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The elasticity of time

Benedict Cumberbatch reads an extract from Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time:

I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it. The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness … We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time. Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time. What could be more universal and obvious than this flowing?

In a physics laboratory, a clock on a table and another on the ground run at different speeds. Which tells the time? The question is meaningless. We might just as well ask what is most real – the value of sterling in dollars or the value of dollars in sterling. There are two times that change relative to each other. Neither is truer than the other. But there are not just two times. Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. The single quantity “time” melts into a spiderweb of times. We do not describe how the world evolves in time: we describe how things evolve in local time, and how local times evolve relative to each other.

Time is always moving at different speeds, a subjective interpretation.

It only takes a few micrograms of LSD to expand our experience of time to an epic and magical scale. “How long is forever?” asks Alice. “Sometimes, just one second,” replies the White Rabbit. There are dreams lasting an instant in which everything seems frozen for an eternity. Time is elastic in our personal experience of it. Hours fly by like minutes, and minutes are oppressively slow, as if they were centuries.

Before Einstein told us that it wasn’t true, how the devil did we get it into our heads that time passes everywhere at the same speed? It was certainly not our direct experience of the passage of time that gave us the idea that time elapses at the same rate, always and everywhere.

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By Wells Baum

Wells Baum is a daily blogger who writes about Life & Arts. He's also the author of four books.

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