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I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonhan Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.


I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.

I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.

Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.

Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.

In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.

She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.

Alice Through The Looking Glass  flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.

I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.

The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.

Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice  “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”

Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.

In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?

She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.

The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backwards.

Alice says that she thinks time is a thief.  She gets no argument from me on that.


A “leap second” will be added to the world’s official clocks today, December 31, 2016  at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). That is 6:59:59 p.m. EST in my neighborhood. I will get an extra second and it will pass in a heartbeat. Easy come, easy go.

Those official world clocks will actually read 23:59:60 before ticking over to midnight. That’s unique.

Why do we have to add a second now and then to those very accurate clocks?  It is because the Earth’s rotation around its own axis is gradually slowing down. I thought I felt things slowing down lately.

Atomic clocks tick away at pretty much the same speed over millions of years. Compared to the Earth’s rotation, atomic clocks are simply too consistent.

We have done this adding of a second since 1972. That first time, UTC was 10 seconds behind Atomic Time. We have added 26 leap seconds so far. I hope to accrue at least a half a minute extra in this lifetime.

It does not mean that the days are any longer. Only on that leap second day (which hardly anyone seems to hold a celebration for) we had 86,401 seconds instead of the usual 86,400 seconds.

Our units of time were defined based on the Earth’s rotation relative to distant celestial bodies. That changed when atomic clocks came into being in the mid-20th century.

Our Moon’s gravitational pull is one reason why the Earth’s spin is slowing down. We lose between 1.5 to 2 milliseconds per day compared to atomic time. We are off by a full second every 500 to 750 days.

Leap seconds are always added on June 30 or December 31 of a particular year. In 1972, they added them on both dates. But, I suppose, this leap second really won’t affect people, though I think it is nice to know and might be a good icebreaker at your New Year’s Eve party tonight.

This might be one of your favorite nights. It is the night we get to turn the clocks back before bedtime and get an extra hour of sleep as Daylight Savings Time ends early Sunday morning and we get to “spend” those saved hours.

There is not much more to say about Daylight Savings Time that I haven’t already said, so read up if you missed those earlier posts.



Without getting into anything in the realm of physics, would you concede that time is relative? Time passes, or seems to, faster or slower in some situations.

Einstein, in one of his less scientific moments, said “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But as I enter “old age,” time seems to be speeding up. What causes this apparently common perception?

Digging around online, I found that one theory is that as we get older we become more familiar with our surroundings. Children, on the other hand, view the world as an unfamiliar place filled with new experiences and are constantly re-configuring their mental ideas of the outside world. According to this theory that childlike view appears to make time pass more slowly for children.

Here’s some curious research from 1996 that asked 25 people aged between 19 and 24, and 15 people
aged between 60 and 80, to estimate a 3-minute interval by counting “seconds”
using a “1, 1000, 2, 1000, …” technique. The younger adults were quite good. They averaged 3:03. But the older group perceived that 3 minutes had passed after 3:40.

The researcher speculates that the brain’s internal clock runs slower as we age. This is not the same as the circadian clock that we usually talk about which controls daily cycles of activity. That brain clock is located in the basal ganglia and substantia nigra and, as we age, brain cells that produce the chemical messenger dopamine, which regulates the clock, begin to deteriorate.

Many studies of human time perception show that age-related changes in the nervous system alter one’s sense of time. And with age, it does seem to move more quickly.

timefliesflickrLow dopamine levels can lead to lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings and memory loss. I wonder of increasing dopamine would also change your perception of time passing.

Of course, you could take dopamine supplements, but there are ways to increase it naturally too.

Tyrosine is the building block of dopamine, and some common foods that have this tyrosine protein. Maybe I’ll load up on almonds, avocados, bananas, beef, chicken, chocolate, coffee, eggs, green tea, milk, watermelon and yogurt.

Dopamine increases with discovering and doing new things, listening to music and exercising cause a boost. So does making things in a creative way and meditation.

I eat all those foods and do many of those activities, but I don’t feel like time is slowing down. And messing around with dopamine is probably not a great idea. This neurotransmitter helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, regulates movement and emotional responses. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease and may make you more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.”

With all that in mind, maybe I’ll just let time fly and try harder to enjoy the view as it whizzes by.


The general theory of relativity conceives of gravity as a result of curved space-time. (Public domain image by NASA.)

If non-science people have heard of one modern theory of physics, it is likely to be that of relativity. In 1905, Albert Einstein determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers. This was the theory of special relativity. Einstein then spent ten years trying to include acceleration in the theory and published his theory of general relativity in 1915. In it, he determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity.

One hundred years later, Sarah Howe wrote a sonnet titled “Relativity” for a commission by Britain’s National Poetry Day. It was to be a poem on light. She wrote, paradoxically, about its absence. The poem is about black holes and is dedicated to Stephen Hawking. It begins:

When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.

That is the light we know in our world of gravity. She is also writing about light at the level of quantum physics where photons behave like particles and also as waves in a mysterious duality. Howe has said of the poem that she was also thinking about how scientist Galileo and poet Milton in their blindness “came to rely on other sorts of eyes.”

Last November was the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein unveiling the key equations of general relativity, which he did in four lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and by the end of the month, he had arrived at the ten equations that physicists still use today.

One of his theories was of “spacetime.” Einstein’s theory viewed space and time not as two separate elements, but interwoven. A change in one produces an effect on the other. (His former professor, Hermann Minkowski actually came up with the space-time continuum  but Einstein elaborated on it.

One of the parts of this that you may have heard of is that as the rate of speed goes up, the rate of time must go down and vice versa. For an object moving slowly through space, time is passing quickly and for an object moving at a very high rate of speed, time actually slows down. It is not something that we can observe firsthand, and since we don’t get to travel at anything close to the speed of light, we don’t “go back in time.”

But the theory has been tested many times in experiments sending the most accurate atomic clocks for orbits in rockets, and when they return to Earth the clocks on the rockets are just slightly behind their earthly counterparts.

He also theorized that light curves because gravity pulls at the fabric of spacetime. Einstein thought that curve should be visible during an eclipse, and in 1919, photographs of a solar eclipse proved that the deflection of the sunlight matched Einstein’s prediction.

Isaac Newton had said that gravity was a universal force always pulling on one body on another. We learned that in school and plenty of people know only that about gravity. Einstein argued that there was no “force” of gravity at all.

His concept of space and time is often compared to a stretched fabric or trampoline that can warp and bend because of the presence of massive objects, like our sun. Objects like Earth or us on it move as straight as they can, flowing through curved space-time.

If you are curious about how politics also shaped Einstein’s theory of general relativity, check out this article from

Black hole Cygnus X-1

Black hole Cygnus X-1

There were headlines this year about the discovery of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime. They propagate as waves, in the way we are used to seeing the rings propagate from the stone thrown into the water traveling outward from their source.

In the old physics of Isaac Newton, gravitational waves cannot exist – something to do with physical interactions propagating at infinite speed. But then in 1916, Mr. Einstein’s theory of general relativity said that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation.

In the book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin writes about them and the quest to record the soundtrack of our universe.

I like Levin’s scientific writing that a non-scientist can enjoy and understand. She is a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. I have read two of her earlier books, How the Universe Got Its Spots and, one of my favorites, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

She writes about those dark black holes that science-fiction loves to use. These holes – so odd to think of nothing as something – sometimes collide. Those unilluminated collisions produce energy more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The energy emanates as waves.

We can’t see these events. No telescope will ever record a collision. The evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing.

Einstein predicted gravitational waves as part of his theory of curved spacetime. It has taken us a century to begin recording the first sounds of it from space.

I think this unseen aspect is rather wonderful, as in full of wonder.  How strange to think that telescopes cannot see events earlier than about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe became transparent.

There are other theories.  One is that it the gravitational influences of other universes.

Levin writes about 50 years of searching for these spacetime waves. The original searchers, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever – have added hundreds of others and new massive instruments sensitive enough to detect a bit of sound from space.


In a conversation on, she says that:

“The effect of these gravitational waves is to squeeze and stretch space. If you were floating near these black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. If you were close enough, you would feel the difference between the squeezing and stretching on your face or your feet. We’ve even conjectured that your eardrum could ring in response, like a resonant membrane, so that you would literally hear the wave, hear it even in the absence of a medium like air. Even though we think that empty space is silent, in these circumstances you would hear the black holes collide but you wouldn’t see them; it would happen in complete darkness. The two black holes would be completely dark, and your only evidence of their collision would be to hear the spacetime ringing.”

Can you imagine two black holes colliding, curving space and time around them? They are orbiting each other, moving curves, moving black holes, maxing out that cosmic speed limit of light and sucking in time, space, even information.  I can imagine it, and yet not imagine it.


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