How We Confuse Time and Space

Einstein is quoted as saying, “We physicists, we who understand science know that the distinction between past, present and future’s an illusion.”

The whole history of physics has been a history of diminishing the nature of time and diminishing the role of time.  Take a very simple example.  When you see something move through the air – that’s something that happens in time.  And then you could take a film that you made of that and call that an experiment or call that a record of motion.  And then you could make a graph in which time ran this way and the position on the screen ran this way.  And that would be just a curve.  The record of that motion would be represented by a curve which would be a graph of X against time.  


That is a method which is highly useful for describing the results of observations made in the past.  But people have gone too far with it.  We have what’s called geometricized time in taking the view that maybe that curve which is the whole history of that motion just is really what is.  And the fact that it got carried out moment by moment by moment by time is an illusion.  And so we’ve confused in physics the representation of observations of reality which are frozen because they are records.  They are ways of organizing the information in records which are frozen in time because once the observation is over, the record is frozen in time.  

We’ve confused that with the reality and argue to an invalid conclusion.  It’s not just that the record of motion is frozen in time and is outside of time therefore, but the actual history of the world, the actual motion is outside of time in its deepest reality.  So by making graphs in which time was represented as if it were a dimension of space, we confuse time and space.  Now in my book I recount the history if this, which starts in the seventeenth century with Descartes and Galileo. And then Newton avows to the point where Einstein invents the general theory of relativity where you have what’s called the Black Universe picture in which the whole space time exists at once.

Einstein is quoted as saying, “We physicists, we who understand science know that the distinction between past, present and future’s an illusion.”  And he wrote that trying to give consolation and comfort to the widow of a friend of his who had just died as if to say really the impression we have of being alive for a brief time and then not being alive and the tragedy of that is wrong.  It’s not a tragedy because we just live and exist in time timelessly, so to speak.  All the moments of our life just exist and it’s an illusion this idea that we’re eating them up, that we’re passing through them.  And Einstein having consoled a friend of his also at about the same time in a conversation with a philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, regretted that the moment the feeling of being in the moment, the present moment is missing from that representation of motion, that representation of the universe.

And Einstein regretted it.  He said that there’s something irretrievably lost.  That the experience of the present moment is somehow just outside of the domain of science.  Over the last 20 or so years since the early 90s I’ve come to the view that we have to put time and the present moment and the passage of time into the center of physics and reinvent a way of doing physics in which the present is really what’s real.  At any moment what’s real is what’s real in that present moment. 

And the past is unreal but we know things about it because they’re representations of it, fossils of it, records of it in the present.  Memories of it, of course.  And the future is also unreal but we don’t even have memories or fossils of it so it’s genuinely unreal.  So statements like "In 2080 it will be six degrees warmer than it is now on the average on the globe" – which are hypotheses that people discuss – don’t have a present truth value.  They’re not true and they’re not false.  They’re just undetermined because 2080 is in the future and there’s nothing that exists now which corresponds to the reality of how warm it will get by 2080.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
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  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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