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Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”
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The sundial and clock agree four times a year, on or near April 15, June 15, September 1 and December 25. I haven’t found any special names for these dates. No equinox or solstice label to mark these days.

That surprises me because I imagine that ancient people who were so observant of the Sun and Moon that they built temples to their movements would have noted these days. If you were a priest or in the upper class, you could have a large or small temple or altar that marked the astronomical events in an earthly way. But for the average person, I am imagining that a simple sundial was your most likely way to mark the time and follow the Sun.

At this time of the year, when the midday sun is highest, your sundial should say it is noon and your clock should say 12 pm.

I have always had a sundial in the garden. My mother had one in the garden when I was a kid and I have one now. It probably is one of the reasons that I still am tuned in to the Sun and Moon.

As a kid, it annoyed me that the sundial was always wrong. It was “wrong” because when it said it was 1 pm, I knew it was 2 pm because I had a watch. And I have always adjusted my sundial so that it was close to clock time.

I don’t know exactly when I discovered the why of the Sun’s path that explained the sundial but I was certainly an adult.

I am tempted to install a more permanent sundial in the garden, one that is wrong most of the year, as a reminder to me that the Earth is changing its relationship to the Sun.

A sundial can be as simple as sa stick in the ground that casts a shadow. That shadow from the style falls onto a surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, the straight edge. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow-edge aligns with hour-lines. Sundials need to have that edge parallel to the axis of the Earth’s rotation to tell the correct time throughout the year.

Long ago, people thought the Sun was moving across the seasons. Most people today (not all, I have discovered) know it is the Earth tilting and moving that cause the sundial to change.

You should pay attention to all the cycles in your life. Some are natural and some we create ourselves. They affect us, whether we pass attention to them or not.

Maybe you should get yourself a sundial and tune in to the Earth and Sun.

I read that “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. I guess we are pretty obsessed with it past, present and future.

Albert Einstein said that time was relative and in the most general sense of that we can say that children experience it differently from adults do, and that it does slow down when we are bored. Does it ever really fly any faster?

A quote attributed to Albert (though many online attributed to him are not things he said) is “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.”

It is often said that time speeds up as we get older, though we know that is not possible. But sometimes, time indeed seem “to fly” by.

In Why Time Flies Alan Burdick looks to understand how a sense of time gets into our bodies and minds. Why do we perceive it the way we do?

Subtitled “A Mostly Scientific Investigation,” he visits scientists and considers the most accurate clock in the world (which is still just an idea) and the ways we measure time and its passing.

Burdick says “My interest in the human relationship to time grew partly out of my previous book, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. In it, I came to the conclusion that one reason our species has such a fraught relationship to the natural world is because the timescales across which evolution unfolds and ecosystems develop — thousands to millions of years — are far beyond what we, with our measly eighty-or-so-year lifespan, can really wrap our minds around. Our ability to appreciate nature, and to appreciate what’s at stake, is greatly constrained by our limited perception of time. That left me wondering: What exactly is the difference physical time and biological time? What’s the difference between time “out there” and the time in our bodies and heads?”
Also, historically, I’ve had a terrible personal relationship to time — as in, being perpetually late. My hope was that if I learned a little more about what time actually is, I’d become less afraid of it and maybe on better terms with it. This turned out to be true, sort of.”

Along the way he discovers that “now” actually happened a split-second ago.  He finds a twenty-fifth hour in the day. He spends some time living in the Arctic where you can lose all sense of time.

And for a very brief time, in a neuroscientist’s lab, he gets to make time go backward.

“Bye Bye Moon” is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight MoonDid you know that the moon’s distance from Earth varies each month? I didn’t know that until this week, even though I know a lot about our Moon and I write about it at least once a month here.

Our Moon has a rather eccentric orbit and it is moving away from us at about one and a half inches per year. Scientists attribute this to tidal friction with the Earth’s oceans which also slows down how fast the Earth rotates, This lengthens our day by about 1 second every 40000 years.

Okay, it is not something we really will notice or need to worry about, but because scientists can do simulations, they can figure out that four and a half billion years ago when the moon was being formed,  it was only about 15,000 miles from Earth. Now, it is about 238, 831 miles from Earth.

Back then, an Earth day might have been only 5 or 6 hours long and there would be 1400 days in one year. More recently, at least relatively, around 900 million years ago there would be 480 days of about 18 hours each in one Earth year. That would certainly give us a very different lifestyle.

And projecting into the future, we would expect longer days but fewer of them in a year.

Even though we can’t observe these changes within a lifetime, it awesome and full of wonder to me that these changes are happening.

alice-clock

 

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.

23-59-60

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.

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