Time is not what it seems...Lisha Zhong

Time passes differently in Cambridge. Weeks might feel like aeons while essays are ground through, and yet the deadline accelerates towards us, ever faster; the good is all too fleeting, the tedious drags inescapably. Term blends into term, year into year, memories are confused, or else mislaid – and all this amidst the short stretch between matriculation and graduation, seeming hardly more than a month or two. It must be said that the human perception of time is a litany of contradictions, quite totally illogical. Perhaps this is to be expected; it is, after all, inextricably internal, a sense more based on one’s own psychology than of anything manifestly real.

The factors that can affect time perception are numerous. Perhaps the most notorious is ageing: most people report that time seems to go faster as they become older. Why this is, is still not completely understood, though it is partially due to how the brain changes as we age. During childhood and adolescence, the brain constantly encounters new experiences, learning new skills. Then, as one gradually reaches a rut in adulthood, rarely breaking from routines, the resulting lack of mental structural alterations is thought to lead to changes in time experience. In the Cambridge context, it is rather like the phenomenon in which one’s first term takes a long while to pass: almost everything is new, each day a new skill learned, each evening new people met.

"In relativity, things behave much more differently: depending on your speed, objects can have completely different lengths, events can have shorter or longer durations"

Drugs also appear to have an intriguing impact. Again, while little conclusive research has been done in the field, most users of cannabis report that it very noticeably slows down the passing of time within their brains. It has been suggested that this relates to reduced blood flow through the cerebellum, a part of the brain closely associated with movement, as well as cognitive functions like attention.

The physicists, too, have tried to formalise time. The time one perceives is not obviously – in many cases not at all – the same as the ‘objective’ time of chronometers. They both seem to pass in the same direction, yes, but beyond this little can be said: biological time, with all its progressions in fits and starts, seems to be of a wholly distinct character to that of the carriage-clock. As physical theories of time have become increasingly unintuitive over the years, philosophers have often stood ready to deny the sensible identification of the two.

Newton, at least, was broadly unobjectionable. His definition accorded with the layman’s time: his formalisation of mechanics was built around a universal clock, a single standard by which seconds would pass, in any place and in any situation. His universe was one of raw determinism, largely simple intuition: with events occurring simply one after another, there was plenty of room to fit a God behind the scenes.

"It is a rare concept that entrances both the physicist and the philosopher, that exists on the fringe between us and nature, that can never quite be understood by either side except in terms of the other"

Relativity changed the story. It is usual to give credit entirely to Einstein, but many of the implications of the theory had been circulating for years in the scientific community. Much was largely implicit within Maxwell’s revolutionary formulation of electrodynamics, but it was only noted in retrospect; Lorentz had the formula as early as 1896, but he claimed it only as a mathematical convenience, as if not wanting to deal with the implications. Indeed, in large part, it was Einstein who, in one of his great papers of 1905, bestowed special relativity onto an unready world.

To speak of precedence in this context seems almost ironic; the destruction of temporal ordering is one of the strangest consequences of the theory. To give a brief summary, relativistic physics centres on reference frames, imaginary co-ordinate systems moving with constant speed with respect to which all things are measured. In Newton’s theory, location largely didn’t matter – for instance, throw a ball in a steady train carriage and it will travel, from your perspective, just the same as it would have done had you thrown it while standing on the platform. In relativity, things behave much more differently: depending on your speed, objects can have completely different lengths, events can have shorter or longer durations.


Mountain View

Poetry and the horror of time

The aspect of the theory that most provoked confusion, even anger, from non-physicists was its implications for the nature of time. It turned out that, depending on which reference frame you pick, one can often either perceive event A precede event B in one, and see event B before event A in another. However, if A and B were causally related, they were always bound to occur in the usual order. The intuitive strangeness of this was not lost on the thinkers of the time; many wilfully misinterpreted it, with ‘relative’ devolving into an empty buzzword. When done seriously, however, the debates could get quite acrimonious. In 1922, the eminent French philosopher Henri Bergson took on Einstein in a public debate, arguing that Einstein’s ideas could not sensibly be interpreted within the philosophical paradigm of time; the physicist curtly replied that in his eyes, “there is no time of the philosophers”. Later that year, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, but not for his work on relativity, which the Committee still took to be suspect; for now, the philosophers had won.

Cambridge is prone to provoking a fresh awareness of time; no doubt some part of it is merely the nostalgia of university days, but there seems, beneath the historic streets, to be buried a further subtlety. Nabokov described it well in his memoir Speak, Memory, written some three decades after his years at Trinity (studying, of all things, Natural Sciences): “I cannot help realising that, aside from striking but more or less transient customs, and deeper than ritual or rule, there did exist the residual something about Cambridge that many a solemn alumnus has tried to define. I see this basic property as the constant awareness one had of an untrammelled extension of time… nothing one looked at was shut off in terms of time, everything was a natural opening into it, because, in terms of space, the narrow lane, the cloistered lawn, the dark archway hampered one physically, the yielding diaphonous nature of time was, by contrast, especially welcome to the mind.”

"Cambridge is prone to provoking a fresh awareness of time"

I do not know if we are lucky or unlucky to live in Cambridge, a city forced to look to time for its dimension, a city at the crossroads of the scientific and philosophical interpretations. It is a rare concept that entrances both the physicist and the philosopher, that exists on the fringe between us and nature, that can never quite be understood by either side except in terms of the other; time is one of the few to have truly taken hold. Research continues in all of these areas, striving in earnest to prise free objective details about a concept almost impossibly ineffable.

To recast it all in two words: time flies. To go much deeper might only prove a distraction.


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