Chapter 9. No Time Like The Present

“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” Holding high a big Black Forest cake ablaze with sparklers, Marie strode to the table with superb dignity while we sang in honor of Michael Coventree’s felicitously prolonged life. “Happy birthday, dear Michael! Happy birthday to you!”

And a happy occasion it was. Worth singing about. A Saturday afternoon barbecue in Jack’s backyard on a fine autumn day. The air had been aswirl with the tantalizing aroma of charcoal-broiled hamburgers and smoked salmon fillets.

While we were sitting around eating, Jack’s robust little Welsh corgi had been intensely interested in the meaty odors. The very incarnation of hope, Torgi would move quietly from one promising location to another, ready to go into action should something edible fall to the patio floor. Remarkably often something surreptitiously did.

The sparklers having extinguished themselves, Michael began to cut the magnificent three-layer cake into what seemed to me to be appropriately-sized portions. When Kay beheld my generous helping, she said, “Just half of that, please.” Marie echoed, “Me too.” As I received a big dollop of ice cream beside my ample slice of cake, Kay caught Marie’s eye, smiled a little, shrugged slightly and shook her head.

When the scrumptious dessert had disappeared and we were lolling back in our chairs, Jack decided to have Torgi entertain us. To get the dog’s attention, he broke a piece off an extra hamburger patty and held it high. When he called “Ready?” Torgi was all ears. With his eyes gleaming, the little guy, tensely shifting his sturdy front feet, half crouched and barked excitedly. Jack tossed the meat away up high over the lawn. Watching it all the way, the little dog made the right moves and, before it hit the turf, snatched it out of the air. Having gulped his catch, he quickly turned, gave an enthusiastic stiff-legged jump and barked again.

Jack gave a “Down!” wave and immediately Torgi crouched low and stayed there. From the woodpile Jack picked up an old tennis ball. Without looking at the dog, he shouted “Catch!” and slung it over his shoulder. Torgi lunged to his right and caught the ball easily. Drooling a little now, he brought it to Jack and expectantly backed off a few feet. This time Jack threw the ball directly at Torgi with some force. Again the little guy caught it.

We watched the dog catch throws from all sorts of angles. He could scoop up a swiftly rolling ball like a pro fielder. What a great sense of timing! Jack rewarded him with the remaining hamburger patty while we all clapped admiringly. Torgi’s stubby tail wagged all the way up to his burly shoulders. The little performer obviously appreciated our praise – not to mention the meat.

By then the sun was low in the sky and the air was getting cool. Marie thought it was time for us to go inside for coffee. Jack started a crackling fire in the fireplace. The cheerful blaze and good coffee soon kindled a lively conversation.

Jack was obviously pleased with the way the party had gone. He looked at the guest of honor and his eyes crinkled. “Michael, you ought to have more birthdays. We really should get together more often.”

Michael smiled and shook his head. “The years fly past too quickly as it is, Jack. But do we really have to wait for somebody’s birthday before we have a celebration? Every day we get is something to celebrate. I’m ready to celebrate with you as often as you wish. It’s been a most pleasant evening.”

I spoke up. “A month or so ago, Jack, remember, Michael tried to stun me with a volleyball. When we were chatting afterward on your lawn, you maintained that time itself never does anything. An hour anytime is an hour is an hour is an hour. But you’ll have to admit that this particular evening has been outstanding – yes, unique. This gathering can never be exactly repeated. By next year all of us will be older. Maybe some of us will be in poor health, have moved away or have changed our opinions. There will never be another occasion exactly like today’s. As they say, ‘No time like the present.’”

Kay agreed. “Unforgettable occasions such as this evening demand memorable attention.”

Marie added confidently, “Special moments can turn up at any old time.” She paused and looked dreamily into the fire. “A moment of insight … a glimpse of beauty … maybe an unexpected thrill of joy. For a couple of weeks … oh this sounds silly! … I’ve been trying to touch my toes with my knees locked straight. It seemed next to impossible. But yesterday, yesterday … I could hardly believe it … I did it! For me that was … a ‘momentous’ moment.”

“That’s great, a real achievement, Marie! I wish I could do that.” Kay continued with conviction, “Special moments are what make living worth talking about. Years ago on the radio we used to hear stories about a little girl, Maggie Muggins. Every day she somehow got involved in an unusual situation. First thing every morning she used to say, ‘Well, I wonder what will happen today.’ She just knew that the world already had developments under way that would soon present her with a new and exciting adventure.”

I was ready with my story. “The day Kay and I met at a football game is certainly one of my golden moments. Looking back, our meeting always seems like a miracle. Two unconnected lives, born in different towns, far apart, we had attended different schools and colleges. The probability that we would ever meet was exceedingly slim. That particular meeting in the bleachers one Saturday afternoon at a university football game unexpectedly brought our two life courses together. That certainly was, as Marie put it, a ‘momentous’ occasion. When we feel sentimental, we sometimes reflect on how our life-stories worked out so that we seemed to belong together. We choose to believe our meeting was arranged by divine providence.”

Michael, a bachelor, changed the subject abruptly. “Jack, the way Torgi…”

Immediately the dog sprang to his feet expectantly. Michael made a gracious apology. He hadn’t meant to disturb the dog. Jack signaled “Down!” and Torgi subsided with a sigh of disappointment.

Michael continued, “I was about to say that the way little What’s-his-name’s brain works is something truly wonderful. To catch a thrown ball, he has to be at the right place at the right time ready for the snatch. His brain must quickly and automatically compute the ball’s direction, speed and angle of descent, and all the appropriate muscles of his legs and jaws have to cooperate and move together to the right extent. That’s a tall order.

“Every successful catch he makes is an example of another kind of special moment, a remarkable moment when the dog’s jaws and the oncoming ball meet and lock together. Not too soon, not too late, but timed just right. That coordination is wonderful!”

Marie furthered the thought. “Watching world-class athletes getting set to perform gives me the same kind of feeling you get watching…” – she pointed to Torgi – “…little Whosits here play catch. Take high divers! They have to leave the springboard with exactly the right force to gain the right height to allow them to somersault, twist and jackknife their bodies, yet have enough time to straighten out and hit the water head first with scarcely a splash. Talk about timing and coordination! For them every successful dive has to be a special occasion.”

Jack had an engineer’s perspective. “When people step into a brand new car, they feel good about how everything looks so clean and smells so fresh. I’ll bet that very few of them ever give a thought to all that had to happen before they could take possession of their new vehicle. For months and months all sorts of different processes had been under way in many different places. To provide metals, ore had to be mined and transported by ships and trains to smelters. Metals and plastic resins had to be supplied to factories all over the world and turned into car parts. Those parts had to be brought together for assembly and had to fit each other exactly. While all those activities were proceeding, streams of contracts, work orders, reports, invoices and paychecks were flowing through offices. Eventually a selection from the shiny new models had to be appropriately distributed to far-flung dealerships. In my opinion, any organization that can coordinate all those independent but parallel processes to provide someone with a car that suits them has got to be one of the wonders of the world!”

Michael nodded. “We’ve been praising the coordination achieved by dogs, athletes and manufacturers. But consider the coordination of all the systems that keep a dog alive, or an athlete or…” – he glanced toward Jack – “…an engineer. Hands and feet, arms and legs, won’t work without a skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive system, excretory system. All of these must be working together, each in its own way, at the same time.

“Moreover each organ in every one of those systems depends upon what happens in its own cells. Each cell is a busy factory with separate regions producing thousands of enzymes and proteins. Every second a cell’s nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria and half a dozen other features carry out hundreds of chemical reactions. And all of those different processes are somehow orchestrated to keep the cell itself going, while building another cell and making a special contribution to the whole organism. Furthermore, to grow a new and living cell, a whole roster of harmonious substances from various locations has to arrive at an existing cell and be available at the right time under absolutely ideal conditions.

“Each atom of those substances has a nucleus with electrons whirling around it in various orbits at inconceivable speeds. How do they all manage to keep out of each other’s way? I’m filled with wonder when I think of all those different high-speed acts combining in such a tiny space to become the stable, long-lasting molecules that form the complex cells of the various organs. And those organs all work together in the various essential systems of a living organism.”

Jack added, “That’s the way it is too with an office building. It has to have ground to stand on, transportation access, parking, structural units, accessible work spaces, ventilation, lighting, heating, water supply, sewerage and weather proofing. All those systems and more have to be in place and working. If something goes wrong with their total coordination the building is in real trouble.”

Marie stood up. “It won’t function either without a business organization and workers – and coffee. Which reminds me that we need some more coffee.” She picked up the carafe and headed for the kitchen.

Knowing that I was eager to ask Michael what he thought about my latest approach to the nature of time, Kay realized that this break for coffee could give me an opportunity. She gave me a little nod and followed Marie into the kitchen. I got the message.

“Michael,” I said, “we’ve been talking about the way a lot of things work together to form complex systems. I’m sure you’ll agree that the universe as a whole is a gigantic system of systems and that the configuration of the whole cosmos is always changing. I have come to call that ongoing all-over change process ‘cosmic time’. I’d like to get your opinion about the way I’m trying to conceive cosmic time.”

“Okay,” he said agreeably, “tell me.”

“It’s not simple,’ I said apologetically. “You’ll have to be patient. Here goes.

“As I remarked a while ago, a car manufacturing company has to have many kinds of processes under way at the same time in a number of different places. The universe too always has an inconceivable number of activities and processes going on at the same time. Wherever they occur, some event in each of those processes will inevitably coincide timewise with some other event in every one of the other current processes. Of course no one could specify exactly which events in that multitude of processes are truly simultaneous, but I think it makes sense to consider that all simultaneous momentary events, wherever they may be situated in the universe, are parts of one and the same momentary state of the entire universe. I call each of those states a Now-state.

“I think there are good reasons to believe that the states of the cosmic change-process come into being successively, state after state. In each Now-state each single item occupies a specific place in relation to its fellow components. As state follows state, however, the relationships between things and between groupings of things gradually or quickly change. Now-state after Now-state, no previous overall pattern of things-in-their-places is ever repeated exactly. Each new Now-state is therefore different from all previous states. This overall change process which is always going on throughout the whole universe is what I mean when I think of cosmic time. Do you get the picture?” I queried.

“I get the idea all right, John,” Michael nodded “Have you run into problems with it?”

“Yes, and that’s what I want to talk with you about. I understand that physicists are not comfortable with the notion of ‘simultaneity’ or even with the idea of ‘Now.’ If that is true, how could they take kindly to my idea of momentary universal Now-states?”

His bushy eyebrows bunched together in a thoughtful frown. “Well, I suppose that for physicists time keeps going on and on at an even pace, and any period of time is believed to be just the same as any other period of the same length. Being uniformly invisible, time in itself doesn’t bear any distinctive marks that might designate a certain moment as different from all the rest. Equations derived from the laws of motion all involve time, but they don’t specify any particular occasion which could be called ‘Now.’ The laws of motion apply equally well on all occasions. The laws of nature are valid at all times.

“Physical theories are not affected by the particular ‘time of day’ shown on a clock. What people choose to call ‘Now’ depends on their own private, subjective decision. Everything in physics, including time, is supposed to be objective and impersonal. So the notion of ‘Now’ is out.”

Jack interrupted. “That may be true for theoretical physics, Michael, but it certainly isn’t the case with experimental physics. Suppose you want to run a certain process for a certain length of time or until a certain effect appears. When you’re sure that everything is right and ready, you have to decide when to push the button. ‘Okay – now.’ You start the process running and, simultaneously, a timing clock starts. While you are waiting for a certain phase or the end of the process, you have to be poised, ready to decide ‘Now’ and to simultaneously stop the timing clock. Now and simultaneity both occur in experimental physics.”

“That’s right, Jack.” Michael agreed. “In astrophysics, however, the distances are so immense that the celestial scene usually appears to change extremely slowly. ‘Now’ has little significance when it refers to what seems awfully permanent. The ‘fixed stars’ and all that. You’re right, though. We do have to move telescopes, take time exposures, and work by a standard time. As observers we do have to think ‘Now.’”

I was ready with a further query. “Michael, I think of time as a succession of states of the whole universe. The components of each single state coexist simultaneously with each other. But I keep coming across writers who confidently say, ‘Einstein showed that the notion of simultaneity is meaningless.’ Those statements just don’t make sense. Einstein would have acknowledged that at least on a narrowly local basis simultaneity is meaningful enough. After all, if he was on board a train, both he and the train had to exist simultaneously. What I want to know is, does my conception of simultaneity within a universal state of the cosmic time process conflict with Einstein’s qualms about simultaneity?”

“Einstein,” he answered, “was simply saying that, when we observe events which happen at astronomical distances from each other and from us, we can’t tell for sure whether or not those events actually happened simultaneously. We don’t know for certain how far away any stars actually are, so, although we know the speed at which light travels through space, we can’t tell exactly how long ago a certain celestial explosion took place or whether two such explosions actually occurred simultaneously. But because light takes time to travel, we know that the time a star exploded and the time we received its blast of radiation couldn’t be the same. Light travels faster than any other speed we know, yet we talk in terms of ‘light-years’ of time lag. So Einstein was simply stating that it’s useless for us to speak of the simultaneity of events which occur at uncertain distances.

“But I should say that, while it may be impossible to know whether or not distant events occurred simultaneously, that doesn’t necessarily mean that distant events cannot ever take place simultaneously. It’s just that we can’t ever prove that they did or didn’t.”

Jack looked a bit dubious. “So you think that events out in space can be simultaneous, Michael. If you had to justify that opinion to your colleagues, how would you go about it?”

Michael paused, then asked Jack for a pencil.

“You want paper too?” he asked.

Marie was coming back with the coffee – just in time to hear Michael say, “No paper if you’ll let me draw on your rug.”

A look of alarm crossed her face. Obviously she didn’t want any unsightly markings on her spotless short-nap carpet.

Michael quickly added, “I’ll use the eraser end of the pencil. Don’t worry.”

Jack eventually produced a respectable pencil while Marie refilled our mugs. Chairs were brought from the dining room and arranged in front of Michael so that we could watch what he was about to do.

Suddenly our friend took on the role of Dr. Michael Coventree, seasoned professor of astrophysics. Clearing his throat, he began a mini-lecture.

“I want to convince you that there must be moments of simultaneity across the entire universe even though exactly when they happened, are happening or will happen cannot be specified. Einstein spoke from the standpoint of an observer who is receiving light from distant sources. Instead I want to start with the sources from which light arises and starts traveling.”

With the eraser end of the pencil he roughed up a quarter-sized patch in the carpet. When the lay of the rug fibers was disturbed, a somewhat darker color appeared.

Pointing the pencil at the spot he had made, and continuing in an authoritative professorial tone, Michael said, “That represents a point source of light – say star A.” Two feet away he ruffled up another spot. “And this over here in distant space is star B. We could have as many sources of light as we’d like, but let’s keep it simple for now: just two.

“Now let’s turn on source A. Imagine light radiating out in all directions from this star. It is emitting a succession of wave fronts at intervals corresponding to the frequency of the light. Each wave front is like a spherical electromagnetic bubble which expands at the speed of light in all directions from its center of origin.”

Drawing a circle about a foot and a half in diameter with A as its center, he explained, “This is a slice through one of the ‘light-bubbles’ emanating from source A. It represents a single wave front emerging from center A.”

Then, continuing to draw, he said, “Meanwhile, over here star B has also been radiating spherical wave fronts. Eventually one of them, say, this one” – and he drew a circle centered on source B – “will encounter that one which came from A. See, at a certain moment the two circles reach each other and coincide at this point X. Since the speed of light is constant in all directions, every point on this whole circle from A must have been on the go for the same length of time as the portion at point X. Similarly every point on the circle from source B has also been on the go for the same length of time as the portion at point X. Since point X belongs in common to both circles, at the moment when circle A and circle B meet and coincide at point X, all of the points around both circular wave fronts must be occurring at the same instant – simultaneously, that is. Remember, those circles represent only slices through what are actually spherical wave fronts. Therefore at the moment the two wave fronts encounter each other, any point on either of those two light ‘bubbles’ must be coexisting simultaneously with any and all other points on both of the two wave fronts.

“In the same way throughout space at any single moment, vast numbers of such wave fronts from an uncountable number of sources are mutually encountering one another and moving on to meet up with hosts of others coming from all directions. No one can say at what clock time any of those wave fronts was emitted or met another, but that makes no difference to this reasoning. Neither does the impossibility of establishing the exact relative locations of the light sources or their distances apart. Whether a meeting of particular wave fronts is or is not detectable by observers cannot change the fact that these kinds of simultaneous coincidences must be taking place.

“Thus at every moment the vast volume of the universe is being crisscrossed by a different, ultra-complex, ephemeral web of simultaneous intersectings of spherical wave fronts. Although no distant section of any of these fleeting lattices can be precisely dated or located, each of them is nevertheless part of one great manifold of simultaneities – a universal moment of cosmic time. For as long as stars have shone in the heavens, these manifolds of simultaneous meetings and coincident events have been occurring.”

Reverting to a conversational tone, Michael smiled and said, “That’s what I’d tell my colleagues, Jack. And each of those lattices or manifolds of simultaneities would, I think, correspond with what John means by a state of the universe as it changes with cosmic time.” I reached for Michael’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Our eyes met and I quietly and sincerely said, “Thanks. That was magnificent.”