Saturday, December 19, 2009

Time Travel Made Easy

Philosophy Now magazine, Issue No. 76, November/December 2009, page 33

We are all time travelers. Here’s how you can prove it to yourself. Look at your watch now and note the time. Then after you have finished reading this essay, look at it again. You will find that you have traveled into the future. (Note: Make sure your watch is wound!) Indeed, by doing nothing at all, one can and does move into the future.

How about the past? That’s easy too. Just open you eyes: everything you see is in a time previous to the present moment. For vision is a physical process in the physical world and hence takes time; thus by the time you become aware of something you are seeing, it is already in the past. Of course the time lag is infinitesimal. Even when you are looking at something at a distance of several miles, it is for all practical purposes instantaneous since light travels so swiftly. That is very different from hearing something distant, where the medium of air slows the passage of sound considerably.

But the visual effect becomes much more pronounced at night. If the sky is not overcast, simply peer with your personal telescopes, that is, your two eyes, at a star. You are now seeing years into the past. The very closest naked-eye star at night, Rigil Kentaurus (visible from the Southern Hemisphere), is over four years in the past. (The daytime star, the Sun, is a mere 8 minutes in the past … still, that is enough time for it to have gone supernova without your yet knowing about it.) At the top of the sky on a very dark night in November in the Northern Hemisphere you can just make out with your naked eye the Andromeda Galaxy, which is over two million years in the past.

So here we stand, forever moving into the future while forever peering into the past, without lifting a finger, or pushing a lever on a time machine. These are in fact oft-noted phenomena, although never enough to remove one’s fascination with them. My whole life is one of philosophical fascination with the phenomena of everyday life.

I wrote in a previous column (issue no. 41) about an alternative way of conceptualizing time that made time come to a complete and eternal halt. This time I would like to continue to play with the idea of traveling through it. I have in fact discovered a way not only to look into the past or drift into the future but to jump into the past or future and actually live among and interact with people of those different times. And again, it required that I do exactly nothing.

This took place just one year ago, on November 2 (2008). It was a dark and stormy night. (Well, actually I don’t remember.) I planned a jump into the future at precisely 2 a.m. But since I really didn’t have to do anything, I went to bed the evening before as usual shortly before midnight and slept right through it all. Upon awakening the next morning, I was confident all had gone as planned.

Still, to be sure, I needed some empirical confirmation. This came about unexpectedly as I went about my morning routine, which includes flossing my teeth. Since that is a somewhat boring activity, I usually wander over to a front window of my house while I am doing it and view the new day. On this occasion I was taken aback by an unusual sight: my neighbor across the street was climbing into his car to go to work. I had never seen this before because he goes to work before I am accustomed to get up, which is 7 a.m. But there he was getting into his car a little after 6 a.m. And yet I myself had arisen at my usual hour!

I was therefore watching the past, but it was also in “real time.” I had no doubt that I would be able to go downstairs (after putting on some clothes) and greet him as he was getting into his car. In the spirit of experiment, although at the risk of puzzling him, I could even reach out to shake his hand, without fear of there being a gigantic explosion, as if matter and anti-matter had made contact. True, we were now living in parallel but discrepant universes, yet we could interact without event.

I imagine my savvy reader has figured out what happened. It was time to set back the clocks to Standard Time, but I had simply left all of my clocks at Daylight Saving Time. By this means I was able to leap into the future (or the past, depending on the point of view), while letting everybody else do all of the work. The mountain went away from Mohammed, as it were.

My original motivation for doing this was not scientific experimentation but to hold onto that precious “saved” daylight. I had always lamented the loss of an hour at the end of the working (or playing) day come autumn. The “days” were already getting shorter, and this only exacerbated the gloom. Furthermore, it made me groggy for a week, analogous to jet lag. But by simply doing nothing, I was able to avoid all of that in one swoop.

There were also unanticipated benefits. For example, I would never be late for anything. Even if I should happen to be delayed en route to an appointment, or simply forget that I was living in a different temporal universe from everybody else, I would still arrive on time or even early. I could also “sleep in” if I were feeling especially sleepy one morning. All in all, it worked like a charm.

Tune in next issue for further adventures in thought by doing nothing!

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