My subject is Father Time. He’s undefeated and likely to remain so. Even Mother Nature cannot successfully handle Father Time. Time is very difficult to define. I’ll just say it’s what happens between then and now. Learnered volumes have been written about it. It’s very hard to say if it had a beginning or will terminate. Time may have existed before the Big Bang. No one really knows. Some physicists devote their whole career to its study. Sean Carroll is especially well known for his work on the subject. I’m a casual observer who likely has little profound to offer on the subject, but I’ll spout off anyway.
Carroll made an interesting observation: “The universe has no need of God.” That may be true, but man may. This alternative doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. Proof of His existence and His necessity are two different issues, only one of which is in the domains of physics. But this piece is about time and God exists outside of time, especially if you’re not a physicist.
So what about time? It rolls along like Old Man River no matter how complex physicists make it. Irrespective of when or if it began, it seems unlikely to stop. Thus inevitably the stars will exhaust their fuel and go dark. This may take an unfathomably long time, but it will happen. Big deal – we’ll be long gone as a species when the last candle turns to smoke or whatever the final moment is made of. Even the black holes which populate the universe like monkeypox will wither and fade. You can worry about all of this if life is not throwing enough haymakers at you, but no matter what everything in the Universe including the bureaucrats will die, all save time.
Time is so multifaceted that we’ve made it into a dimension as well as a measuring device. Heavenly bodies are light years apart which of course makes the issue of intelligent life on planets other than ours precious. If life is a billion light years away it really isn’t there. Father Time will forbid an exchange. We’ve even made time a 4th dimension. Though most of us would have a lot of trouble explaining space-time. And it’s not even constant. It appears different to observers at different velocities relative to each other. Time is a tough guy.
Then there’s the question of how big is the universe? Physicists believe that the universe expanded at an inconceivably rapid rate soon after the Big Bang – cosmic inflation. Note there’s no violation of the maximal speed of light in the expansion – it was the universe itself that expanded and it’s still doing it. Light just went along for the ride. Since this expansion happened about 13.8 billion years ago the farthest we can see is no more than 13.8 billion light years. This is why no matter which direction we look we seem at the center of the universe. Its true size is likely much larger, there just hasn’t been enough time for its light to reach us. So we could be anywhere in the cosmos.
Physicists used to think that time began at the Big Bang, but today they can’t even define exactly what the Big Bang was. They’re not sure if the universe started or has always been here. They can’t reconcile the two basic theories that undergird the universal structure – general relativity and quantum mechanics. Quantum gravity remains a chimera. Richard Feynman’s observations that no one understands quantum mechanics and that universe is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can imagine proves truer with every wink from Father Time.
Ernest Rutherford’s quip that, “All the science is either physics or stamp collecting,” seems spectacularly naive, notwithstanding his unqualified scientific greatness. Interesting was that his Nobel Prize was for Chemistry not Physics. Biology, particularly neuroscience and genetics makes physics trudging along with Father Time seem an engineer trying to build an atomic reactor with a slide rule. Physics becomes both more interesting and trivial every day. The multi billion dollar telescopes give great pictures that are almost as good a Van Gogh. And time imparts value to stamps.
Andrew Marvell‘s take on time is timeless.
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run