Friday, October 27, 2017

What is Time, Anyway?

by Madeleine Kando

My mother died a few weeks ago, 2 days shy of her 104th birthday. She fell and broke her leg, which in itself would not have caused her death, but it sure made her decision not to stick around, very clear, both medically and personally.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the passing of time. Where is my mother now, I wonder? My mother Ata will live forever in the past, in my past, my memories. But since she no longer lives in the present and the present constantly morphs into the past, those ‘Ata pages’ are now blank and since the future is constantly collapsing into the present, her pages no longer materialize in the present. Ata’s time has stopped.

But why do I think of time as ‘passing’? Is it like a train that passes me by? A river whose water flows as I stand on its shore? And why does time flow only in one direction? According to experts, the reason for the arrow of time is the second law of thermodynamics (the law of entropy). There was only one way Ata existed and putting Ata back together again would violate the second law of thermodynamics. That’s why Ata no longer exists as Ata.

If you have time on your hands, I recommend you read Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. There are worse ways I can think of to pass the time.

Even though theories of time are excellent nourishment for my brain cells, it doesn’t help me understand it any better. Nobody really knows what time is, but it doesn’t prevent us from experiencing it. According to Aristotle, this is interlinked with our capacity to perceive change. If I were sitting in a dark room for a week without outside references, how would I know a week had passed?

But what constitutes ‘change’? Environmentalist Bill McKibben points out that our inability to respond to climate change is because we perceive change on a ‘human’ level, but cannot perceive change in the sphere of nature. We are ‘fatally confused’ about the nature of time. (Fatally Confused: Telling the Time in the Midst of Ecological Crises, by Michelle Bastian).

So, even though we don’t know what time is, we think we are in control of it by cutting it up into chunks, small and big. We measure change with our clocks and calendars, our internal biological clocks, our geological clocks, etc.

Once we go down that road, the questions we can raise are infinite: is my time the same as your time? What about an elephant? Elephants have about four times more time than we do, since they can live up to 300 years. But do they appreciate all that extra time, or do they take it for granted?

On the other hand, a mayfly lives only one day in its adult stage. If I were a mayfly, I would have to spend the morning drinking my mom’s milk, soil my diapers and learn how to speak, read and write. My one and only afternoon would be taken up by looking for a girlfriend, making babies and raise them while trying to save for retirement. My evening would be spent finding a good retirement community, take my daily medication and only during the last few hours of my life, would I have time to reflect on the meaning of it all. Does that mean mayflies appreciate their time more than we do? After all, we live about 30,000 times longer!

The longest living being on earth is the ‘Ming clam’. It can live up to 500 years. Can you imagine having 500 years to live? When a Ming clam is a mere 8 years old, we already spent most of our useful life, at age 48. At the height of the Ming clam’s puberty, we are all long dead and buried. And to vaunt its superiority, the lucky devil keeps on living for another 485 years!

Who cares about time, when you have so much of it? You can cruise along, violating the minimum speed limit, with not a care in the world. Did you forget about your best friend’s birthday? No harm done, there will be so many more. Being born a ‘Ming clam’, you live 200,000 longer than the Mayfly. But does that mean you appreciate your time more?

If this discrepancy between life spans blows your mind, let me tell you about the ‘immortal jellyfish’, a.k.a. ‘Turritopsis dohrnii’. When a Turritopsis is injured or starving, it converts into a blob and it undergoes transdifferentiation, which means that its cells change into other types of cells. This ability to reverse the biotic cycle allows the jellyfish to bypass death, rendering Turritopsis dohrnii potentially biologically immortal. It is literally the Benjamin Button of the oceans. I like this jellyfish. It comes closest to my vision of my mother’s immortality. After all, her cells live on in me and they will live on in my children’s children, and so on.

So you see, we consider time like an object that we can do with as we please. We can race it, kill it, make it fly, waste it, test it and so on, until we run out completely. Only then do we realize that time is like a precious gift. We don’t want to sweep it under the carpet, unused, misused or worst of all, taken for granted. leave comment here