Philosophy

The End Of Time As We Know It

Each culture of time is backed by its own cosmology. i i

Each culture of time is backed by its own cosmology.

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itoggle caption Three Lions/Getty Images
Each culture of time is backed by its own cosmology.

Each culture of time is backed by its own cosmology.

Three Lions/Getty Images

Where were you when you first heard about the big bang? Was it a trip to planetarium? Was it at home watching a science documentary? When did you first learn that the world was made up of atoms? Was it in a middle school science class or a high school chemistry lesson? How did you first find out about black holes? Was it in a science fiction movie or a TV documentary?

Whether you know a lot or very little, somehow words like atom, planet, galaxy and big bang crossed your path. Somehow you learned your culture's dominant narrative of creation — its Cosmology. That education may have been partial or haphazard, but it wasn't an accident.

Every culture in every epoch of human history has needed a cosmology to justify itself. Every culture in every epoch of human history has needed a cosmology to set its own time against the background of cosmic time. Ours is no different.

In the first two posts of this four-post series, we began exploring what I call the tyranny of modern Time. Today we are going to take a giant step up in perspective. Today we want see how modern time, like the "time-logic" of every human culture, can't be separated from the grandest visions of time and creation. Human time and cosmic time have always been bound. If we want to see how our modern time might be transformed, we first have to see how the universe as a whole (or at least our vision of it) has to get on board.

The world we inhabit today makes a clean separation between time in daily experience and the scientifically defined time of our cosmology. No one today connects their 12:15 p.m. appointment at the dentist to the fractions of a second in which big-bang cosmology plays out. Daily time is lived through the digital time of cell phones and our Outlook calendars. Cosmological time is the domain of scientists, observatories and university graduate programs. The two domains are separate and distinct. This separation, however, is an illusion.

In the world of 50,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago or even a 1,000 years ago, people lived with an intimacy between daily life and their cosmologies of myth and religion. Like us, these folks (hunter-gathers, early farmers or medieval peasants) were schooled in the cosmological vision of their culture. Through rites and rituals, baptisms and burials, people learned the world was built by gods (or God) and inhabited by devils, demons, divine spirits and watchful angels. Daily time — the round of waking, working and rest — was lived right in the middle of this cosmology. You saw it in the rising sun, the mist on the trees and the stars at night.

Science, when it arrived hundreds of years ago, changed many things. But it didn't alter this braiding of human and cosmic time. When, for example, clocks appeared in 1300 they blew away the old time-logic and set life to a new beat. But their influence went far beyond (and above) daily life. By 1377 the clock as an idea was so powerful that philosopher Nicole Oresme could use it to frame a new cosmology in the image of a clockwork universe. Later, Isaac Newton's science of mechanics was built on this clockwork time, becoming the foundation for a new celestial physics and new real-world machines that set the industrial revolution in motion.

The braiding of cosmic time and culture was present at the dawn of our own era as well. In the late 1800s the world was being stitched together by telegraph cables and the emerging science of radio. These devices where radically redefining human time via new experiences of simultaneity — a single now that could be shared among people separated by continents or oceans. Just at this moment, when the world was constructing globe-spanning networks of electromagnetic simultaneity, the young Albert Einstein took a job at the Swiss Patent Office. As historian Peter Galison has shown, Einstein's day job was evaluating designs for electromechanical time-coordination devices. This real-world work in the trenches of his culture's greatest concern fed directly into Einstein's private work: weaving simultaneity into a theory of relativity that would change cosmology forever.

Sixty years later the big bang — a theory built from Einstein's relativity — was spectacularly confirmed. Even this cosmological triumph bore links to human time. It was an experimental microwave antenna built for satellite telecommunications that stumbled upon signals from the big bang. The emerging technology of satellite communications would soon play its own role establishing the new global instant — the world-spanning now that defines the time we inhabit today.

From the clockwork universe to the big bang, cosmic time and human time have changed in step. A true revolution in time can't be completed without a new cosmology. Regardless of how many time-revolutionizing devices we build like the iPhone and its brethren, our vision of the universe through cosmology has to change before we can also transform our current time logic.

That time may be just around the corner as science is poised to create a new cosmology.

In the closing decades of the 20th century, new paradoxes from the domains of both theory and observation rose to challenge the orthodox version of the big bang as a theory for time's origin. From the 1980s onward, new ideas and new discoveries forced cosmologists to push beyond and before the big bang. Now they are out searching through a wild west of ideas, some of which seem more like science fiction that science.

  • An eternal "multi-verse" made of infinite, parallel universes (with infinite versions of you). Lots of little bangs, but no big beginning.
  • A string theory universe in 10 dimensions of ever-repeating cycles. One bang follows another forever and ever and ever.
  • A universe where time doesn't exist at all. Each moment is eternal, separate, complete and independent (in other words, the cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands).

How do these new theories speak to the braiding of cosmic and human time? Some new cosmological ideas put information center stage. The universe, some scientists say, is like a giant computer, echoing Newtonian claims of a clockwork universe. Others walk in the footsteps of the Victorians (famous for their steam engines), focusing on thermodynamics as the master theory for cosmic history.

There is nothing wrong or foolish in these views. Seeing the universe through the lens of information, using it as a central metaphor, may reveal new aspects of its behavior that would have been invisible before. But our daily reliance on information technology lays bare the way ideas aimed at cosmological time are influenced by, and will eventually influence, the culturally created time we all experience.

Beyond the focus on information are other paths braiding cosmology and culture together. Cosmologist Sean Carroll notes how Victorians used their fascination with thermodynamics to imagine a heat death for the universe and society. Today we have built more sophisticated understandings of thermodynamics, energy and evolution that might be metabolized in new ways by a culture confronted with issues of sustainability. Other scientists — Andy Albrecht comes to mind — see many of the new theories embracing a vision of time that is fundamentally more fluid and flexible.

Perhaps one of these temporal visions will act as a seed for a human time that is also more fluid and flexible. Perhaps not. The science is still up in the air and our current cultural history is still to be lived. Either way, recognizing the braiding of cultural and cosmology means recognizing deep connections that go beyond (or below) discussions of theology, God (or gods) and creation. It means understanding that revolutions in that most of intimate experiences — time — are never complete without new cosmologies.

What we do know is that we're living in the twilight of the big bang. We're nearing the end of time as we know it now and as we live it now.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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