Thursday, September 24, 2009

What is time?

I'm currently reading (along with 6 other books) Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. And...Wow. If you think you're all that, this is one book that will put that belief into perspective for you. I love learning about the universe and how infinitely small I am in relation to it. It keeps me humble. And gives me lots to contemplate. For instance, this passage gave me pause:

"We may be only one of millions of advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, space being spcious, the average distance between any two of these civilizations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light-years, which is a great deal more than merely saying it makes it sound. It means for a start that even if these beings know we are here and are somehow able to see us in their telescopes, they're watching light that left Earth two hundred years ago. So they're not seeing you and me. They're watching the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson and people in silk stockings and powdered wigs---people who don't know what an atom is, or a gene, and who make their electricity by rubbing a rod of amber with a piece of fur and think that's quite a trick. Any message we receive from them is likely to begin "Dear Sire", and congratulate us on the handsomeness of our horses and our mastery of whale oil. Two hundred light-years is a distance so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.

So even if we are not really alone, in all practical terms we are."

Wow. So, what is time? We have so many concepts with which we navigate our daily lives, but what do they really mean? What is time? What is the past? What is the future? What is now?

And, of course, the question I always go back to: what am I really?

This passage also made me stop and ponder:

"Glance at the night sky and what you see is history and lots of it---the stars not as they are now but as they were when their light left them. For all we know, the North Star, our faithful companion, might actually have burned out last January or in 1854 or any time since the early fourteenth century and news of it just hasn't reached us yet."

The stars we gaze at and wish upon could already be dead. We just don't know it yet. This reminds me of the thought experiment involving Schrodinger's cat. Look it up if you don't know because I suck at explaining such things. Cyanide and Happiness posted a great cartoon exemplifying the principle though. It makes me smile.


So, you just don't know until you know. It is humbling to realize how little we actually know about our universe and yet, it's remarkable that we now know as much as we do. Sometimes, we just don't have the tools or information necessary to come to a definite conclusion. Which makes me wary of ever claiming too much certainty in this life. The best we can do is stand in awe and profound reverence of both our intelligence and our ignorance. Seems like a good way to live.

tall penguin

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