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The Story of Time

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An ancient tribe’s view of time

The Amondawa Tribe lives in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil and is only around 150 strong. They are left alone to live their lives as per their ancient traditions. A vital feature of this tribe is that they have a number system that goes up to only four, and their language has no abstract words for time.

The Amondawa mark events by names. Professor Sinha of the University of Portsmouth has studied the tribe. He says, “We have so many metaphors for time and its passing – we think of time as a ‘thing’ – we say ‘the weekend is nearly gone,’ ‘she’s coming up to her exams,’ ‘I haven’t got the time,’ and so on, and we think such statements are objective, but they aren’t.The Amondawadon’t talk like this and don’t think like this unless they learn another language. For these fortunate people, time isn’t money, they aren’t racing against the clock to complete anything, and nobody is discussing next week or next year; they don’t even have words for ‘week,’ ‘month’ or ‘year’.”

Readers might think this is strange, but the modern physics conception of time is equally astonishing. Isaac Newton formulated his laws of nature by assuming that there was a particular universal time. For Newton, there was, in some sense, a clock common to all places in the universe. When this clock ticked one second, it was the exact measurement anywhere in the universe. This is also how we usually conceive of time – as something common to everyone. If I say ‘two hours have passed,’ then you and I will assume that two hours also have passed for my friends in Kanyakumari and Srinagar. Three aspects of modern physics showed that Newton was wrong.

Einstein’s time

In 1905 Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity and in 1916, his theory of general relativity. The special theory showed that time is relative. Time intervals measured in two clocks that are moving relative to each other are different. The classic example is of two friends. One friend is travelling on a very fast train. The friend at the station will see the clock on the moving train and measure it as moving too slowly. One hour for the station clock maybe only 15 minutes as per the train clock. The friend in the train will similarly see the station clock as moving slowly!

The concept of time gets even weirder. Einstein’s general theory shows that actually space and time are even more closely related. The entire fabric of the universe is made up of a combination of space and time. Near a heavy object, this fabric of space-time bends, and a clock will tick more slowly. Modern physics theory says that near a massive black hole, time will almost standstill.

For those who think this is all wrong and nonsense, all modern navigation by aircraft and even the GPS positioning on our phones take into account Einstein’s calculations. Without these adjustments we would not be able to fly in airplanes and reach our destinations correctly.

Einstein’s time is sometimes viewed as a ‘loaf of bread time’ where the past, present, and future are all slices of a loaf of bread. All exist together.

Quantum time

Quantum mechanics is another theory whose benefit we use in all electronic and computer items. It is thanks to quantum mechanics that semiconductors work inside your phone or laptop. According to quantum mechanics, time is not continuous; it comes in tiny packets that cannot be subdivided.

Thermodynamic time

In thermodynamics (the study of heat) there is an arrow, a direction, of time. If you break an egg for breakfast, you cannot put the egg back into an unbroken shell. Thermodynamics says that the universe is like the breaking of an egg; it continuously moves into a state that is more messy and disordered than previously.

The continued mystery of time

Neither Einetsin’s theory with its loaf of bread time or quantum mechanics with its packet of time has any direction of time as thermodynamic time has. Einstein’s theory is shown to work superbly at high speeds. Quantum mechanics is shown to work precisely at tiny distances and scales. However, a resolution and combination of the two theories is still unknown and physicists have tried now for over 100 years to do so.

The physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, “Will we be able to understand things better in the future? I think so. We are glimpsing something about the mystery of time.” For Rovelli, time is an illusion. What we perceive as time does not, according to Rovelli actually exist. Rovelli says that we may be in a universe without time, that time emerges out of events. In a strange way, this is how the Amondawa Tribe lives – in a world without the invention of time!

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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