The musical comedian Victor Borge used to explain to audiences puzzled about why grand pianos have three pedals that the middle pedal was there just to keep the other two apart.
As one who has always been profoundly puzzled by time, I have come to the conclusion that it exists just to keep events apart, otherwise everything would happen at once. Instead of having my birthdays conveniently spaced at an interval of one per year, they would all fall on the same day… except that, of course, without time there would be no days or, rather, they would all happen at once along with my birthdays. Confused? Well, join the club.
When you are young, time passes slowly. The remark “You can have it tomorrow” leaves you feeling desperate because tomorrow seems years away. When you are older, time speeds past so fast that you are continually wondering where it went.
Equally puzzling is the fact that when you are lying sleepless in bed or sitting on the station platform waiting for a delayed train, time crawls by. Every minute lasts a year of normal time. On the other hand, go out for a pleasant evening with friends and time positively whizzes past: hardly have you taken your coat off when you have to put it on again.
I thought Einstein might be able to explain it but he turned out to be almost as much of a comedian as Victor Borge.
According to Einstein, time isn’t fixed but varies according to your velocity. Send one of a pair of twins on a trip around the universe and when he gets back, he will be younger than the twin left at home. Scary! If you thought that was a joke, well, it isn’t because they have sent an atomic clock into orbit and found that it does indeed slow down relative to an identical clock left on earth.
Now, everyone knows that for a job like this there is only one name that counts – Stephen Hawking. As luck would have it, Professor Hawking is the author of the most famous book ever written about time. Entitled A Brief History of Time, it’s almost certain to be found in your friendly local book store, not to mention the public library.
A lot of people have difficulty understanding this book which is not really surprising as Professor Hawking admits in its pages that he too has difficulty understanding some of the things he discusses. The universe is a very strange place.
Unfortunately, none of this has helped very much and I remain deeply puzzled by time. According to Einstein, we live in a 4-dimensional universe, consisting of 3 spacial dimensions and 1 time dimension. Seems straightforward. But wait a minute: we can wander at will among the spacial dimensions (having wings helps, but we’ll gloss over that) but have you ever tried wandering about in the time dimension? No, it takes a sci-fi writer to do that.
And this really is the nub of the problem: we live our lives like people travelling on a bus. Life, the universe and everything all stream past the windows but once past, they are gone forever; you cannot return for another look, much less to do things better this time around.
When you think about it, this is really strange, disturbing. Well, it is to me, anyway. No matter how you struggle, how you turn this way and that, you slide inexorably forwards in time, like someone slithering down a slippery slope. You can slow the passage of time by doing boring things but you cannot halt it. Struggle, and you go even faster.
All that is bizarre enough and we haven’t even considered the future. The future hasn’t happened yet but we know it will come and then pass us by just as inexorably as the present. But if the future is bound to come, does that mean that it is already out there, somewhere, waiting? Now, that really is a scary thought!