Time: the 4th Dimension (2016Nov26)


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Saturday, November 26, 2016                                          10:14 AM

One of the ways in which my inner ‘math geek’ expresses himself is by dating things. For instance, people born in the 1980s are in their thirties now, people born in the 1990s are in their twenties now, and anyone sixteen or younger has never set foot in the twentieth century. Any movie released before 1991 is over a quarter-of-a-century old. The Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies were premiered when my parents were toddlers. Most of the interstate highway system was built during Eisenhower’s administration—making it a little over sixty years old. No wonder we have infrastructure problems.

One of my favorite movie lines comes from “Kate and Leopold” (2001). Leopold (Hugh Jackman) having left Kate’s 21st-century apartment to wander New York City, comes across the Brooklyn Bridge, and wonderingly exclaims, “Roebling’s erection—he completed it!—and it still stands…” (which cleverly lets the audience know that Leopold was transported from the past, sometime between 1870—when construction on the bridge began—and 1883—the day the bridge opened).

The passage of time fascinates me. In studying physics, one comes to accept Time as a dimension—it is even used to name a distance: the unit of measure known as a Light-Year is the distance Light can travel in one Year’s time. That’s a pretty parochial unit-naming system, when we consider that a Year is defined as the time it takes for our planet to orbit the sun—a unit of time which means nothing to anyone from another planet—and other planets are the only things that are light-years away. Not to mention that our planet’s orbital time will increase with entropy over the millennia—a million years from now, a Year will be a different amount of time. Will we then change the unit-of-measure name, or its value?

Then again, all units-of-measure are iffy—that’s why there are institutions whose sole purpose is to maintain standards for a unit of measure. A gram was once defined as a cubic centimeter of water. But water is tricky stuff—and a centimeter can be measured using many different degrees of precision. Nowadays, according to Wiki, there’s a chunk of metal stored in a secure facility that represents exactly one gram.

It reminds me of the time I was a lab assistant at the Old Life-Saver factory in Port Chester, NY—it had been converted into the research and development labs for Life-Savers chewing-gum products. One of my duties was weighing a stick of gum (they had to have standard dimensions and weight) and they had an electronic gram-scale that was accurate to three decimal places. After tare-weight adjustment of the scale, I’d put a piece of gum on the weigh-in plate. The weight of the gum was displayed digitally—but it was not standing still—it was counting down. The lab-worker training me explained that the declining weight value was due to evaporation of water from the stick of gum—as the water left the gum, the gum got lighter. You had to round off the value—because the gum was getting microscopically lighter every moment. I suppose the Weights and Measures guys had similar difficulties when using water as a weight-related constant.

All units of measure are parochial and serendipitous—when you get down to it, science is a club—school is where you learn the secret handshakes. It is in the nature of science—it starts with labeling and categorizing and inventing words for measurement systems that never existed before someone in the lab needed to make measurements. Not that a lab is required—Euclid apocryphally drew his geometric diagrams in the sand—Oppenheimer and his team required a whole desert for their test-bench. We say ‘lab’ a lot, talking about science—it is the one thing that society never had before science—a laboratory. Obviously one doesn’t need a lab to do science—it was only science’s increasingly complex and stringent needs that required the laboratory’s invention.

And so I size things up—just as another person might estimate the weight of everyone they meet, or their shoe-size—by Time. Having read a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens, I’m familiar with the evolution of language over time—I can pin an author down to their century by dialect alone—down to their decade, for the more modern writers, who saw faster changes.

That’s another cool thing about time, with regard to people. It doesn’t just flow at a steady pace—in many ways it accelerates. Population growth, for example, can be a geometric progression, depending on the mortality rate and the average life-span. Celebrities don’t just plod their way to stardom—they explode into a ‘fast lane’ of success.

Technology, which builds on all of its previous work, can’t help but rush onward, almost faster than people can keep track—today’s professionals are required to return to school-classes, periodically, for the remainder of their careers, to stay current. Gadgets that once cost thousands of dollars now get given-away as free gifts—or remain, as standard-components in more advanced gadgets—data storage, processing power, ease of use—it all grows from its last best ideas—and it never throws out the good ideas—technology is in many ways a runaway train.

I’m not sure about acceleration being consistently ‘cool’, though. We have entered a time when things can change so fast that we lose ourselves—computer AI approaches the singularity; robotics destroys the labor market, creating a crisis for Capitalism; genetically-modified foods replace less-efficient seed stores, without the millennia of field-testing (you should pardon the pun) the less-efficient seeds contain in their genome; and genetic modification also looms over our own genetic heritage, offering us the chance for customized in-vitro improvement—with a side order of the risk of extinction.

Money used to be the limiting factor—our safety-line. No one could afford to build so many factories that the air itself would get dirty—no one could manufacture that many cars—no one could build so vast a fishing fleet that it would sweep the seas of life. No one could build so many fracking-wells that the state of Oklahoma would collapse in on itself. And Money kept us safe for most of the industrial revolution. But Time has stepped in and given Money a hand—that many factories, that many cars, that many fishing boats and fracking wells have been built—not by one greedy tycoon, but by thousands of ambitious capitalists over decades.

Like all accelerations, pollution and habitat-loss started out slow—hardly noticeable. But they’re really getting on their horse, now—a terrible time to elect a climate-change denier (if you’ll allow the non-sequitur). Time is becoming our hostile enemy—tipping points have already been reached—and worse ones are close behind. Yet climate-conservancy and habitat-preservation remain subjects of debate, rather than hard targets for global effort.

My own, personal time-line is inching towards its end-point. Unfairly, we who have created the mess will not live to suffer the consequences of our neglect. Time doesn’t give a damn about me—it was going before I got here and it’ll just keep on after I leave. And it will do the same to all of you—evaporating the water out of your old chewing gum, giving you children to raise, rushing you out existence’s doorway, without a moment’s thought to your own schedule.

Yet time is good. It adds an undeniably sweet flavor to our days and nights—nothing bad lasts forever, and if nothing good does either, that’s a fair trade, really. And it gives our minds something to play with—when we’re scared, the mind slows time down—when we’re happy, the mind rushes time right along, before you know it. And it makes a nice change from Height, Length, and Width, don’t you think?

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