Physics Unhinged


Plummeting into a black hole, the astronaut is swept beyond time, not only surviving the ultimate fall but encountering moments derived from his prior existence arrayed before him in a shape suggestive of higher dimension. Imagine your entire life receding to the horizon in a direction you never noticed before.

“If you go to a higher dimension,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining the science behind the black hole bookcase scene in the 2014 film, Interstellar, “it’s not unrealistic to think that you step out of the time dimension, and now you look at time as though [looking] at space.”

Just one problem with Tyson’s explanation: it’s not science. Nature offers no justification for the idea of time as a dimension tacked onto the three spatial dimensions in a sort of cosmic afterthought. In fact we have very good reason to reject the reduction of flowing existence to a four dimensional “block universe.” In contrast to time, which unfolds “moment to moment,” a dimension – an axis of space – exists all at once, in stasis, with no inherent dynamism. Though physicists offer an argument for why time has neither presence nor flow, it’s not an argument any reasonable person would take seriously. That the “relativity of simultaneity” originated with Albert Einstein seems to short circuit our natural skepticism of a notion of time better suited to religion or mythology.

“Events do not happen,” said theorist Arthur Eddington, a contemporary of Einstein. “They are just there, and we come across them.” Instead of happenings, events are simply points on the temporal axis of the block universe. By this view, whatever flow or presence we seem to find in time is projected somehow onto the static canvas of being from a confused and subjective “inner” movement. If time is like space – with past and future substituting for left and right – everything that happens is a lie, even consciousness itself, and the only truth is the timeless and intangible equations of physics that shape the world.

Every bit as insidious as the materialist reduction of mind to brain is the reduction of temporal flow to an Orwellian “time” without presence or past or future. Everything we are, including our freedom of thought and action, depends on a world where time is real, where the future hasn’t happened yet and only the past is set in stone. Not only materialism, which reduces consciousness to the operations of a causally determined organic machine, but mathematical idealism undermines the intrinsic value of life and all its qualities.

The trouble with time in physics began with Isaac Newton’s time-reversible laws of motion. As Newton discovered, the direction of time has no bearing on the equations that describe inertia, force and counterforce. Whether the reel plays forward or back, the action conforms to the same laws of nature. What unfolds in time seems to be determined by laws that do not themselves unfold, rendering time subsidiary to geometry and algebra and calculus and whatever else we can smuggle from the timeless mind of God.

Einstein’s equations of special and general relativity, which extend Newtonian physics to the domains of light and gravity, also operate just as well in reverse. But Einstein took it a step further by attempting to abolish flowing time altogether. The new time is merely a timeline, a representation of time already complete from end to end. As Tyson says, if you could step into a higher dimension, you would see your life as a “timeline laid out in front of you.” Instead of asking when you were born or went to college or died, “well, you’re always born… you’re always going to college… you’re always dying.” Just consult the relevant portion of the timeline, and there it is.

When Einstein took up the study of relativity, a mainstay of physics since Galileo, influential theorists of the day thought it conflicted with the constancy of light-speed. Galileo realized an object in motion does not require a force constantly acting on it but simply stays in motion. In place of a force accounting for motion, we have inertia; only acceleration (or deceleration) requires force. The laws of nature are thus the same regardless of the inertial motion of the reference frame from which measurements are made. So long as you move at constant speed (and you’re not spinning), your examination of events anywhere in the universe will reveal the same laws of nature that every other frame reveals. The meaning of relativity is that all inertial frames are equal before the law.

But what if the law is that the speed of light (without friction) is 186,000 miles per second? In this case, a spaceship departing Earth at, say, 185,000 miles per second still measures the speed of a beam of light at 186,000 mps. How can this be? Our initial response might be to question the lawful nature of the speed of light. But the implacability of light-speed in a vacuum was so well established by the late 19th century that this option was off the table.

So the physics establishment abandoned the principle of relativity in the context of light. Instead of every reference frame registering the same speed of light, there had to be a frame at absolute rest, and only from this privileged frame would the lawful speed of light be measured correctly. Theorists called this frame the ether, which they thought was composed of a subtle form of matter extending across the universe. If you’re motionless relative to the ether, you really are motionless and can therefore correctly measure light-speed. In any other frame, you’ll get the wrong speed.

Physicists sought a way to demonstrate that motion relative to the ether changes the measured speed of light. The result was the Michelson-Morley experiment, which took advantage of Earth’s rotation to determine if light emitted from a star revealed differing speeds depending on whether the star was approaching or receding from the location where the measurement took place. Incredibly, all they needed to carry out their measurements was a little box full of mirrors set at odd angles to each other. But no matter how many times they adjusted and repeated their experiment, Michelson and Morley never found a difference in speed between light from an approaching star and light from a receding star.

Led by Hendrik Lorentz, the physics establishment rose to the occasion. If Earth’s motion through the ether affects time and space so as to extend each moment while contracting distance traveled, this effect would conceal the distinction between light rays from approaching and receding sources. The ether was saved.

Or maybe not. Einstein’s genius was to adapt Lorentz’s concepts of time dilation and length contraction so as to preserve both the absolute speed of light and the principle of relativity.

Since speed is measured according to distance divided by time, stretching or “dilating” each moment keeps the measured speed of light constant regardless of the speed of the object measuring it. If we set aside the effect of length contraction, we’re left with a very simple (though inexact) formula. Because light in a vacuum must be measured at 186,000 miles per second, if your own speed is 185,000 mps – a difference of 1000 mps – your passage through time must slow 186-fold to ensure that you measure the speed of light correctly.

Einstein turned Lorentz on his head. Whereas Lorentz invoked time dilation to account for how motion relative to the ether distorts measurement of light-speed – making it seem the same from every frame when it should be different – Einstein reconfigured time dilation to explain how our measurements remain accurate regardless of our motion. Instead of abandoning relativity in the context of light, we just need some play in the flow of time.

To drive his point home, Einstein introduced a thought experiment in which lightning strikes a train traveling along a railway embankment on both the engine and caboose. At point M midway between the lightning bolts, they register simultaneously. Point M’ (m-prime) also lies directly between the lightning bolts except that it’s on the train instead of the tracks and therefore moving toward one flash of lightning and away from the other. For this reason, at point M’ the lightning that strikes the engine seems to precede the lightning that strikes the caboose. “Events which are simultaneous with reference to the embankment,” writes Einstein, “are not simultaneous with respect to the train, and vice versa.” Because simultaneity is relative to motion, “each frame has its own particular time.”

Let’s say you’re at rest on a couch. At some point you lift off and cruise to the fridge. According to the principle of relative simultaneity, while en route you occupy a different present moment than if you’d stayed in your seat. Stepping away from the couch, your present is ahead of couch time. Returning from the kitchen, couch time is ahead of yours. With one frame’s present alternately past or future to another frame, the orderly flow of time goes out the window. From here it’s a short step to time as a fourth dimension with no more inherent flow than the first three.

This is a far cry from the idea that time has some play in it. How did we get from time dilation as relativistic slowing of time to the banishment of temporal presence and flow? What are we to make of the relativity of simultaneity?

Let’s explain Einstein’s thought experiment to a bright and inquisitive ten-year old and see what kind of response we get.

“Well,” she says, “sometimes lightning comes in pairs. You see it on the horizon. You could totally picture a train between the lightning strikes, so one lightning hits the front of the train at the same time the other lightning hits the caboose. Simple.” But what about the guy on the train whose exquisitely sensitive recording device says the engine was struck before the caboose? “Well, duh, his stupid recording device gets it wrong ’cause he’s moving. He shouldn’t have been on the train.” So we smile and inform the dear child that motion is relative. Yes, you could say the train is moving, but you could also say the railroad tracks are moving relative to the train. “So what?” she says, gasping at our obtuseness. “The train is moving compared to the lightning. It’s getting closer to one lightning and farther from the other. The railroad is just sitting there, so it knows the lightnings happen at the same time.”

Aside from disclosing whole new vistas on nature, science has cleared up quite a few misconceptions over the centuries. Whereas a child might think the sun really goes up in the morning and down in the evening, we know Earth’s rotation creates this illusion. But when it comes to the relativity of simultaneity, the child is right and the genius is wrong.

Events that happen at the same time in a given frame of reference do in fact happen at the same time. If a light flashes in a car on a moving train – and the light fixture is centered in the car – the light will reach the front and back walls of the car simultaneously. If a camera on a railway embankment registers the back wall illuminating prior to the front wall, that’s because it measures the timing incorrectly. Instead of making the extraordinary claim that the train and the embankment occupy different times, we simply recognize that the motion of the embankment relative to the train distorts its reading.

To put it in relativistic terms, the fact that all inertial frames are equivalent when it comes to measuring light-speed doesn’t mean they’re also equivalent when it comes to measuring the timing of events. Where one is lawful, the other is literally happenstance.

While Einstein was right that no frame of reference is always preferred in relation to all other frames, the reverse is also true: all frames of reference are always preferred in relation to themselves. The correct frame for measuring the timing of a set of events is determined by the events themselves. In Einstein’s lightning scenario, the frame of the embankment is preferred since the embankment, unlike the train, is at rest with respect to the lightning. If a light flashes within a train and illuminates a pair of walls, the train is the preferred frame in which to measure the timing of illuminations. Ironically, Einstein’s approach is insufficiently relativistic. A given frame is preferred not absolutely or universally, as with the ether, but only relative to a given set of events.

What we have here is a classic case of 2 + 2 = 4. The light from the lightning bolts needs time to reach points M and M’. During that time, M’ moves a little closer to one flash and away from the other, disturbing its measurement of their timing. How Einstein, well aware of the finite speed of light, missed this stupendously simple point is a mystery. Why the physics community continues to ride his runaway train is an even bigger mystery.

By definition any two objects in relative motion occupy different frames of reference. If the present moment for one frame really differed from the present moment of another frame, how could they even detect each other? After all, we don’t perceive the past or the future; we perceive what exists right now. In a world of relative simultaneity, we would be like reptiles sensing only what’s motionless with respect to ourselves.

In a world where the present moment itself – and not just our measurement of it – is relative to motion through space, what’s to prevent a higher-speed object from reverting to a past moment relative to a lower-speed object? If an astronaut leaves his twin brother back home and travels through space so fast that a single year for him dilates to the equivalent of ten years for his twin, would he really return to Earth nine years younger than his twin? Given that every frame has its own present moment, wouldn’t he instead return nine years to the past of his twin? In this case, his twin wouldn’t even see him. Having regressed in time instead of merely dilating, he would be lost in history, a ghost in a world that ceased to exist long ago for everyone else. The reason this cannot happen is that simultaneity is absolute. No matter how fast it travels, no frame of reference can depart the universal present moment.

It’s not as if sending muons through a particle accelerator causes them to disappear into the past. We know from experiments that accelerating these subatomic particles causes them to dilate in time. Instead of regressing into a relative past, muons simply decay more slowly. Likewise an astronaut at high speed, rather than reverting to the past, simply ages more slowly while remaining in the same present as everyone else. Indeed, every experiment that verifies time dilation falsifies relative simultaneity.

Kip Thorne, the Cal Tech theorist who advised the makers of Interstellar, proposes adapting a wormhole into a gateway to the past. So, for instance, spinning one end of a wormhole near the speed of light would open up a time differential between that end and the unmodified end. By entering the wormhole through the unmodified end and leaving through the spun end, an individual would exit the wormhole before entering it. Aside from the obvious paradox, the reason this would not work is that the spun end has only dilated in time rather than regressing. Instead of a time differential between the two ends, Thorne’s wormhole would contain only an aging differential. The temporal effect of walking through it would be no different than walking around it.

But hey, I’m not a physicist, so maybe I’m missing something here. What would an expert say?

To put my thesis to the test, I wrote and circulated and revised and re-circulated a paper purporting to refute the relativity of simultaneity. I submitted it successively to several top publications, including Physical Review Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society A and Foundations of Physics. None of them offered anything like a coherent reason for rejecting the paper. Proceedings A even used the same external reviewer who’d already written a straw man response – demonstrating no understanding whatsoever of the paper – for Physical Review Letters. When I pointed out to the senior publishing editor of Proceedings A that the reviewer had simply recycled his irrelevant response, she saw nothing wrong with that.

In the end the International Journal of Fundamental Physical Sciences brought it out. Edited by an Iranian national and published online out of Malaysia, this journal is easily ignored by a Western establishment unwilling to recognize a longstanding error at the heart of its much-vaunted scientific worldview.

What Einstein did get right was the interpenetration of space and time. When we compare frames, whichever moves faster through space also slows in time relative to the other frame. On this basis Einstein’s math teacher Hermann Minkowski proclaimed that “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” Space is indeed a whole lot of nothing. But time is intrinsically real insofar as the present is inescapable. Like the speed of light, the current moment is absolute, i.e. the same from every frame of reference.

Einstein’s error on simultaneity relies on equating time itself with our measurement of it. The substitution of the meal with the menu was at one time a respected philosophy known as positivism, one of whose champions, Ernst Mach, exerted notable influence over Einstein. Instead of trying to uncover reality, says the positivist, let’s just make our measurements and leave it at that. If we measure the present moment differently for each frame, then each frame has a different present moment. QED.

Though today scientists claim to want to know what’s “really real,” positivism lives on under the flag of objectivity. In the scientific worldview, reality is equated with whatever can be observed and measured directly. The readings of cameras and clocks in different inertial frames cannot be questioned, for to do so would undermine the conviction that adherence to objectivity is what sets science apart. How can theorists committed to the supremacy of objective readings accept the reasoning of a child over the measurements of a mechanical device? Although flux, as philosopher Henri Bergson pointed out, is the “only immediate datum of experience,” science has chosen the myth of objectivity over the never-ending evidence of the senses.

Is it coincidence that Einstein and Minkowski’s Orwellian time-without-time cemented into place just as the atom was cut open and – within a few years – melted into probability waves? Instead of a stable substance underlying the sensorial world, we find fluctuating waves of probabilities. Perhaps by freezing time, physicists shield themselves from the uncertainty intrinsic to quantum flux. Even if most people think the world of the senses is severed from the weird world of the quantum, physicists know all too well that we inhabit a quantum universe, that the “classical” equations of motion and electromagnetism merely approximate reality.

It must be noted that the continuous “wave function” of quantum mechanics casts a radically different light on the flow of time. The familiar succession of discrete moments bearing definite events merely approximates time, concealing an ever-rearranging indefinite present, an “eternal now” masquerading as distinct moments. Time still flows but without a well defined break between past and present. Any experiment that seems to show the present influencing the past at the quantum level means only that the past is in some sense still with us, not that we’re sending a signal to the past along the temporal axis of a block universe.

The casual disposal of time in science encourages the modern trend to forget history and its lessons and to consume whatever we want without regard to consequences. If the future is already set, why fight it? If every decision we seem to make is determined by laws of nature outside space and time, why try to take command of our destiny? We may as well just squeeze whatever we can from the moment at hand.

These are scary times, and the last thing we need is to ignore tangible, flowing existence in favor of idealist fantasy. If we can’t overturn irrational thinking in science, how can we hope to restore sanity to our politics and economics? Whatever the outcome of this global experiment in technologically advanced civilization – triggered by material acquisition in concert with scientific investigation – the clock is ticking.

Ted Dace is an independent scholar. His critique of capitalism and science, Escape from Quantopia, was published by Iff Books. “Special Relativity in a Universe of Flowing Time” is available here. He can be reached at dace@muchomail.com.

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