Essay 2: We’re Off To See the Wizard
Today we begin our journey in search of the common good. To review, our thesis is that our division stems from a lack of a common purpose.
Dorothy and her friends set off on the yellow brick road towards Oz where she hoped the great Wizard would show her how to begin her journey home. She was sure that there was a way, that her mission was not impossible. We have every reason to share Dorothy’s confidence. Just like Dorothy, we will need to search for clues that will guide us towards our goal.
We begin with this statement: the world is not what you think. The world you think you know is not the world that is. I don’t expect you to simply take my word for it. Over the next series of essays, we will examine the clues that make that case. We will start with what I refer to as the “hard” clues. These derive from science, specifically physics. Following an examination of the hard clues, we will delve into what I term the “softer” clues. These are more subtle clues that, though not derived from science, amply add to the evidence.
Our first hard clue is courtesy of Albert Einstein. In 1905, Einstein published three seminal articles, one of which was titled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies. Although you wouldn’t know it from the convoluted title, this was the paper in which he revealed his Special Theory of Relativity. What a paper it was. It completely upended our understanding of time. I am going to summarize the essence of his theory, at least the parts that pertain to my assertion that the world is not what you think.
Most of us believe that we have a clear understanding of how time works. We imagine a timeline, where the past lies to the left and is inaccessible, the present is what is happening at the current moment, and the future–to the right of the present–is blank and unknown. Moments follow moments. Tomorrow hasn’t yet occurred, and yesterday is merely a memory.
We also assume that time is the same for all of us. There is a single now on which we all agree. The entire universe ticks along like a clock that was wound at the moment of the origin of the universe. Time passes the same for everyone no matter where you are or what you are doing.
According to Einstein–and proven by many experiments over the past one hundred years–the previous two paragraphs are both false.
As a consequence of Einstein’s theory, it turns out that each of us does indeed have our own separate clock. If I am standing still and you are moving, time will pass more slowly for you. As an example, let’s say that I am in my office typing another of these essays while you board a jet in New York heading to California. Each of us has an atomic clock (super accurate). As soon as your jet takes off, both our clocks are automatically turned on and begin to record the passage of time. At the moment that you land in Los Angeles, our clocks stop automatically and simultaneously. A physicist takes both of our clocks and informs us that your clock has recorded a shorter passage of time than mine. The difference is minuscule, but there is a definite difference. If you had been moving really fast–some fraction of the speed of light–the difference in the passage of time between our two clocks would be sizable. If you had gone really fast for a fairly long time, the difference could be years. I, who was stationary, would have aged far more than you.
Confusing for sure, so let’s put this into an image we can more easily understand. We are always moving through time–time of course passes. When we are not physically moving–when we are sitting in a chair or slouching on the couch–all of our “motion” is through time. Once we get our lazy selves up and start physically moving, some of our “motion” through time is converted to motion through space. The faster we physically move, the more motion in time becomes converted to motion in space. Less time passes the faster we are physically moving. We will age less than someone who is not moving or moving at a slower speed. At our normal sloth-like human speeds, the difference is not noticeable, but that doesn’t change the fact that this principle of nature is accurate.
Another consequence of Einstein’s theory is that all of time exists simultaneously. Let that sink in for a moment. Our classic timeline is a false representation. Each moment in the past is just as alive as the present moment. It is not simply history. Our past is not just a memory. Your fifth birthday party is still going on. That blank future? Also just as alive as the present moment. The future already exists, no different than the past or present. Feel free to take another moment to absorb that stunning fact. As Einstein famously said in a letter to his best friend’s family at the time of his friend’s death (paraphrased), “for we believing physicists, the past, present, and future are just a stubborn illusion.”
Here is an analogy that I hope will help you visualize this concept. Think of the entirety of time as an old-fashioned jukebox. In a jukebox, only one record plays at a time, one after another. Now imagine that instead of playing one at a time in sequence, every record plays simultaneously and never, ever stops playing. Replace each record in our jukebox with a moment of time. Each and every moment, just like each and every record, is playing simultaneously and forever.
One more analogy to make the point. Imagine twenty kindergartners facing you in a line standing side by side. We want each child to tell us his or her name. We have two ways to go about that, each representing a concept of time. In the conventional timeline concept of time that we all learned and have–until now–accepted as accurately representing the passage of time, each student would speak his or her name just after the student on their right, only one child speaking at a time. In the more accurate concept of time that I have just presented, every student would say his or her name simultaneously, a cacophony of sweet little voices that never stops. All moments of time are actively happening, just as each adorable child is simultaneously belting out his or her name forever.
I encourage those of you who have doubts about this discussion of time, or who are fascinated by these revelations, to read books written by real, well-regarded physicists. Brian Greene of Columbia University, from whom I borrowed the concepts of motion through time and space, is an excellent choice, but there are many.
While these facts about time are mind-bending, the consequences of Einstein’s discovery are what are most relevant to us in our quest to uncover a common purpose. But before we delve into those, we first need to spend a short time in the world of the very, very small.
What: The Quantum World
When: Wednesday, March 30, 2022