I let time get away from me this morning. On Wednesdays I usually go for a short run, then go to Body Pump class at the gym. For those of you who are unfamiliar, in Body Pump you rhythmically lift weights while listening to loud, thumping music. It’s fun. Really. This morning I didn’t allow myself enough time before Body Pump to run, so I decided to run after the class. Big mistake! As it turns out, it is much better to have tired legs while you are in a warm, cozy room at the gym than outside on a run. You can “cheat” at Body Pump by “accidentally” missing the first rep in each set of squats. It is much more difficult to cheat at running when you are out in the countryside where it’s thirty degrees and the wind is blowing at thirty miles per hour. And the wind always seems to be in your face, no matter which direction you turn. I learned my lesson. I will not let time get away from me again!
I read that Stephen Hawking died last week. When I think about Stephen Hawking, I always, of course, think of time. Hawking had a unique way to consider and explain time. When I read his lectures, I am always struck by the humor that he manages to insert. Cosmology could be a rather dry topic, and Hawking could only dictate his lectures very slowly, sometimes at the rate of one word per minute. His lectures, however, contain many examples of his very dry, deadpan humor. What effort it must have taken him to provide a laugh or two.
I wanted to refresh my memory about Dr. Hawking’s thoughts on time. I have a degree in science (OK, it’s in chemistry, but still…), and I can’t follow even his “dumbed down” explanations. From what I can understand, he thought that time essentially began at the Big Bang. Because the Big Bang is what scientists call a singularity, the whole universe contained in an unbelievably small area, all laws of science break down at that instant. Anything before the Big Bang would not necessarily follow the laws of our universe, therefore time would have no meaning. There was, then, a beginning of time.
In order for scientists to explain how time began requires you to understand quantum theory and a concept called imaginary time. The best explanation that I can give of imaginary time is this: imagine you are standing on a time line. The spot you are standing on is the present. If you look left, you are looking at the past; if you look right, you are looking at the future. Now look up. That is imaginary time. I don’t understand why you need imaginary time and quantum theory to explain the beginning of everything, but apparently, this explanation fits observations of the real universe, and in science when a theory fits reality, it is always a good thing.
Humans cannot imagine the 13.8 billion (give or take a few hundred million) years that have passed since the Big Bang. I can’t! Stephan Hawking originally postulated that there would be an end of time, when our universe, which is now expanding, contracted once again to a single point. In his later, years, however, he reversed that conclusion due to lack of experimental evidence. He said that he could not predict whether time would end or not. When Hawking was invited to lecture in Japan years ago, his hosts asked him not to discuss the end of time (which he had predicted would occur in 20 billion years), because it would cause havoc with their financial markets.
When you look at the night sky, you are looking at the past. The light from some of the stars you see left its point of origination millions or even billions of years ago. Light from even the closest stars originated from around the time of the US Civil War. What is fascinating is that all of these pasts reach us simultaneously. The light from 150 years ago and the light from 150 million years ago reaches your retinas at the same time. All pasts, from the birth of a star to your wedding day, do not exist in space-time any longer. They are gone, a memory. The future doesn’t exist either. It is a projection by our human minds that may or may not occur. All that exists is the present, but the present exists awash in overlapping pasts and with an eye on the future.
Paul Tillich, the mid-twentieth century theologian, called the present “the ever moving boundary line between past and future”. The present is forever rolling past. Blink and it is gone. A new present takes its place. I cannot catch the present any more than I can catch the wind, even though sometimes I want to. The funny thing about trying to “be in the present” is that we so incontrovertibly are in the present. There is no other choice. As Yoda says, “There is no try”.
The one thing that I want more than anything is more time. I crave it like a person crawling across a desert craves water. Paradoxically, this is the one thing that I cannot have. I want more time in each day so that I can get everything that I want to do accomplished, but I can’t have more than the strictly apportioned 24 hours. I want more time in my life than the Biblical allotment of three score and 10, but I can’t bargain with God for even one more second. You takes what you gets. So. Even though I can have no effect on the passage of time, this I do know; I will not let time get away from me again. As Mother Theresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”