A completely unqualified collection of thoughts about moving sideways through time
The residents of line-land are obsessed with ordinality. In line-land, the one dimensional universe created by Edwin A. Abbott in Flatland, the order you are born in is the order you live and die in. There is no way to get out of it, because to do so would require spatial width, a passing lane to go around others, a second dimension. The residents of line-land share sci-fi stories about changing order. They imagine what it would be like to “hop the line” and wonder; if you changed order would you find yourself next to yourself in line. They call this the “place in line paradox”. For those of us who know width, changing order in a line is utterly boring. And no, you never find yourself next to yourself in line.
A point is a one dimensional object. If you place several points next to each other you create a line. If you take multiple lines and place them next to each other you get a plane, Flatland. Multiple planes next to each other, the three-dimensional world we live in. But, temporally we live in time-line-land. We have no temporal width. I was born after the death of Janis Joplin, but before the death of Curt Cobain. I cannot change that order of things. But that is not because of some universal failing. It is simply how we live in this universe, we who are stuck in time-line-land, a condition to imagine over, obsess over, something to write about in our science fiction and fantasies.
For those who have temporal width, changing order is utterly boring and without paradox. You and I agree to meet at 1:35pm local time on April 1st in New York City, at West 57th and 7th Ave. You give me the exact GPS coordinates down to the third decimal place, so we won’t miss each other. That is a lot of information, but we still miss each other. How? Height. I was on the first floor of the building, you were on the 40th. These are the potentialities of our existence. We need to intersect in time, length, width, and height before we have to face the limitation of physics that says two objects can’t exist simultaneously. But those who can move horizontally or vertically through time can change order. We can miss each other even with all that information, because you had been there at that time, then left, and then I showed up in that time and you weren’t there. No big deal.
Here’s another way to look at it. I live on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. I see the sun set behind them daily. Right now I look at the mountains, at 6:50am. It is impossible for me to be in Vail, Colorado anytime before 7:00am. Even if I had a helicopter on the roof and ready to go it would take longer than that. That is because, for me, space and time are knotted together. I need to move forward in time to move legnthwise, widthwise, or heightwise in space. Uncouple those, and it is perfectly reasonable for me to move not only westward to get to Vail, but also sideways through time, hopping across the strands of timelines laid next to each other to create width. “But Mr. Ingram, doesn’t that mean you can exist eternally if you can travel through time,” one of my students asks. No more than you can exist in all places in the universe because you can travel through space. You are a discrete piece of the universe. You have limitations.
I have spent the last few months trying to devise a better calendar. I narrowed it down to only two factors, the spin of the earth (our day), and the orbit around the sun (our year). These must be respected, but everything else (weeks, months, hours, seconds) is all arbitrary and can be changed. After trying to figure it out, I have come to two problems I do not have the capability to overcome. First, our ratio of day to year is 365.24218967 to 1. This is a cosmological fact no amount of figuring can change. The earth revolves 365.24…. times for every orbit around the sun. Second, that .24218967 means that when the earth gets back to it’s spot in orbit, we are about five hours and 48 minutes short on the rotation. These two things cannot match up. I imagine the tricks necessary to get them to match up, and now look at the calendar and understand how it is what it is.
How should we think about time? Rather than the loaf of bread model put forth by Nova, where time and space are inextricably linked (to move through one you must move through the other), think of time as a form of falling. There is a mathmatical calculation for gravity and how quickly one would fall towards a point of mass. What if our universe is falling through time? Once you reach terminal velocity, it feels constant, it feels unbending. But when you fall, as if out of an airplane, there are things you can do. You could open a chute. You could spread yourself out or curl yourself up. You can use other physical forces (friction, aerodynamics, lift) to mitigate the constancy of your experience of gravity. What are we falling towards and how could we possibly put a temporal parachute on the universe? No idea.
We could think about time instead like we are a tiny bug born on the surface of a fast moving stream. We cannot slow the river or fathom the forces that keep it moving. We can only move left and right and up and down in the water. As we live and breathe and act there are tick marks on the bank of the river that tell us a year has passed, or fifteen million years. We can try to swim upstream, but we would need to approach the speed of the stream to even slow down those passing tick marks. And we would need to exceed the speed of the stream to move backwards at all, or be lifted up out of the water to stop in time. We believe this to be impossible because we are tiny tiny bugs and it is a big stream. And yet, we are smart enough to see eddys, and spots where the topography of rocks appears to modify the speed of the river. The flow is not constant, except from the point of view of our existence.
We obsess over time because we are trapped in it, but only because we are trapped in it. Time is no big deal except to those who can do nothing about it.