New controversial theory: Past, present, future exist simultaneously

Our experience of time may be blinding us to its true nature, say scientists.

  • Time may not be passing at all, says the Block Universe Theory.
  • Time travel may be possible.
  • Your perception of time is likely relative to you and limited.

We seem to perceive time as passing in one direction. After all, we can't just just forward to the future or revisit our past if we felt like it. Every minute of every day appears to move us ahead, pulling us through our lives towards an inexorable demise. At least that's what the conventional experience of time tells us. But what if your present, past, and future all existed already? Time, from that point of view, would not flow.

The block universe theory says that our universe may be looked at as a giant four-dimensional block of spacetime, containing all the things that ever happen, explained Dr. Kristie Miller, the joint director for the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney.

In the block universe, there is no "now" or present. All moments that exist are just relative to each other within the three spacial dimensions and one time dimension. Your sense of the present is just reflecting where in the block universe you are at that instance. The "past" is just a slice of the universe at an earlier location while the "future" is at a later location.

So, is time just an elaborate mind trick? And more importantly - is time travel possible?

Dr. Miller's answer to that is "yes". Of course, just hypothetically, since we'd need to figure out first how to travel at "some reasonable percentage of the speed of light". Going to the past would entail using wormholes, like "short cuts through space-time".



Block Universe diagram.Credit: ABC Science

Now, if you did manage to get back in time, you won't be able to change it. This is because your past is always simultaneously someone else's future. So if you travel to the past, you're just making that future the way it is. So don't worry about "grandfather paradoxes" - your time machine has already been incorporated into the scheme of things.

'If I travel to the past, I am part of the past," said Miller. "Importantly, I was always part of the past."

What's more - maybe the past has already been altered by time travelers. How would we be able to tell if it hasn't? "For all we know, the reason the past is the way it is, is in part due to the presence of time travelers," added Miller.

By that logic, what you do tomorrow will make it the way it is, with you fulfilling a certain destiny writ in time, which is in itself more of an illusion than a fundamental property of nature.

Certainly, with such claims, the block universe theory has its detractors. One big criticism is that the future shouldn't exist yet. Physicist Lee Smolin wrote that "The future is not now real and there can be no definite facts of the matter about the future." Furthermore, as he added at a 2017 conference, what is real is just "the process by which future events are generated out of present events."

Another negative of this idea is if the block universe is static, what is the point of anything? Can you have progress? Answering that is the "evolving block universe" model which sees the block of the universal space-time growing rather than staying the same. The surface of such a volume would represent the present moment. It's when "the indefiniteness of the future changes to the definiteness of the past," as described it cosmologist George Ellis. Under that model, the changing part would be the future.

While the debates are going to continue, the block universe theory is one of the most promising approaches that can reconcile the cosmological view of time with our everyday experience. What may be certain - time is much more than what it appears to be. Unraveling its mysteries is integral to understanding the human experience.


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Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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