Wrinkles in Time: A Reflection on the Pluralities of the Present

Arguably the most famous work by acclaimed surrealist
painter Salvador Dalí is his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory, a
foreboding composition that features melted clocks scattered over a dark
landscape. The painting is often erroneously described as a tribute to
Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Dalí was an enthusiast of scientific
inquiry, describing himself as a fish swimming between the “cold water” of art
and the “warm water” of science, but he asserted the inspiration for The
Persistence of Memory
was cheese melting in the sun.

Even if Dalí’s famous work wasn’t directly inspired by
Einstein, the painting still seems to convey a fundamental truth about time: how it bends and melts, depending on our subjective state of mind. We have all
experienced the way time slows to a standstill in an extraordinarily
boring lecture, or how the days seem to pass at a swifter clip during April and
May at the Claremont Colleges—a chaotic and maniacal six weeks that my
computer science professor argues is just as ‘surreal’ as Dalí’s painting.

In the limited scope of human perspective, time is relative; our
perception of its passage depends on the inner workings of each of our
individual brains. But what about the objective
reality of time? What is time when considered outside of our incomplete and
subjective human view?

To be perfectly clear, the answer to that question is
light-years above my paygrade as a volunteer columnist for a college newspaper
(as fine a newspaper as it may be). But that doesn’t mean I can’t shed a degree
of light on the subject.

Let’s start with Einstein’s theory, which proved, among a
host of other important concepts, that space and time are not separate
properties of the universe. Rather, they are one in the same: The universe is
composed of space-time, a four-dimensional continuum that includes three
spatial dimensions and one time dimension. From this, Einstein proposed an
effect called time dilation, which occurs when one object is moving relatively quickly through space compared to an observer.

For that moving object, the passage (not perception) of time
slows. For the observer, the object appears in slow-motion as the object’s
time has literally slowed in comparison to the observer’s time. Thus, each of
us, and every atom in the universe, has its own time, which is determined by
the speed at which we’re each moving.

Luckily, this effect exerts negligible influence when
traveling at the infinitesimal speeds at which we’re careening through space
on Earth. But this relativistic view of time does impact the ‘objective’ view
of time in the universe. Namely, it follows from Einstein’s theory that all
moments of time in the universe exist simultaneously, each of them a slice of
space-time existing independently of all the other slices.

To understand this consequence, imagine you and Dean Feldblum are both stationary but separated by a billion
light-years. Time will move at the same rate for both of you, and both of you
will occupy the same slice of time in the universe.

But what if Dean Feldblum begins moving at 100,000 miles per
hour (about one hundredth of one percent of the speed of light)? Her time
will slow, and you will move much faster through time than she—meaning you will
reach a moment in time that hasn’t yet occurred in her corner of the universe.
Thus, the two of you are now occupying different ‘present’ moments, with your
present being significantly farther ahead of hers. 

How can somebody reach a present that doesn’t yet exist from
the perspective of someone moving more quickly? For some physicists and philosophers,
the answer is simple: All moments of past, present and future must all exist
at once. Though all these moments exist, we only have access to one moment at a
time: the present. But different people can have different present moments.

Proponents of this theory, which is known as timeless
physics or eternalism, thus believe that each of us operates in our own
relative time, dictated by the speed we’re moving relative to others. And
though these differences won’t affect the human experience unless interstellar
travel is the norm, it’s striking how the physics almost feels as if it mirrors
reality.

We’re all governed by the same ‘objective’ clock, which
ensures our classes start at predictable moments and allows us to know the
precise moment at which Frary opens, but each of us is also in our own bubble
of time. 

The passage of time in these bubbles is subject to change based on our
emotional state, arousal and attention. Five minutes of a boring lecture can
seem to take just as long as 50 minutes of a brilliant lecture. An hour of
working in ‘the zone’ can pass faster than 10 minutes of jogging. And especially
for seniors like myself, a month’s worth of April can zoom past like a week of
fall semester.

What’s strange about these subjective bubbles of time is not
how our brains can be tricked or manipulated into incorrectly judging the
passage of time. Rather, it’s strange how closely this subjective reality,
defined by our unique individuality, matches a greater objective reality,
defined by equations that have been around for over a century—truly surreal
indeed.

Warren Szewczyk PO ‘15 is hoping to spend the next couple years researching schizophrenia and continuing to write about science. If you are reading this, you hopefully read the entire preceding column, so thanks for that.

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