This Saturday afternoon in December was a dismal and windy one. Sitting with Kay in front of the fireplace for a while, just watching the flames flickering, was pure contentment. Nothing much had to be done and, as we sipped our hot chocolate, nothing much had to be said.
I idly wondered what happens to a flame when it ceases to exist. If the lively flame at a certain place on a log should die out, but shortly from the same place on the log a flame should arise, would that be an utterly new flame or would it be a revival of the one that had been wavering there a moment before – that is, the same flame?
Kay interrupted this “profound” meditation with a well-calculated question. “Are you getting anywhere with the idea that time may be made up of itty bits?”
“I’m glad you asked me that question,” said I, grinning broadly with intentional triteness. “I’ve brought together a lot of reasoning that supports the possible discreteness of time. But the idea is probably one that only a parent could love. The notion that time actually comes in a rush of short bursts would likely strike most people as completely bizarre.”
“Try me,” she suggested.
I was about to launch my case when the house began to be pounded from outside by a swift and deafening whup-whup-whup-whup. We hurried out to the front porch and watched a big orange helicopter fly alarmingly low overhead.
Kay put her fingers in her ears and shouted her protest. “Why don’t they put mufflers on choppers? How do they get away with that infernal racket?”
As the whupping subsided into the distance, Kay exclaimed, “Oh look! Here come Jack and Marie. They look like they’ve been out walking. Let’s invite them in.”
Pointing to the departing helicopter, I called, “Hey Jack! What’s up?”
Jack waved his hand back down the street and explained, “The water’s plenty rough out there in the inlet. A small boat was being swamped. Search and Rescue must have called in a chopper for standby. We’ve been walking on the beach. It’s not too windy down there at the foot of the cliff, but the waves are really pounding in. I sure wouldn’t want to go overboard today!”
Kay said, “You must be chilled through. Come in for a hot cuppa – we’ve got a fire on.”
I added a few chunks of wood to the fire and we all settled down to enjoy the warmth and fresh coffee. When little more was to be said about the scene down at the inlet, Marie changed the subject.
“How are you and time getting along these days, John?”
Kay answered for me. “Just when that helicopter flew so low over the house, he was about to make a case for the idea that time actually comes as a succession of separate moments. Something, I guess, like the whup-whup-whup of that helicopter.”
I interrupted, “More like the tick-tick-tick of a watch, dear. Only noiselessly, like the silent flick-flick-flick of the changing pictures on a movie screen.”
“Sounds weird to me,” said Jack. “Everybody knows that time flows along smoothly from the past toward the future.”
“Jack,” I replied, “you wouldn’t believe how many famous thinkers long ago maintained that time doesn’t come along in an uninterrupted flow. Even some of the biggest names in modern physics have toyed with the notion that time, like matter, may be somehow ‘atomic.’ Would you like me to run through some of the reasons why I think time may advance bit by bit?”
In silence Jack just shrugged, but Marie said, “Please do. I always like to hear something new.”
“Okay,” I said, “here goes. Jack, you remember that Max Planck showed that action comes in tiny discrete parcels called quanta. Every engineer knows that work and energy calculations always involve time. A quantum parcel, the least amount of action, is no exception. Every individual quantum has to have its own quantic bit of time.
“Also as you know, atoms and subatomic particles are always vibrating. When they vibrate with a certain frequency, they radiate energy in vibrations and waves which also have their frequency. All such back-and-forth movements of particles consist of start-ups, slow-downs, head-backs and repetitions. Each such oscillation, however tiny, obviously requires a definite time interval.
“Whatever we do and whatever we sense depends on activity in our nerves. Nerves feed information to our brains and muscles by firing electrochemical impulses at a rapid on-off-on-off rate. Nevertheless we and things around us seem to move smoothly, not jerkily.
“And as you know, the motion in a so-called moving picture results from the projection of a series of slightly different still pictures onto a screen at the right time intervals. Also the integrated picture we see on TV results from a beam of electrons sweeping over scarcely noticeable, discrete phosphoric dots on the screen, activating them selectively.”
Marie joined in. “That’s like newspaper photos. When you look at them closely you can see that they are made up of scads of teeny gray dots. And, yes, you can see a sequence of dots or dashes as a line.”
I nodded in appreciation of her contribution.
“Since we know that so much of our world comes in detached micro-packages,” I continued, “I really don’t feel at all reluctant to be considering the possibility that time may also come on in much the same way.”
“You do make the notion sound sort of reasonable, I must admit,” said Jack. “But I can think of terrific problems that would keep me from buying the idea.”
“Such as?” I queried.
“Well,” Jack replied, sitting up a bit straighter, “if an object’s smoothly continuous motion should actually turn out to be a jerky, stop-and-start sort of staccato, the very foundations of mechanics would have to be scrapped. When things in motion are slowed to a stop, energy is lost. Once things have come to rest, getting them back up to their former speed takes the same amount of energy that it took to accelerate them up to that speed in the first place. To move something large by starting, then stopping, then starting and stopping it again every split second would require an unthinkably enormous expenditure of energy. To move and stop the tremendous mass of the whole world in such a jerky fashion would require an infinite supply of energy.”
I quickly replied, “If things could be recreated successively in slightly different places, they would appear to be moving. I imagine that creating things is quite different from moving them around by pushes and pulls. Anyway where did all the power come from that originally brought the universe into being and has been sustaining it ever since? Maybe the energy that is lost by momentarily stopping and starting the time process simply returns to the world’s perpetual source and is recycled to start things up again. Despite all that has been happening for ages throughout the universe, the physical sciences seem to be quite sure that the amount of energy in the world is always conserved. Maybe the energy lost through entropy – as you engineers know it – becomes unusable only for the same old action. That need not be a problem for the universe as a whole.”
Jack hesitated, then started off on a slightly different tack. “If mechanical motion is not interfered with, it seems to be smoothly continuous. There’s a law that says that moving things keep on moving in the same direction unless something interferes. Things don’t normally move by jerks and jumps unless some special device like, say, the escapement in a watch, keeps interrupting the movement. To maintain that all motions are actually being interrupted by break after break is to flout our ideas of momentum, inertia, gravity – and who knows what else.”
“Absolutely right,” I said. “If time actually does come in discrete bursts, our common understanding of mechanical physics – in fact, of the whole world – will have to be radically revised. Our present version of mechanics doesn’t really explain the persistence of momentum, the resistance of inertia or the attractive force of gravity, let alone the essential nature of energy.”
Since they seemed to be still with me, I continued. “The mechanical approach to the world has always taken for granted the reality and continuity of time. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe – its energy, matter, laws, space and time – does not offer any reason why those physical fundamentals should have persisted through the ages. Physicists don’t mind speaking about the beginning of time, but they can account neither for the origin of time nor for the way that time has been outpouring for billions of years.
“The best minds have never been able to give a rational account of motion – what happens between a starting point and a stopping point. Whatever goes on between those two clock readings is just lumped together or averaged out in a mathematical report. The rolling of a ball might be accounted for, however, if it were being recreated again and again in a different place from moment to moment, even though that wouldn’t jive with current science.”
Marie interrupted. “I think I would object to an ‘on/off recreating’ theory of time for personal reasons. I’m thinking about my own life processes, my bodily functions. They are continually on the move. My nerves, as you say, fire intermittently. The beating of my heart keeps my blood flowing. Nevertheless I am always me. Throughout all that physical activity I keep my own unique identity. Those nerves continue to be my nerves. When I clench my fingers around the handle of a heavy bag, I can hold on and carry it for a long time. I persist in being me.”
Marie was onto something that is humanly important. She continued. “Don’t tell me that, although I do exist just now, in a moment I will briefly cease to exist, only to pop up again and again! If I’m a ‘Now you see her, now you don’t’ sort of being, what maintains the connection between what I have been and what I am now? Even if the moments of my life have been a lot of … what shall I say? … separate beads of time, surely I’m not just a mere row of them. Somehow there’s got to be some kind of continuous string that holds all those beads together. Something has to give me my continuing personal identity, my continuing name and address.”
I didn’t want to interrupt her just then with any thoughts of my own on that subject.
She went on, “I remember all sorts of incidents from my childhood – intimate personal experiences that nobody else knows anything about. How come? It’s because I was that child and I still am that child. When I was eight I learned how to ride a bicycle. I can still ride a bicycle. For all these years my fingerprints have remained recognizably the same. My face and figure have continued to be uniquely mine. I am still me.”
Before I could attempt to answer, Kay posed a question that was a real stumper.
“John,” she said, “this on/off theory of time would provide a legal defense for someone who was charged with murder a year or so after the crime had been committed. I can imagine the accused claiming: ‘Even if the murder was committed by a person who bore the same name as mine and who looked like me, I am not that same person. Every moment is a new moment. After existing for a moment, each person immediately ceases to exist and at every new moment every person is a new person. Therefore I am not the person who committed that crime. I bear no responsibility for the murder. I am not guilty.’ If that kind of defense were allowed, what would happen to our justice system?”
At a loss for words, I could only say, “Obviously all of us are strongly convinced about the continuity of our personal identity. And I imagine we would also agree that the identity of our pets and possessions also persists. If time is to be accepted as quantized, we certainly have to ask what explains this obvious lastingness.”
After a thoughtful silence, Jack brought up another aspect.
“The words ‘moment’ or ‘moments’ that you use so easily, John, are too vague for my liking. Just how long is a moment? I understand that physicists are now quite comfortable with billionths, even trillionths, of a second.”
I could only shake my head. “Electrons seem to disappear from one orbit and reappear in another one at a different energy level so fast that nobody has ever been able to catch one in midflight. If the duration of that swift leap could be measured, I’m sure something more specific could be said about the duration of a quantum of time.”
That seemed to satisfy Jack, so I went on. “Maybe the duration of a quantic unit of time could be gauged by the highest possible frequency of electromagnetic radiation. Without time there would be no vibratory motions, so there would be no light or radiation to go anywhere at any speed. But I have never heard that anyone has discovered the highest possible frequency, the ultimate maximum.”
Jack had another question. “If you can’t tell me how long a moment is, what about the interval between two successive moments? The gap between two successive moments of time – is that time too? If so, how long does it take to proceed from one moment to another? Do the gaps between moments have the same duration as the moments themselves? When we clock, say, a second of time, are the gaps within that second also included?
“Here’s another toughie. If Planck and you are right, at least a quantic moment is required for any energy transaction to take place. If the interval between moments is truly vacant, no energy transaction can arise out of that interval. If absolutely nothing exists there in that void, what would give a start to the next moment?
“When a railway locomotive backs into a line of coupled freight cars,” Jack continued, “it sends a heavy shock wave banging car into car right through to the one at the end. But the banging wave stops there. It can’t affect an uncoupled car that’s sitting farther down the track beyond all the others. When a complete break occurs in a causally connected lineup, any impulse that affects things on one side of the gap cannot affect anything that lies beyond it. So the occurrence of a vacant gap in time would bring the history of the world to an abrupt and full stop, would it not?”
“I’d agree with you completely, Jack,” I replied, “if I were sure that your analysis had actually taken into account every factor in the whole time process. We’re dealing with an old problem here: the Big Bang theory cannot account for the coming-into-existence of the original speck that is alleged to have exploded and eventually become the universe. No matter how cosmologists trace cosmic development backward through time using physical laws and mathematics, they are brought up short just before the very beginning.
“Assuming that time was born when the universe began, few scientists will openly ask whether anything of significance might have gone on before the Big Bang. They have usually assumed that before the universe began, all that existed was – paradoxically – nonexistence! No space to be called ‘empty’, no change, so no time, just unthinkable nothing at all. But if that was so, scientists should freely admit that there was nothing in that primeval spaceless void which could have started up the first episode of the universe’s story. Could what preceded the Big Bang and the beginning of time have really been nothing at all?”
I paused to let the point sink in, then added, “Nevertheless the first moment of the universe did occur. Moreover, whoever or whatever started the time-process has been keeping it going for billions of years, gaps or no gaps. So even if the time-process actually does get suspended between moments, whoever or whatever gave time its beginning in the first place is still around anyway and still possesses the power which can give time a new start after any and all gaps.”
Jack was silent, but Marie had something she wanted to ask. “If there are gaps between moments, why can’t they be detected somehow?”
I shrugged and said, “No time-measuring instrument has been made yet that has fine-enough resolution to register time-gaps at the minuscule quantic level. I suspect that one never will be.
“Suppose you were always awake only during daylight hours, that you always went to sleep before sunset and never awakened until after morning had dawned. Under those circumstances you would never experience the disappearance and reappearance of the sun. Since you would never see a night, you would believe that the world is always full of light.
“Or if you and Jack keep looking into each other’s eyes and blink regularly at the same rate, time after time, neither of you will detect that the other has blinked at all.
“If time creates and recreates everything everywhere, any instrument which we might use to detect the gaps between moments would be undergoing a gap at the same time as everything else, so no gaps could be detected. Maybe that’s why we never experience time-gaps.
“As far as we know, the order of events in the cosmic process of time is the same no matter where in the universe an observer is placed. If different portions of the universe ever got out of step with each other timewise, the whole scene would become distorted. Large bodies would be skewed and strained to the point of destruction. Orderly synchronization of events would be impossible. That inability to mesh gears, as it were, would destroy the systemic unity of the universe. If observers and their instruments were functioning in a time rhythm quite different from the time rhythm of what they were observing, their and our knowledge would be hopelessly out of tune with a good deal of reality. So somewhat like the way a stroboscopic light seems to illuminate everything around it time after time at the same pace, time must be giving existence to everything everywhere at the same rate.
“This lockstep march of the universe – the synchronicity of its observers and their instrumentation – may explain why nobody can find gaps between moments of existence. I think it will be forever impossible to hear the ticking of the cosmic clock.”
Jack had been listening closely. “So you’ve come up with a possible explanation of why gaps in time could not be detected.” With a half-smile, he confessed, “I had been suspecting that no one has detected gaps in time because there aren’t any. Remember that story about the men in a wild west bar who couldn’t detect any hostile arm-movements by a boastful desperado who claimed to be ‘the fastest draw in the West.’ When he was challenged, without moving a muscle, the guy would say, ‘There! Did you see that?’”
“If empty intervals between pulses of time are undetectable,” said Marie, “then no one can tell how long any one of them lasts. For one quantic beat of time? Two beats? Many beats? Between moments of our time, there might be room enough to interleave states of affairs that belong to the story of some other kind of world – a world completely separate and different from ours. Such an alien world might not interact in any ordinary way with our world’s affairs. What a great scenario for a science fiction novel!”
“You should have been a writer, Marie,” I said, nodding my approval. “All sorts of events could be taking place undetected during a hiatus between quantic moments. Perhaps during the voids between quantic moments, the Creator is registering what has just happened. Maybe also during that pause new possibilities are being devised – detailed optional alternatives to be offered to every inhabitant of our world at the next created moment.”
Marie was enthusiastic now. “I can just imagine another world, an in-between world, or a sometime-later world, actually living out courses of worthwhile action which had once been available options for us, but which we rejected. Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I had made choices other than the ones I actually did make. Our counterparts in some other world may be gaining valuable information from our experience. Other beings in some other time scheme may be living better lives than ours, profiting from our mistakes and also from our attainments. Maybe a whole new world, one better than ours, is being put together elsewhere and elsewhen throughout our world’s history. What an exciting idea!”
Everybody laughed and gave her a round of applause. Marie’s artistic imagination was certainly taking hold of the notion of quantic time.
Kay spoke up. “I have a question, John. You suggest that each moment is a quantum of time. If ‘Now’ is only one more quantic moment, how is it that Now has such a special status with us? Something about Now claims our immediate attention. A busy mother may ask her little son to bring her the broom. Nothing happens. A bit later, another call. ‘Please, the broom, dear.’ The child plays on. Mom raises her tone a little and firmly adds, ‘Now!’ She then gets some action. How about that?”
“The nature of Now is a big subject, Kay,” I conceded. “There’s a lot more to Now than just being a moment of time. For one thing, we share each Now with other people and things. It’s only during a Now that any of them can make a direct impact on us and we can directly affect any of them. When a Now-moment drops into the past, it loses the power which it once possessed to make contact. When a dog is dead it can no longer bite.
“At this moment each of us is out of direct touch with our past. But we have a memory which provides a continuing, preexisting context for each Now as it comes. The contrast between our previous experience and the fresh perception of something new, present, and of somewhat uncertain import, gives Now a special status.”
Jack interrupted, “I’m afraid we can’t go any further into this right now, John. Marie and I have to get going. Michael has invited us to the Faculty Club for dinner.”
As they were going out the door, I said, “Michael always has a different slant on things. This evening you might tell him something of what we’ve been talking about. I’d like to hear what he has to say.” As they went down the steps, Jack turned and said with a grin, “Michael would probably sum up our conversation by saying that we had been discussing the difference between peanuts and peanut butter!”