How long is forever?

The Illusory Nature of Time: I
Condensed from an article by Dr Grahame Blackwell published on The Institute of Noetic Sciences website, Nov. 2009.

“To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”
(William Blake)

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Summary

Science tells us that the universe kicked off around 13.7 billion years ago, give or take half a billion.

So what was going on before then?

We’re told that in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded at an exponential rate – doubling in size every instant, from the size of the tiniest sub-atomic particle to billions of miles across. This is the explanation offered for how it’s reached the size and form that it has. [See Inflationary Period.]

But all the evidence suggests that it wasn’t space, but time itself that was going through those dramatic changes in pace in those earliest moments. That fits the facts perfectly.

It also fits another very significant issue that doesn’t seem to have been factored in to the standard explanation. Relativity theory tells us that time slows down near a large mass such as star or a black hole – and the whole universe packed into a space much smaller than a pinhead was certainly a pretty large and compact mass. Time would have had trouble even getting started in those conditions.

Fortunately there was another factor at play, quite independent of relativity, that eased things up for time to get moving – once the universe had expanded to a sensible size. That leads us down a very interesting rabbit hole, one that may turn out to have no ending … and no beginning.

How far down that particular rabbit hole are you prepared to go?
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A long backward glance …

Ok, so let’s take a trip backwards down the corridor of time and watch the universe shrink as we head back towards the Big Bang (and beyond??), where the cosmos began as a point singularity (science-speak for “??*?!!”).

The usual measure of time these days is given by a caesium atomic clock, but that’ll be affected by gravitational forces as the universe reduces in size (see summary above) so we’ll sidestep conventional time measurement and go by the reducing size of the universe instead. We know that was a lot faster, measured against atomic processes, when the universe was very small (the Inflationary Period – backwards), maybe in this way we’ll see why.

[Technical note: The expansion of the universe isn’t time-based in the conventional sense. All other cosmic processes depend on electromagnetic energy flows, but universal expansion, as first discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929, isn’t driven by those flows. (We know that because it actually stretches electromagnetic waves). That’s why we can use it as an objective measure of the rate of cosmic processes – the rate of time.]

[Technical note 2: We’ll be counting distance in light years; one light year is about six trillion miles.]

Winding back the light years

Ok, we’re down to a universe 50 billion light years across now, we’ll start watching that caesium clock running backwards as the cosmos shrinks further. 49, 48, 47, 46 … the clock is sticking with us pretty steadily so far. Down to 30, 29, 28, the stars and galaxies are getting a bit closer together now – and is it my imagination or is that clock beginning to run a tad slower?

20, 19, 18 billion light years, stars definitely crowding in now – and yes, that clock is slowing down noticeably. Each billion light years is notching up distinctly less time on the clock, progressively as the universe is shrinking. Not surprising really, the combined gravitational field of all those stars in all those galaxies is getting stronger by the second (if we can still refer to seconds …), slowing that clock down.

Ten billion light years now, and now five … and that clock is positively crawling along, the gravitational time dilation effect is so strong. For every second that ticks by, the universe shrinks by ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times as much as it did in the same time a few seconds ago. We’re heading towards Big Bang Ground Zero at an ever-increasing pace, an exponentially increasing pace – according to our clock.

[For those who missed it, this is the Inflationary Period in reverse – that Inflationary Period can be fully explained by the gravitational slowing-down of time.] 

The universe is just a few thousand miles across now, the energy and mass of millions of galaxies, billions of stars, packed into a volume smaller than the earth. Not surprisingly, with such an absolutely astronomical (!!) gravitational field, our poor clock has pretty well ground to a standstill. We see no change in its reading at all as the universe pops back to that point singularity, then back to who-knows-where-or-what before that.

So sure, our universe may have existed for around 13.7 billion years by that caesium clock or a similar device. But that actually tells us nothing about the real age of the cosmos, since that clock would hardly have got moving until the universe was at least several million miles across. And whilst it was brewing in that point singularity – an infinite gravitational field – the clock wouldn’t have registered anything at all. So how long was that going on for??

This simple analysis offers a clear explanation for the so-called Inflationary Period. It wasn’t the universe expanding incredibly fast, it was time moving incredibly slowly – making it look as if everything was happening at lightning speed (or rather faster than that, in fact).

It also offers us much, much more. For that we need to think briefly about Geometric Series.

Infinity in a Blank Sheet of Paper

You know all about geometric series. You could make one now – all you need is a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors (or just a good imagination). Take your sheet of paper and cut it in half. Put one half to one side, cut the other piece in half again. Put one half of that with your original half-sheet and cut the other piece in half again. Keep doing that …

You should end up with a pile of bits of paper: ½-sheet, ¼-sheet, 1/8th, 1/16th, etc, etc. In theory you could go on for ever and end up with an infinite number of pieces – but you’d never have more paper than you had in that original sheet.

Just as we piled up a never-ending heap of bits of paper from a total of  just one sheet, so we can notch up a never-ending succession of cosmic intervals – each embodying major cosmic development - from 13.7 billion years of clock time. Those intervals show up as smaller, and smaller, and smaller on our clock as it runs ever more slowly backwards towards, but never actually reaches, the beginning of it all.

That point of origin that we think we can put a figure on might prove elusively forever just beyond our reach if we boarded our hypothetical time machine and confidently headed back towards Time Zero. Not because we’re getting slower, but because each successive ‘nearly there’ clock-tick stretches out to a century, a million years, a billion years and far, far beyond, of cosmic evolution in real terms. There was no Time Zero.

So Question: has the universe been around an infinite length of time or hasn’t it? Answer: You’re asking the wrong question. To treat time as if it’s an objective reality is to totally miss the point.

What this actually shows is that time is a construct of consciousness, a tool to help us steer our way through a realm that would seem truly weird if we could see it as it really is. This blog post is just an intro to that weirdness, time gets even weirder than that – see the next post. Similar sorts of observations can be made about distance. But that’s another story.

See two published papers [1] , [2] related to this subject.

“So are we privileged to navigate, with instruments of time and space, the measureless tracts of eternity.”
Quotation from Breath of the Cosmos.

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Photos by NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

8 Responses to “How long is forever?”

  1. Ian Dring says:

    Interesting article Grahame – this time dilation thing is a bit weird. Is it the case that within a frame of reference time is constant – it only changes (dilates) when you are making an observation from a distance or another reference frame.

  2. Reality Check admin says:

    There are two distinct types of time dilation in relativity, Ian (as I’m sure you probably know). The better-known one is relativistic time dilation, where two observers moving relative to each other see the other’s clock going at a different rate from their own. You’re absolutely right that in that case things only change in respect of events in another reference frame , i.e. another state of motion (according to current theory). I offer a comprehensive explanation for this, and a novel perspective, in my book Tapestry of Light.

    The second type is gravitational time dilation – that’s the one I’m referring to in my post. In that, time dilates (slows down) objectively for everything within the influence of a gravitational field. So, for example, you could have a clock near the ground and another a few hundred feet in the air (at the bottom and top of a tower, for example), and a static observer could watch both clocks and see that the one nearer the ground was going slower because of the stronger gravitational field nearer the earth (though they’d have to watch for a long time to see any noticeable difference). [Note that the observer would see the same effect whether they were by clock A, by clock B, or some distance from both.] There have been some quite clever experiments doing almost exactly this, in a more sophisticated way, that have proved this effect conclusively.

    In that latter case time is affected within that gravitational reference frame, and an observer in that frame will know they’re being affected – even though, for them, life will go on as normal, since everything around them is affected as well.

    I hope that clarifies things a bit – for you and for others.

  3. fostertom says:

    I have a postcard with the caption ‘Eternity lasts a long time – particularly towards the end’.

  4. Reality Check admin says:

    Excellent!
    (But which end?)

  5. fostertom says:

    The left hand end

  6. Reality Check admin says:

    Of course, how foolish of me!

  7. H.S.Pal says:

    CAN ANYTHING BE TIMELESS?

    Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it. Here are some examples:
    “G.E. Moore pointed out that if time is unreal then there are no temporal facts: nothing is past, present or future, and nothing is earlier or later than anything else. But, plainly, it is false that there are no temporal facts, for it is a fact that I am presently inscribing this sentence and that my breakfast yesterday preceded my lunch.”
    - Richard M. Gale
    [Book: the philosophy of time, edited by Richard M. Gale, Publisher: Macmillan, 1962, Chapter: Introduction to Section Two, The static versus the dynamic temporal, page 69.]
    …. [See full text of comment 'Can anything be timeless?']

  8. John says:

    I came late to this issue but am now fascinated by the implications for much of our post-Newtonian physics. My conclusion is that Julian Barbour et al are right and that all there ever has been is movement, time being a convenient short-hand notation based on our planet’s size and position in space. If time is suspect, therefore so is speed. But if speed is meaningless, so is acceleration. If acceleration is out the window, it just took with it our definition of local G. If a car is moving round the equator at 60 knots, mathematically all this means is that it is travelling at a speed of 1/15 (no units are needed) from the perspective of an observer stood on the equator. Why? Assume Earth has diameter D. Now replace nm with πD/21600 and hr with πD/24 and by very simple mathematics the result is 60 x 900 / 21600 = 1/15. It doesn’t matter where I position the observer, the result of a particular speed is always going to be a ratio.

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