineer in control, some expert that guides the trip up and down mountains, through tunnels and avoiding obstacles along the way. It’s handy and alleviates responsibility, but the fact is we are all driving our own trains; storms, fallen trees, rusting components, precarious terrain are ours to deal with as they happen; there’s no reversing and no stopping until the end is reached. It is for us to navigate, to face decaying bridges in the dark and make necessary repairs to keep the damned train moving.

Personally, I find it much easier to calibrate myself with a new timetable when the track ahead appears to be clear. Once again, though, that’s not the case with the flip from 2015 to 2016. I know what’s behind me, but have no idea what’s ahead, and if there is a light at the end of this tunnel I just hope it’s not the headlamp of another train set to derail the one I’m driving.

In preparation for contingencies, I’m trying to work out a strategy.

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

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Still pondering that David Eagleman article I wrote about the other day on time, and will eventually get to the bit on drummers I found interesting, but tonight it’s a different angle that has me twisting in the wind when I should be sleeping.

That bit about time going faster when it’s the familiar around us makes sense in ways I’m feeling these days. Maybe it’s the fact I have a birthday in a couple of months. Perhaps it’s the time I spend with Sam and Cj. Who knows? But what it’s boiling down to is a linking of age and time and how that makes it go so bloody fast.

Does it not make sense that time is relative, and not only to the spinning planet and ancient universe, but also to each individual? Sure, in geological terms a human life is an eye blink, as how could any of us even begin to comprehend the eons needed to carve a Grand Canyon or push India up against the Himalayas? We barely have the patience to wait to see how our own little dramas play out, so how the hell can we incorporate the truly slow grind or non-linear time that has the grind happening ahead as well as behind us?

I’m beginning to see life as through a telescope. When we’re young, we put the “wrong” end to our eye so everything seems so far away, beyond the chance of touch and so densely crammed into the picture that details are difficult to make out. As we age, it’s the other lens we gaze into, the one that brings things closer, and as we become progressively more familiar with what we behold, we begin to range wider for new sights to examine.

Time, it seems, telescopes as well. At ten, one year is a tenth of life. By 50, that percentage is so greatly reduced that there’s no wonder one Christmas seems to follow another with barely enough time to put a shopping list together in between.

At twenty we’re rushing toward life, anxious to get started on whatever path our feet might find. At sixty we’re wishing we hadn’t run those gamuts so quickly and have grown too aware of the speed the ground is passing under our feet.

Can’t we all … all of us of a certain age … recall the huge abyss that lay between eleven and twenty-one while wondering where the hell decade between thirty and forty got to? For sure Mick Jagger sings “Time Is On Our Side” with a far different take on the lyrics now, and I won’t even mention how “When I’m Sixty-Four” feels as that decade looms. (That was, after all, “many years from now … “)

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
~William Shakespeare

And tomorrow comes just that much faster the more you’ve had …

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If you’ll give me a minute or two, I’m about to go off on yet another tangent about time, all in my good time, of course.

The fact that my time is very likely different from your time is the grabber here, and not just different now, but variable depending on your circumstances and mine.

WTF is this woman on about now? (Yes, I can hear you … )

It’s this from the New Yorker that gave me pause … and led my paws to the keyboard of my poor, dying Mac … on time spent and discussed with David Eagleman, one of the more interesting people around these days, a thirty-nine-year-old assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

He is a man obsessed by time. As the head of a lab at Baylor, Eagleman has spent the past decade tracing the neural and psychological circuitry of the brain’s biological clocks. He has had the good fortune to arrive in his field at the same time as fMRI scanners, which allow neuroscientists to observe the brain at work, in the act of thinking. But his best results have often come through more inventive means: video games, optical illusions, physical challenges. Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness. “There are an infinite number of boring things to do in science,” he told me. “But we live these short life spans. Why not do the thing that’s the coolest thing in the world to do?”

As head of a department that has most showing up wearing watches that haven’t worked for ages, Eagleman has a take on time I’d like to wrap my head around, but the second I feel I’m grasping an idea both the thought and the second are beyond me. The concept, for example, that time is a dimension, or that which asks, ” … how much of what we perceive exists outside of us and how much is a product of our minds?”

According to the guy at Baylor “brain time” … that’s our reality, not microseconds or millennia, since we don’t actually get either of those at any level that’s helpful … is subjective:

“Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?

Rather like the fact that one’s nose is always in the vision path but edited out of perceptions, it is true that we miss an awful lot of what is right in front of us. There are, of course, reasons our brains leave out many salient details, but it’s important we realize this happens, and happens all the time.

All the time being non-constant, as it is, some of the time shifts things around a good deal … like when you’re scared shitless and time slows in that aggravating way that allows perception of every little article of terror and laminates all.

I can still distinctly recall every detail of a car accident I was in when I was 14 … the images out the window as single frames of spinning world, the sound of metal under force, the smell of black rubber smoking across tarmac, the realization that my head was about to hit safety glass and the hope that I wouldn’t end up a bloody mess and that my father wouldn’t kill me for being in a situation I was so not supposed to have set myself up for. The whole experience took less than a few seconds, but I could easily manage a couple of pages of description that would feel about the same duration if read … slowly.

Eagleman studies this.

In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

Being a wimp when it comes to things like jumping off high places, this goes far to explain what it is about that sort of nutso stuff appeals. Although the idea of having the sensations seem to last longer is nothing I’d vote for, I can almost understand why others would like that.

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

There is more to this, but I seem to have run out of time. I may need to find something to scare me to slow things down a bit, but for now I’ll near the edge by trying to post this blog as my Mac heats up and meltdown threatens.

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What’s the difference between a theoretical physicist and me?

For starters, in the last third of my life I’m writing a book about wild sex, but can only dream of getting a grip on mathematical formulas, while today’s premier theoretical physicist … also of a certain age … publishes volumes based on complicated math, and can only dream about wild sex.

Yes, I’m notoriously crap with numbers and Stephen Hawking has ALS.

I would never presume to have anything in my head that comes anywhere close to the vast stores of knowledge the professor carries around. The man is a genius whose dumbing-down for the masses even gives me a massive headache.

I have read “A Brief History of Time” … many times … yet still can’t even begin to wrap my head around a black hole, those massive light-gravity-time suckers that he not only understands, but can prove.

Nope. I’m a simple poet; a writer of fluff and nonsense and speeches and status updates, a mere mortal handicapped from birth with a math aversion.

So … there are some differences.

But, what’s the same? We both dream. And we both think. We both ponder.

And one of the things we ponder separately in our parallel universes … his being the rarified atmosphere of academia, while mine is this island … is time.

Over the past days I’ve been watching all the YouTube vids available on the Professor, the topic of time and his theories on traveling through it and have come up with another difference between us.

Professor Hawking sees time travel as an eventual possibility given the physics involved and future potential for building the sort of equipment necessary to take advantage of the laws of the universe and travel fast enough to hit the groove of time’s warping.

I see it as a sure thing for every one of us as soon as we manage to get rid of the sort of equipment that makes it impossible.

Although I have no doubt that he’s spot on with the numbers, it seems the Prof is missing the point … or, rather, making a point that will end up being rather pointless, which is, after all, what theoretical science is often about, adding to the wealth of knowledge humans can mull.

One thing science knows is that the law says nothing in the universe can travel faster than light; Hawking puts this well within even my grasp when he clearly signposts 186,000 miles per second as the universal speed limit. Interestingly, anything approaching that speed has funny things happening to time, and as Einstein so succinctly put it with his E = mc2 thingy — go that fast and you’re no longer you, but the energy of you, which is kind of the same, but different. Go just a bit slower and you’re still you, but what passes for a year in some places happens in a week.

The equation E = mc2 indicates that energy always exhibits mass in whatever form the energy takes. Mass–energy equivalence also means that mass conservation becomes a restatement, or requirement, of the law of energy conservation, which is the first law of thermodynamics. Mass–energy equivalence does not imply that mass may be “converted” to energy, and indeed implies the opposite. Modern theory holds that neither mass nor energy may be destroyed, but only moved from one location to another. In physics, mass must be differentiated from matter, a more poorly defined idea in the physical sciences. Matter, when seen as certain types of particles, can be created and destroyed, but the precursors and products of such reactions retain both the original mass and energy, both of which remain unchanged (conserved) throughout the process.

Yeah … headache stuff, but stick with me …

So … mass / energy. What are we? At the moment, both, and that’s where the time travel thing goes tricky. Check this:

“The brain is the ‘local’ creator of time, space and space-time as our special maps of reality we ‘observe’ and participate in” (Catalin et al., 2005). “Time is a fundamental dimension of life. It is crucial for decisions about quantity, speed of movement and rate of return, as well as for motor control in walking, speech, playing or appreciating music, and participating in sports. Traditionally, the way in which time is perceived, represented and estimated has been explained using a pacemaker–accumulator model that is not only straightforward, but also surprisingly powerful in explaining behavioral and biological data. However, recent advances have challenged this traditional view. It is now proposed that, the brain represents time in a distributed manner and tells the time by detecting the coincidental activation of different neural populations (Hitchcock, 2003).

Linear time “past-present-future” is psychological time. Physical time is run of clocks in a space. Motion that we experience through psychological time happens in space that is timeless; past, present and future do not exist in space. There is no physical time existing behind run of clocks.

Somethings to think on …

The brain creates time. Space is timeless. “Matter, when seen as certain types of particles, can be created and destroyed, but the precursors and products of such reactions retain both the original mass and energy, both of which remain unchanged (conserved) throughout the process.”

And the kicker: Time is a fundamental dimension of life.

Yep. There’s the key to time travel … kick the life habit.

The body of knowledge gathered from Near Death Experiences, a misnomer since the peeps reporting back were not near death but dead, suggest the limits imposed by our biology.

A recent study by Dr. Sam Parnia (despite his acknowledgment that he was initially a skeptic), shows that such patients are “effectively dead”, with their brains shut down and no thoughts or feelings possible for the complex brain activity required for dreaming or hallucinating; additionally, to rule out the possibility that near-death experiences resulted from hallucinations after the brain had collapsed through lack of oxygen, Parnia rigorously monitored the concentrations of the vital gas in the patients’ blood, and found that none of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen. He was also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case, regardless of whether they had a near-death experience or not. According to Parnia, “Arch sceptics will always attack our work. I’m content with that. That’s how science progresses. What is clear is that something profound is happening. The mind – the thing that is ‘you’ – your ‘soul’ if you will – carries on after conventional science says it should have drifted into nothingness.”

Although Richard Dawkins would disagree with my self-evaluation, I consider myself an atheist. Dawkins, you see, considers us nothing more than our biology, when I see our physical form the least of us but having more to do with science than anything god-given.

What the heck, heh? It’s a Jedi master that sums it up in my book:

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Okay, Yoda is very much not Stephen Hawking, and the limits of the imagination that created him still have that future depending on flying machines. (We’re hooked on gadgets, we are … and I’d blame it on being a boy thing, and could be right about that. Look back at visions of the future past and recognize that we’re not getting around in flying cars, but we ARE connected by the millions, and what comic book ever had Skype superheroes?)

Machines are still where the mind goes because we’ve yet to get a grip on the fact that when the mind goes we have no need of the bloody machines. We are no more our brains, nor our brains us, than our hearts are the repository of our love.

Given the brevity of the human lifespan, it’s no wonder that the idea of traveling through time during it captures the imagination. Truth is, though, I suspect, that it’s old hat to us as we bounce around in time and space, but beyond our capacity to recall … seeing the home movies we have of vacation from flesh and bone only run in our sleep.

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The ever-more-rapid passing of time captures my attention, albeit fleetingly since a quick ponder is all there is ever time for, so a headline from the BBC today grabbed both of my eyes.


“Ah ha!” thought I. “As unlikely as it may be, the Beeb sorts it.”

But no.

It’s a story about how a sundial on the Firth of Forth kept monks from wandering from the mandated lockstep of nibble, work, pray, sleep, nibble.

Aside from some minor astonishment that a sundial would do jack in a place as often perpetually dark as Scotland can be, the idea that Augustinian brothers were compelled to wrangle time into digestible tidbits fails to shed light on anything at all.

As limited by our biology as humans are, we mere mortals can only grasp what we can wrap our brains around … see a recent tangent on this … and providing boxes for those bits we have a handle on is so, so handy.

So, we make boxes for minutes and hours and days and weeks, and on an on, and fill those as we see fit.

Some are so attached to the labels on the boxes that confusion results; the labels are deemed actual as if the contents … and keep in mind that the boxes themselves are nothing more than figments … constitute matter that matters.

Conveniently, the BBC provides evidence of this today, too.

An Australian scientist says the continent needs five or six seasons to suit its climate.

Tim Entwisle, chief of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, says Australia should “unhook” itself from the “arbitrary” four seasons it inherited from Britain.

Mr Entwisle has proposed “sprummer” – the season between spring and summer – and “sprinter” – an early spring.

He says a new system could help people better understand their environment and monitor signs of climate change.

“Having four three-month seasons… doesn’t make any sense in the place we live,” he told Australia’s public broadcaster ABC News.

The continent needs 5 or 6 seasons to suit its climate? Hm.

Allow me to mention that the continent needs nothing at all from hapless inhabitants; it was there a few bazillion years before bipedalism became de rigueur and will still be there … with some sort of climate, as a nuclear winter snow falling with no one to see it could sound much like a tree falling in the forest … long after we fuck up the planet so badly that our frail forms go tits up.

May I, also, point out to Mr. Entwisle that it matters not the least what the heck name humans put, the globe spins and stuff happens?

He has suggested holding a national debate on the subject, and a public competition to name the new seasons.

If Australians need more boxes, that’s okay by me, even though it seems a silly waste of time … which is not linear and cares not one whit as it passes faster every day … which is an arbitrary designation based on where one happens to stand on this rotating globe.

Time marches on … or doesn’t, if that non-linear thing clicks … whether or not we attach names to its bits, and there’s something smacking of ‘too precious’ in the compulsion to confine the nebulous rather than attempt to appreciate the amorphous nature of stuff we can’t hang a handle on.

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