The Constancy of Time

It seems that moreso the past year than in recent memory, I have heard a lot of discussions about the origins of the universe and the “where did we come from?” reflection. While I have no interest in the vitriolic exchanges that usually take place between competing viewpoints, it is certainly a topic to which I feel everyone owes attention. To just float through life unawares would seem to be a waste regardless of whether you believe we are the result of ongoing reactions in a system or a planned occurrence orchestrated by something we cannot define.

I understand that many who come down on the side of a God-less beginning do so from a perspective driven by observation and measurement. They may not have necessarily set out to disprove anything, but evidence collected using modern technologies and the scientific method seems to point them to an Earth and universe exponentially older than the one described in Genesis of the Bible. At the same time, much also indicates that time as we know it must have had a beginning. While this does not necessarily present a problem for the current existence of a supernatural, immeasurable realm, it’s easy to see how it could cast doubt on the timeline of the metanarrative presented in the Bible, which for some calls into credibility all of the book’s contents.

The scientific method works great in the present. Measure, find a pattern, apply it broadly, repeat. It has helped humanity to figure out lots of stuff from diseases to the very computer on which I’m typing. Extrapolation, however, is always risky. It introduces the assumption that things have always worked a certain way and will continue to do so. It’s not always wrong or unreliable, but the assumptive nature of it can’t be denied.

A wise physics teacher I had in high school once spent a class period showing us something that has stuck with me to this day. One after another, he showed us scientific studies that had defined trends. He vouched for the validity of the findings and their adherence to good scientific practice. He then showed us either follow-up studies or pointed out real-life examples where the “rules” discovered broke down under extrapolation. They held true fine through the range studied (or possible to be studied), but extended outside of that, they no longer held true. The point? Assumptions and extrapolation aren’t foolproof, but sometimes it’s the best you can do. And this from a physics teacher.

The interesting thing to me is that this has not occurred only in very specific small studies, but in physics in general. Everyone knew Newtonian physics could be used to explain the whole universe. That was just how it was. But past a certain point, it became clear that was no longer true. Newton’s laws could only be extrapolated so far before they failed, so along came quantum mechanics, which we now think can be used to explain everything material. We’re very smart with sophisticated technology, yes, but everything we “know” could easily fall apart past a certain point. It’s the nature of science. We do the best we can to describe the world, but in the end we’re really just measuring, establishing patterns, and extrapolating.

With this in mind, I began to think one day about the age of the universe. Ok, it’s billions of years according to measurements, etc. But the chief measurement in perhaps all of science is that of time. A second is the same now as it was yesterday as it was a million years ago as it will be in a trillion years. But how can we know that?

It’s a very trippy thought, but is it possible that the flow of time as we know it has not always been constant, nor will it always be constant? I can’t even completely wrap my head around this thought, but I do remember learning in physics that time is not, in fact a universal constant. The use of GPS satellites is a modern application of this. Time dialation must be accounted for to keep the clocks in precise synchronization with objects on Earth. It’s crazy, but true. Time as we know it, is not constant. There are equations to calculate differences in the rate of flow (obviously since that is used in the satellites), so we have a good idea of what this means. They work fine in that context, but again much beyond that is a matter of assumption.

So I wonder if this has ever been thought of with regards to the age of the universe. I’m sure it has, but then I also wonder why many scientists seem so sure of the numbers used and upon which so much is based. Could the billions of years purported since the “big bang” have been a much longer time as we perceive it? Or perhaps even only a few earth days? I think we have to admit that we can’t know since all we can do is assume the flow of time from our perspective has been constant, but as with most things, that’s the best we can do. If the flow of time were disrupted today would I even know? Will future generations know? Mind-blowing thoughts.

I’m sure this may spark some comments, but that’s fine; I’d like to hear what anyone else thinks about this. So has anyone thought about the ramifications of the non-constancy of time? Any reading on the subject? (This concludes my abstract geek musings).

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