Time: Do the past, present, and future exist all at once?
Does time exist? Here's what the debate is all about.
MICHELLE THALLER: Is time real or is it an illusion? Well, time is certainly real but the question is what do we mean by the word time? And it may surprise you that physicists don't have a simple answer for that.
JAMES GLEICK: Physicists argue about and physicists actually have symposia on the subject of is there such a thing as time. And it's also something that has a traditional in philosophy going back about a century. But, I think it's fair to say that in one sense it's a ridiculous idea. How can you say time doesn't exist when we have such a profound experience of it first of all. And second of all we're talking about it constantly. I mean we couldn't get, I can't get through this sentence with out referring to time. I was going to say we couldn't get through the day without discussing time. So, obviously when a physicist questions the existence of time they are trying to say something specialized, something technical.
BILL NYE: Notice that in English we don't have any other word for time except time. It's unique. It's this wild fourth dimension in nature. This is one dimension, this is one dimension, this is one dimension and time is the fourth dimension. And we call it the fourth dimension not just in theoretical physics but in engineering. I worked on four dimensional autopilots so you tell where you want to go and what altitude it is above sea level and then when you want to get there. Like you can't get there at any time.
GLEICK: Einstein or maybe I should say more properly Minkowski, his teacher and contemporary, offers a vision of space-time as a single thing, as a four dimensional block in which the past and the future are just like spatial dimensions. They're just like north and south in the equations of physics. And so you can construct a view of the world in which the future is already there and you can say, and physicists do say something very much like this, that in the fundamental laws of physics there is no distinction between the past and the future. And so if you're playing that game you're essentially saying time as an independent thing doesn't exist. Time is just another dimension like space. Again, that is in obvious conflict with our intuitions about the world. We go through the day acting as though the past is over and the future has not yet happened and it might happen this way or it might happen that way. We could flip a coin and see. We tend to believe in our gut that the future is not fully determined and therefore is different from the past.
DEAN BUONOMANO: If the flow if time, if our subjective sense of the flow of time is an illusion we have this clash between physics and neuroscience because the dominant theory in physics is that we live in the block universe. And I should be clear. There's no consensus. There's no 100 percent agreement. But the standard view in physics is that, and this comes in large part from relativity, that we live in an eternalist universe, in a block universe in which the past, present and future is equally real. So, this raises the question of whether we can trust our brain to tell us that time is flowing.
NYE: In my opinion time is both subjective and objective. What we do in science and engineering and in life, astronomy, is measure time as carefully as we can because it's so important to our everyday world. You go to plant crops you want to know when to plant them. You want to know when to harvest them. If you want to have a global positioning system that enables you to determine which side of the street you're on, from your phone you need to take into account both the traditional passage of time that you might be familiar with watching a clock here on the Earth's surface, and the passage of time as it's affected by the speed of the spacecraft, and the passage of time as it's affected by the gravity of the Earth itself, both special and general relativities. It's astonishing. We work very hard to measure time with all sorts of extraordinary clocks, but there is no question with our brains which are wet chemical computers we lose track of time. We don't know if sometimes it feels short, sometimes it feels long and it's just the nature I think of being constrained by measuring time with our brains. This is why we build instruments to measure time outside of ourselves externally.
BUONOMANO: The brain has been telling time since the dawn of animal species. So even plants have the ability to tell time in terms of Circadian clock. So it's reasonable to ask so is that how the brain tells time? Does the brain have some oscillator that's ticking away and some circuit that's counting those ticks and tocks. The answer is no. The brain seems to have fundamentally different ways of telling time. So the first thing to notice is that while the mechanical clocks that we make, even your quartz watch, can tell time across a vast range of scales from tens of milliseconds to hours, minutes and days and months and years. So, the brain has many different clocks in order to tell the milliseconds and seconds and to tell the time of day. So one way to think about it is the Circadian clock, the clock that tells you what time of day it is and when to rise and when to go to sleep. That doesn't have a minute hand, much less a second hand. In contrast, the clock that tells you, the timing device in your brain that tells you hmm, this red light is taking a bit too long to turn. This traffic light is taking a bit long to turn or I think the waiter forgot my coffee. That clock doesn't have an hour hand, much less a number of days that have gone by. So the brain has different areas, different mechanisms in order to tell time. We don't understand, fully understand how the brain tells you what the tempo is a song is or when the red light is going to change. But it doesn't seem to have to do with any oscillator counter mechanisms. It seems to do with neural dynamics which is the fact that patterns of neurons, neurons are coupled to each other, neurons are connected to each other. And when you activate some neurons that group of neurons can activate another group of neurons which can activate another group of neurons. So you can have these evolving patterns of neural activity. So, this is consistent with what we call the multiple clock principle which is the brain doesn't have any master clock. It has many different circuits, each specialized or that focuses on processing time on one scale or another.
THALLER: One thing we are absolutely sure of is that the rate of time does change. Time is not just simply a progression like a river that keeps flowing. It can change depending on how fast you're moving through space and this is Einstein's special Theory of Relativity. The idea is that the faster you go, the slower time appears to be moving for you if other observers look at you going by. As you go faster and faster and approach the speed of light your time slows down more and more. And the amazing thing is that at the speed of light time does not progress at all. There are more everyday applications to this too. For example, the global positioning satellites that allow you to take your location from your smartphone. Those satellites are going overhead very, very fast. They're going nearly 20,000 miles an hour. And it turns out that that's fast enough that their time is slowed down. They're actually in a slightly different timeframe than we are. And we have to account for that. We have to correct for that mathematically. Otherwise, you would not get the right location. So, we know that time slows down. We observe this happening all around us. It was a really hard thing in modern physics about a hundred years ago for people to let go of the idea that time just has a rate that it flows. That, in fact, it can flow at different rates for different observers. Then there's the question of what is time related to space. And you may have heard that Einstein talked about a concept called space-time. He didn't believe that space and time were separate things. We certainly perceive them differently in our human brains. We can move through space, but time always seems to go just in one rate and in one direction. But Einstein thought they were part of a fabric, they were woven together. And one of the ways he illustrated this was that you have to adjust space and time so they always kind of balance out. If I am not moving through space, I'm sitting here still in this chair, then time just seems to go forward at a natural rate and time just flows. But if I start going faster and faster, my time slows down. So, in a sense I'm moving through space very fast so I can't move through time as fast as I might have. The two balance each other, space-time. If you move through space very fast time begins to slow down. And now something gets even stranger and that is that Einstein thought that the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang, created all of space and all of time at once in a big whole something. So every point in the past and every point in the future are just as real as the point of time you feel yourself in right now. Einstein believed that literally. One of his best friends died and he wrote a letter to this person's wife talking about how his friend still exists. Time is a landscape and if you had the right perspective on the universe you would see all of it laid out in front of you. All past, present, and future as a whole thing. And he said, you know, your husband, my friend, is just over the next hill. He's still there. We can't see him where we are now, but we are on this landscape with him and he still exists just as much as he ever has. Einstein believed that you right now had been dead for trillions of years, but you haven't been born yet. That everything that's happened to you if you could get the right perspective on the universe you could see all at once.
BUONOMANO: The present is the notion is that only the present is real. The past was real, the future some configuration of the future universe will be real, but for now only the present is real. In contrast the opposing view is called eternalism. Eternalism you have the past, present and future are all equally real. So, that makes the present just an arbitrary point in time or an arbitrary moment in time. So one way to think about this is now is to time as here is to space. So in the same sense that I happen to be here and some viewers are out at some other point in space and we're all comfortable with that notion that other points in space are equally real, in eternalism you have to be comfortable with the notion that other moments in time are as equally real as this moment in time and this is just an arbitrary moment.
GLEICK: And so if a physicist comes to me and says do some readjustment. Face it, the future looks different from the past to you, but actually physics tells us it's the same. I at least acknowledge that I have an obligation to take that seriously, to listen to it. And physicists do argue about these things and it's fair to argue about it.
THALLER: So modern physics has required us to really let go of the idea of time as something that just flows. We can measure that it's changing around us all over the place – satellites, particle accelerators, anything going fast. And it may be that space and time are the same thing all wrapped up together and it all exists all at once.
- Everything we do as living organisms is dependent, in some capacity, on time. The concept is so complex that scientists still argue whether it exists or if it is an illusion.
- In this video, astrophysicist Michelle Thaller, science educator Bill Nye, author James Gleick, and neuroscientist Dean Buonomano discuss how the human brain perceives of the passage of time, the idea in theoretical physics of time as a fourth dimension, and the theory that space and time are interwoven.
- Thaller illustrates Einstein's theory of relativity, Buonomano outlines eternalism, and all the experts touch on issues of perception, definition, and experience.
- From Science Fiction to Physics: Does Time Actually Exist? - Big Think ›
- New controversial theory: Past, present, future exist simultaneously ... ›
- Time Might Not Exist Outside of Our Minds, Propose Scientists - Big ... ›
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Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.