The River of Time: What’s its Direction?

The “River of Time” is a commonly used model of the passage of time where time flows in one direction. But in which direction?

The River of Time

The “River of Time” is a commonly used model of the passage of time where time flows in one direction. The analogy allows a lot of play, for example, you can scrabble out of the river, run along the bank and re-enter time at a different place in the river. Or cause swirls and eddies within the waters of time. Or drown in it. There are lots of applications of the model and many authors have written may good novels based on them.

The model sounds simple enough – but I think there’s a more complicated undercurrent; which direction does the time flow?

Bridge over troubled waters

Earlier this week I was on a walk with my family through a small forest, in which was a river. OK, I’m exaggerating – I’m living in Holland so vertical gradients are famously small in this flat land. So let’s redefine and call this a small barely flowing stream of water.

The main point is that there was a bridge over it, and the main point of that, as far as my daughters are concerned, is that we can chuck bits of wood into the water on one side and wait for them to appear downstream.

Bear in mind that both I and my wife are marine scientists and have therefore spent many moments discussing turbulent eddy flow, bottom friction and boundary effects in order to optimise our winning strategy.

But on this particular occasion, to be blatantly honest, I had other things on my mind, such as – I’ve just been offered a new job which takes me not only outside the realms of marine science, but well and truly outside the realms of my house. Relocation is well in order, so as such you’d have found me standing on the bridge staring upstream wondering what the future held.

And that’s what brought me back to the river of time. Which direction is the future?

River of Time: Where is the Future?
River of Time: Where is the Future?

Is it upstream where I’m looking at the water which will be arriving at the bridge?

Or is it downstream where the water flows on towards its destiny, towards its future?

Maybe it depends on the direction of view, or relativity. Considering the water, upstream is where it’s been so this direction represents its past. And vice versa.

Traditionally, we move from the future to the present and then to the past. But if (for example) we consider the year 2019 as the future, 2018 as the present and 2017 as the past, doesn’t this description of flow seem a bit out of kilter?

I think the key is in the case of the stationary bridge, or the fixed point of the present, we’re not immersed in the flowing river of time. We have a relative motion compared to it, but only one of us is moving. If I overtake a stationary car, it looks like that car is moving backwards when this isn’t necessarily the case.

A few years ago I wrote this post: Follow the leader where I showed that looking at the x-axis of time shows that the relative positioning of time (earlier / later) is counter-intuitive.

Perhaps the same holds here with the river of time.

Sieze the Day

As I stood on the bridge wondering about my future, I heard my girls giggling in excitement. And I realised that perhaps I should be more concerned with what the present holds.

Nothing drove that point home more than when I cycled over to the bridge a couple of days later to take these photos. There were no giggling girls and there was no laughter as there was in the past. Just an empty bridge and the waters flowing on and on…

Ghosts of the past
Ghosts of the past

Paul

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The worst day of my life. Again please!

It’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions in time travel – to what time and place would you like to travel?

It’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions in time travel – to what time and place would you like to travel?

I always thought I’d like to travel to the future. Things have already happened in the past, and I think (I’m still open to the idea) that the past cannot be changed. The dogs are sleeping – let them lie. So let’s get over whatever happened (or didn’t happen) and move on. Let’s take a peek at the future instead and see what’s in store! Surely that’s more exciting!

But then the question was asked again over on the Goodreads time travel group, but this time posed with a slight difference; the trip is limited to travelling to the past – but you can travel there 3 times.

Now that puts a different spin on things! Although I’ve already posted my answer on the forum, I wanted to (re)post it here because maybe it might give you a little insight into who I am.

So here it is:

When I’d like to go 3 times…and why

I’d relive the worst day of my life 3 times over – the day when my youngest daughter fell off a climbing frame, hit her stomach on the way down and stopped breathing.

Time both froze and zoomed by all too quickly.

My worst day
My worst day

I was holding her, and watching all of her 3 years of life rush before my eyes as her little body went stiff and arched backwards, eyes rolling upwards and going white.

My smart phone took too long to unfreeze, for me to find the phone symbol on my smart phone, to key in 999 and get connected, and to answer the preliminary questions before an ambulance was dispatched. Time crawled.

At the same time, time was passing all too quickly – every second she wasn’t breathing was a second’s worth of oxygen that her brain wasn’t getting. A second closer to… I didn’t want to think about it, but I was.

Thank God she miraculously started breathing again. (Apparently children “often” – the ambulance man told me – stop breathing as a panic reflex to trauma.) Onlookers said she drew breath again quickly, but for me it was an eternity. And thank God she came through fine and healthy.

Could I have done anything differently? Avoided the accident, helped her more and more quickly? What did I learn during this ordeal that should it happen again I can help her more effectively?

3 more trips back to those terrible moments would help. They’d get my hands shaking again as they did the first time around. My throat will go dry again as I panic, and my heart will beat like the clappers leaving me in near paralysis as I hyperventilate. An ironic p*ss take when my little girl is taking in no air.

But I’ll learn, and I’ll do better. I’ll learn.

I’ll learn.

Maybe I can’t change what’s already happened in the past, but I’ll be able to change the future.

Paul

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Should you change the past?

“What would you change in your past” is a common question, but often not much thought is given over to the morals of changing the past. This article explores whether we should change our past at all.

“A change in my past?”

I recently posted this link on the time2timetravel Facebook page. In that video the question is asked: What would you change in your past?

It’s an interesting question. Though I think I probably have a different angle on it – Do I want to change my past? or even, should I change my past?

I have two concerns. The first is fairly obvious (I think); if I change my past then my current no longer exists – a current which for the most part I’m pretty happy with. I had to go through some messy relationships, for example, so that I could become the person I am today who my wife loves. And have my children.

Evolutionary caution

Admittedly this the same argument that pro-evolutionists provide in response to the idea that life as we know it exists in a very small Goldilocks zone: we can live only within a very narrow window of environmental conditions – exactly the right temperature, atmospheric composition, gravity strength, etc..

The reason, they say, is that life evolved to fit into this environment, the same way that the shape of a puddle, for example, fits exactly with the ground on which it lies. Change the shape of the ground, and the shape of the puddle will adapt and change.

In a similar way then, it can be argued that my own evolution in time – how I changed and reacted to events in my history (read “temporal environment”) means that I’ve simply adapted to it and end up ‘placed’ in my present.

I met my wife because she’s the one who was at the same place at the same time that I was. If my history was different, I’d have been at another place at another time and met a different lady and I might have fallen in love with her instead.

My marital status, and with whom, has adapted in the same way as the puddle that’s sitting comfortably on the ground.

Changing my past then, means I’ll evolve into someone else who either won’t be loved by my wife (from now), or even won’t love her. Or simply that I wouldn’t have even met her. So no loss with a changed history as I’ll have some other woman (or let’s be conceited – let some other woman have me).

Even though my no wife may not mind (as the same applies to her temporal environment too) I find this an egocentric point of view, and unacceptable…which brings me onto my second issue – changing my history changes other people’s histories too – and I don’t think I have the right to do that.

Morality or mortality?

The movie “About Time” and a time travel novel I recently reviewed (Buckyball by Fabien Roy) both cover issues where children no longer exist thanks to a historical change. Not just different children, but actually not there. If I’ve removed their presence, isn’t that akin to murder?

The get-out clause is that these children never get to exist so who have I murdered? But…they already have existed (see why why time travel grammar gets tricky?!) so I still maintain that such a change in history would be unethical.

Am I being too strict here? If I change history then people die (or at least, never get to exist). It’s true that the other side of the coin is that other people get to exist who wouldn’t otherwise exist – but I think it’s pretty obvious that creating babies to justify murdering others has a very dodgy moral foundation.

Are we really in control?

Perhaps my issue is made clearer if we put the shoe on the other foot and rephrase the original question. Lets change it from “What would you (or we) change” to “How would you feel if the Government was able to change history?”

Or the military. Or your idiot next door neighbour?

Feel safe? I don’t. It’s a loss of control.

Whilst Buckyball is more to do with reliving history than changing or rewriting it, it does touch on the idea that your present can be taken away if someone else is in control. It’s a worrying thought.

So changing your past? Yeah, you can do that, but then a second later someone else might change theirs and that might affect yours. Better to go last then, I think. Better to wait and let all the chips fall and see where they lie before making any decisions.

Or maybe we should just wait indefinitely…

Of course, the above arguments assume that whoever is in control of the time travel technology is also in control of the changes and the effects of those changes. It’s easy to imagine a version of the present which we’re not happy with, whether it’s instigated by ourselves or by a third party. That’s been the subject of countless Hollywood time travel movies. We’ve been warned.

Personally, I think that generally we should take responsibility for our actions in the past, and leave the past well alone.

Living with the consequences…

But I also acknowledge that it’s true that sometimes we need to deal with the consequences that others have caused and I guess that this is where the grey area makes itself known. If some idiot politician orders an army to raid a town or village then why should the families of those innocent victims have to live with it? Then I think messing about with the past to harmlessly fix other people’s mistakes might be justified.

But that’s the time travel version of a first aid bandage. I like the Alex’s philosophy in Sherrie Cronin’s z2. Alex maintains that from now we have the capability of creating and shaping the future which lies ahead of us – and ahead of others. That makes now really important because it’s effects can ripple forwards in time indefinitely.

…or creating new ones?

I’ll finish with a quote from Churchill who saw history from a futuristic viewpoint:

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”

Or to paraphrase: “I’ll write my present so that my future will be good to me.”

Shouldn’t we all just agree to leave the past alone, and concentrate on creating a new and better future?

What do you think? Are there morals involved when it comes to changing the past?

Paul

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A non-existent school past

A non existent high school alumni group points to whether I have a past school life and asks whether my memory of it is simply a figment of my imagination.

At the end of the movie The Shining the camera closes in on a 1921 photo which shows current hotel guest Jack Tottance who had throughout the movie been going crazy and communicating with ghosts. Although it seems to be up for discussion, one of the implications of the photo is that the Jack that we’ve been following in the movie in the present is either a ghost of the past or a reincarnation. In effect, Jack does not fully exist in the present.

I think I’m ‘victim’ to a kind of opposite event.

not quite a school reunion
Ghost of the past.
Image credit: http://illusion.scene360.com/movies/72675/stanley-kubrick-film-inspirations

I found that there was an alumni group from my secondary school on Facebook and I thought it might be interesting to check it out. It’s a closed group so I asked the owner if I could join. We were in the same class in primary school and then moved up together to senior school and although we never kept in touch afterwards I figured she might remember me.

She didn’t, and it took a couple of emails to remind her convince her of who I was am. Finally my membership ‘application’ was approved and I was free to browse through the photo album.

Over 400 photos had been submitted. Some were random shots of the school building – ‘proper’ photos which had been taken with a 35 mm camera taken to a chemist for processing and developing and picked up, likely with 23 or 35 others, some two weeks later. In time this photo had aged like us school pupils, and faded a little before it was scanned with a technology 30 years more advanced and uploaded to a server so far away it’s in a different time zone. Unheard of back in 1983.

Today, sepia is an effect applied digitally to photos to make them look aged. There’s no need for that with these photos from 30 years ago! The school had a presence. The reddish brown gives a sense of foreboding just as it had in real life when I was there. Looking at those photos you’d know it housed nightmare teachers. I wondered what had become of those teachers – the ones who told me I had no hope, but more importantly the ones who believed that I did and supported me. (Mr Holiday, I salute you, sir).

I could see from the photos that the sizes of some things were smaller than they used to be. The railings used to reach my chest, for example, but today’s memory translates that to a height higher than it really is. I can see now that it’s waist height. The trees at the back of the playing field were smaller than I remembered too. Not because they have been growing (or shrinking) since but because I’ve grown since. There’s a funny one – I grow and my memory shrinks.

Changes in apparent size or sepia-induced sense of foreboding didn’t apply to the photos of my classmates. Fixed focus cameras held by excited hands of 11 year olds in moments of fast excitement meant a lot of fuzzy faces through lack of focus.

Lack of focus“. Yeah I think that appeared on my report card. I never did find history interesting.

Over 400 photos bringing back lots of memories and lots of feelings. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t in one of them. Not even in the class photo taken at the end of the year. It’s as if I wasn’t there. Ever.

Out of interest I sent someone on the group a friend request, and rather quickly the reply came – “Sorry, who are you again?”. Was I even at school? Are all my days of education a figment of my (or someone else’s) imagination? Perhaps; I remember my teachers who favoured closed-book exams used to say it was good to have things in your head…

OK, I can’t remember the future, but what about remembering a past for which there seems to be no evidence? Time: they say it heals everything. Some things that did happen in my school are probably best forgotten. Some of the twatty kids too – it’s just that I never thought I’d be one of them.

And here’s another odd thing: I started drafting this post several months ago. And now that’s it’s ready I returned to the Facebook group to pull out a photo.

And the group doesn’t exist any more.

Paul

PS: Yes I know – a blog post about a Facebook group which doesn’t exist and if it does then I didn’t…

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Que sera sera. Is Destiny really Fixed?

Darth Vader and Doris Day would make a good couple – they both believe the future is fixed. If that’s the case, the need for time travel may be under question. What do we expect from time travel if our destiny is fixed and the past cannot be changed?

Darth Vader and Doris Day would make a good couple – they both believe the future is fixed. And if that is the case, the need for time travel may be under question.

Que sera sera – Whatever will be will be.

Or as Darth Vader said…It is your destiny.

The future is fixed. You can’t change it. Get a grip and deal with it. Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be.

it is your destiny
Darth Vader: It is your destiny.
Image credit: destinationhollywood.com.
whatever
Doris Day: Que sera sera. Whatever… Image credit: dorisdaytribute.com

The sentiment behind que sera sera seems to be in line with one of the golden rules of time travel; that the past cannot be changed.

What has been, has been.

If the past cannot be changed, and the future is set, one might argue what is the point of time travel? Indeed, a philosophical question.

Maybe time travel is just there for the observational voyeuristic element.

That would certainly account for the lack of time travellers seen wandering amongst our hours and minutes of the present…although the Star Trek “Prime Directive” which nuttles down to respecting non-interaction between those who can and can’t, rears the silent head of a big brother who’s watching over us.

But would observation be good enough? Why travel through time when all we can do is hear and see but not do anything? What good is waking up and smelling the coffee if we can’t take a swig and truly experience the taste of it?

Then again, Luke Skywalker didn’t follow the destiny as described by Vader, did he?

Maybe we can control the future, even without a time machine.

Just wondering…

Paul

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Tea with a dinosaur

Perhaps we don’t understand or know about history as much as we think we do!

Perhaps we don’t understand or know about history – or at least dinosaurs – as much as we think we do! 🙂

More tea (with a dinosaur)?

Paul

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A decision back in time

Do we have a free will when we make a decision with time travel? Is the past fixed, and the future a set fate or destiny? The linear model of time doesn’t account that knowledge of the future affects the past, when even logic would suggest that is so. Alternative (multidimensional) models, such as those given by quantum mechanics would perform better. The future is yours. So is your history!

A thermodynamic solution

Lightning follows the simplest route through the sky; the path of least (electrical) resistance. A river flows from inland to the coastline in a similar fashion, flowing where hydrodynamic friction is minimal. It costs less energy.

Maybe linear time flows in a similar fashion, following the easiest route, costing the least energy.

Time for lightning!
Does time flow like lightning?

There is an argument that the arrow of time can only move in one direction due to the second law of thermodynamics which says that entropy must always increase or stay the same. Entropy is the degree of disorder; a measure of chaos.

This is to say, that given any process it’s always easier to attain a disordered state than an ordered one. For example, it’s easier to sprinkle sugar into a cup of tea and let it dissolve, than it is to crystallise the sugar back out of the tea and collect the sugar crystals and put them back into the sugar bowl.

What this means in relation to time travel is that time is uni-directional; it can only move in the forwards direction because moving backwards would mean a decrease in entropy and that’s thermodynamically speaking, illegal.

An alternate history

I recently read a discussion on a forum which centered on a couple of members who expressed a wish to go back to their past and change it so that they could relive a new life. I made a comment that changing our past may cause the creation of a new timeline, or a new multiverse where an alternative version of ourself would indeed live a new life…but that the original version of us would still exist and not experience that ‘new’ life.

My comment was followed up with an insightful view on human nature, that “…we have a tendency to “make the same mistakes” over and over”.

When I read that, I wondered whether this is because of the “the past is the past and cannot be changed” nut which cannot be cracked, or whether it’s simply the easiest route to follow.

“An easy route…”?

It’s easier to fall with gravity than it is to climb against it. It takes less energy; it’s the easiest path, or ‘decision’.

Why do we make a certain decision? We take factors into consideration, weigh them up and make a decision based on the information at hand.

Even though the decision itself may be difficult (or following through with it), the answer is essentially the ‘easiest’ path to follow because it’s the outcome after the factors have been weighed and measured. By definition, it’s the correct solution, simply because it’s the outcome of the decision making process, whether it’s been made with our head or with our heart.

The easiest route for one person may not be easy for someone else.

Here’s an example. What shape fits into a round hole? Circle, square or triangle?

There’s an expression that “you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole”. So we’d say a circle.

And this is what we teach our children. At the same time, they might find it easiest to hold the sides of a triangle or a star rather than a smooth circle, and wedge that into the hole. They choose the easiest solution for themselves.

A case for free will?

Dr Cox said that time travel is like finding a teapot in orbit around Venus. There’s nothing in the laws of physics to prevent it, it’s just extremely unlikely.

This is sounding statistical!

On a statistical footing, Stephen Hawkins in his book The Grand Design puts forward the idea that on a physical and chemical basis, there is a pre-known outcome in every decision. Momentum, energy, pathways, velocities and reactions etc. of the atoms, molecules and neurons in our brain all follow a prescribed – and therefore predictable – course. Thus, every choice we make has an inevitable outcome. It’s already been made.

In reality, there are so many billions of factors and environments (i.e. variables in the ‘decision equation’) as well as the sheer multitude of combinations and permutations, that effectively a decision cannot be reasonably predicted – and so we lump them all up and call it “free will”.

But free will can be dealt with on a semi-statistical / empirical basis. For example, it’s more likely that a vegetarian will choose to eat a salad for dinner tonight than a roast chicken. The vegetarian has a free will, but we can predict his answer reasonably well.

But let’s say that the lettuce is teeming with disease-ridden caterpillars. The vegetarian wants to go back and inform his younger self to stay clear of the lettuce.

Would his going back in time, armed with this new information gleaned from hindsight (or foresight, in this case) alter the original decision and allow for a new history (and self) to be created?

How likely is it the vegetarian would choose the chicken? Or would he still go for the salad but try to pick out the caterpillars? After all, he is a vegetarian. (And please note, I’m not saying here that vegetarianism is a wrong decision).

In these posts about the importance of history (Part 1 | Part 2) I pointed out how knowledge of the past can significantly affect how we might choose to behave in the present.

decision making with time travel
Do we have a free will when making a decision with time travel?

Knowledge of the history can and does affect the present and the future. These states in time are not wholly independent from each other, they’re cross related…which can be difficult to describe in a linear model of time.

Likewise, the idea that knowledge of the future affects the past wouldn’t fit into the linear model well either. This misfit is the ontological paradox, yet it wouldn’t exist in a multidimensional model of time, such as could be afforded through a quantum description.

Quantum mechanics turns the linear model on its head. The set laws of classical physics don’t apply when it comes to quantum scales so it might not be the case that every particle is predictable. A quantum particle can exist simultaneously in two states, in two places and at two times, for example. It gives Schrodinger’s cat a fighting chance.

The ‘easiest’ solution, then, now operates on more dimensions than the linear time line. Predictability is thrown out of the window and into orbit around Venus with its friend, the teapot.

Free will triumphs. And time travel? It’s looking like it will open up the opportunity for alternate histories and futures which may well have already played out. The past need not be set, and the future need not be predefined as our destiny or fate.

The future is yours…so is your history! Go grab them!

Paul

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The Importance of History: An Unexpected Part 2!

Yesterday (or was it last week? 😉 ) I posted a timely thought which explained why history is important. I used an example of flipping an unbiased coin which repeatedly turned up tails, and stated that even though historical performance would suggest another tails on the next flip, the chances of heads showing on the next flip was still 50%.

I think a 50% chance of a heads showing is incorrect. It should be higher!

This is because that there are 2 possible outcomes of a flipped coin, so 50% chance of getting either one of them. The implication then is that with 2 coin flips, we’d expect 1 head and 1 tail. With 4 flips we’d expect 2 heads and 2 tails.

With 100 flips, we’d expect 50 heads and 50 tails.

But who’s to decide the order in which those heads and tails come? Alternate? Or all one and then the other?

So take the example in my original post where 50 flips had given tails. I’d stated a 50% probability of the next flip being heads. But if the probability is 50% for 100 flips, then the probability of the 51st flip being heads is now…100% !!!

So it seems that history is even more important than I had previously thought…although I wonder whether this is because we know something about the future i.e. there will be 100 coin flips and then no more.

But let’s add in a parallel consideration…we’ve considered this particular coin, but shouldn’t we be taking in all coins, and all of their flips, ad infinitum? That would mean we’re back at a 50% chance of a head.

So boundary limits impact the probability; events at all places at all times impact the importance of history and what that history means for the future.

Interesting that although I’m now a little wiser in the future…a little hindsight about foresight would have helped when I first wrote!

Paul

Is History Important?

I’m not one for history. It relates to things in the past. Not necessarily forgotten about, but it’s been, it’s gone, and it’s over. Done and dusted.

But however dusty those history books might be, I do concede that history is important. I hold no sympathy for the “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” line, but history can effect the present and the future.

Here’s an example.

An unbiased coin is flipped, and tails comes up.

It’s flipped again, and again it’s tails.

And it’s tails again and again and again, and so on…at 50 flips the coin is still coming up tails.

The probability of heads coming up for the 51st flip, mathematically speaking, is still 50% i.e. there is an equal chance of getting either heads or getting tails.

But given the history, what would you bet on…heads or tails?

See how history is important?! 😉

Paul