I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019]. We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time. Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life. Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains. Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts. Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’. We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it. Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’
Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.
This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months. I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester. Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes. Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated. So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.
Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it. Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’. Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.
Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.
Technology enables us to do more in a period of time. A classic example is the washing-machine that requires you to do little more than load your dirty clothes and switch it on rather than laboriously wash, scrub and rinse each item repeatedly. It costs less time to do the same thing and so we experience time-deflation. It’s the same as with money: if you can buy two hamburgers today for the price of one yesterday then there has been some deflation. In these circumstances, it becomes less important to have a large income because the necessities of life have reduced in price, and so you could work less hard, start saving more (but for what?) or buy some of life’s luxuries. However, the analogy between time and money breaks down at this point, because you can’t reduce your supply of time or save it, you have to spend it. But advancing technology means nearly everything costs less time and so it gets harder and harder to spend your alloted time. Many of us react by trying to do more and more diverse activities, and often simultaneously, with the result that we over-compensate for time-deflation and become bankrupt, or burnt out wrecks.
We can cheat technology’s deflating effect by pursuing activities that involve no time-saving technology such as walking, reading, thinking and spending time with our loved ones. In the last case, the clue is in the phraseology!
BTW – I will be on deep vacation by the time you read this post. Amongst other things, I will be curing my tsundoko by reading the books I bought in Camden Lock Books earlier in the summer [see my post entitled ‘Tsundoko‘ on May 24th 2017].
“In the quantum theory of gravity, time becomes the fourth dimension to add to the three dimensions of space (x, y, z or length, width and height), and Stephen Hawking has suggested that we consider it analogous to a sphere. Developing this analogy, we imagine time to be like a flea running around on the surface of a ping-pong ball. A continuous journey, without a beginning or an end. The ‘big bang’, frequently discussed as the beginning of everything, and the ‘big crunch’, proposed by physicists as how things will end, would be the north and south poles of the sphere. The Universe would simply exist. The radius of circles of constant distance from the poles (what we might call lines of latitude) would represent the size of the Universe. Quantum theory also requires the existence of many possible time histories of which we inhabit one. Different lines of longitude can represent these histories.
If you are not already lost (the analogy does not include a useful compass) then physicists would give you a final spin by dropping in the concept of imaginary time! Maybe it is time for the flea to jump off the ping-pong ball, but before it does, we can appreciate that it might move in one direction and then retrace its steps (or its hops if you wish to be pedantic). The flea can travel backwards because in this concept of the Universe, time has the same properties as the other dimensions of length, height and width and so it has backwards as well as forwards directions.”
This is an extract from a book called ‘The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business‘ that I wrote sometime ago with Bob Handscombe. I have reproduced it here in response to questions from a number of learners in my current MOOC. The questions were initially about whether the first law of thermodynamics has implications for the universe as a closed system (i.e. one that can exchange energy but not matter with its surroundings) or as an isolated system (i.e. one that can exchange neither energy not matter with its surroundings). These questions revolve around our understanding of the universe, which I have taken to be everything in the time and space domain, and the first law implies that the energy content of the universe is constant. The expansion of the universe implies that the average energy density of the universe is getting lower, though it is not uniformly otherwise we would have reached the ‘cosmic heat death’ that I have discussed before. However, this discussion in the MOOC led to questions about what happened to the first law of thermodynamics prior to the Big Bang, which I deflected as being beyond the scope of a MOOC on Energy! Thermodynamics in Everyday Life. However, I think it deserves an answer, which is why reproduced the extract above.