My Relativity Journey: A Series Of Unlikely Events

The name Einstein is synonymous with “someone who is really smart.” His name crops up frequently in pop culture and perhaps even more in scientific discussions about the nature of matter, energy, space and time. As someone with a science background (evolutionary biology and ecology) and a deep curiosity about how our universe works, I began to dive into the world of Einstein about six years ago. I’ve been pretty surprised by what I discovered and this little essay is about my own personal journey and some thoughts on modern physics and the nature of time specifically.

I’m scientifically literate but my physics math isn’t well developed so after seeing Einstein’s popular book, Relativity: The Special and the General Theories at the bookstore in the SFO airport I snapped this little tome up and was pleasantly surprised to find it quite accessible and interesting to read. It was also a nice introduction to his technical papers on his theories.

I learned in his little book about Einstein’s two relativity theories. The first, special relativity, was proposed by Einstein in 1905; the second, general relativity, in 1915. I’m going to focus on Special Relativity in this essay.

Special Relativity was Einstein’s first foray into upending our long-standing notions on the nature of space and time. Counter-intuitively, Special Relativity holds that both space and time are malleable and the speed of light is absolute (i.e., constant for all observers, no matter what their speed). In our normal life, of course, space and time seem pretty absolute in a physical sense. Yes, time can seem to pass more quickly or more slowly based on our mental state but generally we realize that this feeling is psychological and not indicative of an actual change in the passage of time in the world around us.

Einstein’s “time dilation” was not, however, merely psychological. He suggested that time dilation was real and is a function of the speed of the observer. The faster you go the more time slows down. “Moving clocks run slow” is the shorthand for this phenomenon. If a person in a spaceship were able somehow to get to the speed of light, time would literally stop. This isn’t actually possible in Special Relativity because the mass of the spaceship increases the closer it is to the speed of light, requiring more and more energy to go even faster. So massive things can never reach the speed of light. Only massless particles, like photons and neutrinos, can travel at the speed of light.

Similarly, “length contraction” is a function of the speed of an object. This means that what you would measure as a one-meter stick when the stick is at rest would be measured as shorter than one meter when it is in motion. And if that stick were accelerated to almost the speed of light it would be very short indeed when measured by you as a stationary observer.

Why do these things happen? Well, Einstein describes it very clearly in his little book: it all comes down to his choices in defining simultaneity. As described also in Peter Galison’s excellent book, Einstein’s Clocks; Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time, clock synchronization was a big issue when Einstein was writing on relativity. Railroads, map-making, colonization and other economic activities all depended in various ways on the ability to synchronize clocks. This is what is meant by simultaneity: how do we know when two events occur at the same time? Einstein chose to define simultaneity operationally, that is, by how we can measure it, rather than as a more abstract notion about when events are “really” simultaneous. Einstein’s approach was part of a tendency toward “positivism,” the scientific choice of focusing only on what can be measured, and downplaying or eliminating entirely those concepts that can’t be measured directly.

Einstein suggested that simultaneity should be defined operationally as the perception of simultaneous events, and this perception would include an assumption that the information being perceived traveled at the same speed no matter where it came from. The example he gives relies on a passenger on a moving train. If the passenger sees two lightning strikes at the same time, one in front and one in the rear of the train (using mirrors if necessary in order to see both ways), they will be considered simultaneous.

But for a person on the embankment next to the moving train these same two lightning flashes would not be simultaneous because of the time it takes for those flashes of light to reach each observer. This is because the train is moving toward one flash and away from the other. But that’s not the case, of course, for the person on the embankment. In this way, simultaneity becomes relative and depends on the motion of the observer. This is a key point and is literally the origin of the entire structure of Einstein’s relativity theories and the strange relativistic effects of time dilation and length contraction.

There is a remarkable and telling passage in Einstein’s little book where he explains his reasoning for his proposed definition of simultaneity (p. 27 of the 1952 edition, emphasis in the original):

“There is only one demand to be made of the definition of simultaneity, namely, that in every real case it must supply us with an empirical decision as to whether or not the conception that has to be defined is fulfilled. That my definition satisfies this demand is indisputable. That light requires the same time to traverse the path [from the first lightning flash in front of the train and from the second lightning flash behind the train] is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own free will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity.”

Einstein is, then, stating his view that he’s simply assuming (stipulating) that the speed of light is constant for all observers, no matter their speed, and then seeing where this assumption takes us. A key consequence of the relativity of simultaneity is the idea of a “block universe” in which past, present and future all in some manner exist already. As Einstein stated in a 1952 letter: “The distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Einstein’s ideas became widespread after his theory of general relativity was spectacularly confirmed in 1919 by Sir Arthur Eddington’s scientific expedition to Sao Tomé and Principe during a solar eclipse. Eddington found that light did indeed appear to bend around the sun during the eclipse and by the amount Einstein predicted in his general theory. The rest is history.

But not so fast. Once I understood what Einstein had done in crafting his special theory, I objected to his logical moves. When I read and re-read the passage above, I objected to his statement that there is “only one demand” to be made of the definition of simultaneity: that the empirical demand of judging simultaneity in each case is fulfilled. There is also a need to avoid contradiction and to avoid contravening empirical facts. I’m going to focus here on the latter item: contravening empirical facts.

Here’s my beef with Einstein: Special Relativity leads to the idea that the flow of time we know intimately is actually an illusion, as suggested by the Einstein quote above. Even though in every moment of our experience time proceeds from moment to moment, with each present becoming a new present, Special Relativity says this flow is an illusion. And even though the past is, based on our common experience of time, only memory, and the future only imagined, Special Relativity says that the past and future co-exist in some manner with the present “in block.” Moreover, if the past, present and future are all in some manner already in existence then there is no room for free will. As with the flow of time, I sure feel like I have free will so there is an empirical issue when a theory suggests otherwise.

What are we to do?

What do we do when a widely accepted theory seems to clash so directly with our direct evidence of the world around us, particularly with our experience of the flow of time? Falsification is the gold standard of good science and this simply means that experiments that disprove (falsify) a prediction of a theory should lead to rejection of that theory. Now, with our experience of the passage of time there’s no experiment even required for a certain kind of falsification of Special Relativity. We can simply look around us and look to the heavens and see that there is indeed an arrow of time and a flow of time, everywhere we see. This isn’t a trivial issue for Special Relativity. Reconciling time’s arrow and the flow of time with special and general relativity remains a serious issue in physics today.

When asked by my colleague Jonathan Schooler how he reconciled the illusory nature of time in relativity theory with our experience of the flow of time, the physicist Brian Greene said that he sees a psychiatrist. This moment of humor highlights the very real problem that modern physics faces in reconciling the flow of time with our best physical theories about time. Lee Smolin’s 2013 book Time Reborn, examines these issues in detail and he asserts that perhaps relativity theory isn’t the last word about time. He suggests a number of ways in which time may be reclaimed.

We are, then, in a new era of debate about the nature of time. I’ve written a number of short essays challenging the completeness or accuracy of the interpretations of relativity theory that render time illusory and these are included in my book, Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays on Philosophy, Spirituality, and Science. My book also includes an interview with Smolin about his ideas.

Back to the present moment. I’m writing this little essay on a train to Seattle on the winter solstice. I’ve seen no lightning. Yet. Night has just fallen on this, the longest night of the year, a nice reminder of the historical importance of the passage of time and of the seasons.

It turns out that my ongoing interest in Einstein’s theories has led me to chairing a panel on these issues at a conference next June in Helsinki, Finland. Part of the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, our panel will look at “The physics and metaphysics of time in relation to consciousness.” More interestingly, my colleague, Jonathan Schooler, who I mentioned above, will be joining me on that panel.

Not only that, Schooler is on the same train with me now and we’ve been discussing the implications and alternatives to relativity theory for some time. There was a nice synchronicity in our discovering that we’d be on the same train. It’s the first time for both of us to take Amtrak from Santa Barbara to Seattle. My family is in Seattle and Jonathan’s girlfriend’s family is too. I only found out that he’d be on the train with me a few days ago, after we’d been discussing for a matter of months the Helsinki conference panel and our respective presentations. What’s even weirder about this particular synchronicity is that I got my days wrong with respect to when I was actually supposed to board my train. I boarded the train a day too early! I was able to avoid getting kicked off the train by calling Amtrak and changing my ticket. So the synchronicity of being on the same train with Schooler was even more striking because I wasn’t actually going to be on the same train until I made the mistake of thinking my train left on Sunday when it actually left on Monday.

Anyway, I bring up this personal anecdote because it relates directly to the nature of time and our experience of time. Synchronicities (“same-time”) are all about strange and meaningful coincidences. What do they mean? That’s for each of us to decide. But for now, I’m going to continue to take it as a cue from the universe that I’m on the right (train?) track in continuing to examine the nature of time in relation to consciousness. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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21 comments
  1. Dear Tam,
    Your article on Time is indeed interesting. As part of your “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference, please ask the current head of the Transcendental Meditation society to also speak. He is a doctor. Or perhaps the head of their secondary school in Fairfield Iowa, USA. He is a physcist. Maharishi was also trained in physics.
    I learnt TM in 1977 only on the basis of learning their Sidhis course – which I did in 1978. Yes, truly, there are several thousand people around the world who have completed this course, and truly do levitate. Most in a hoping motion, but many, like me, with hops upto four feet high and nine feet long; far far more than any possible physical movement. A friend of mine from Maleny Qld stayed up for a few minutes, and I had a short staying up experience, as well as hundreds of extended hops from a near lotus position.
    You might also talk with Dr Eric Pearl of Reconnective Healing, from California.
    TM also has an interesting building system called Vastu. Your experience of being on the ‘wrong’ train to meet your friend, often occurs with meditative conscious people. eg In mid 2014, while updating maps for one of my Pocket Books, I spotted four half-acre blocks of land in a country town in Victoria, Australia, thinking to myself ‘those are rare blocks meeting vastu requirements’. A few weeks later, totally unexpectedly, I found they were part of a deceased estate, so I was able a block. This will be an interesting small fully self-contained vedic house.
    Gerry Clarke, B.PED (Bachelor of Property Economics & Development)
    Owner of Pocket Books.

    1. Was the levitation not only subjectively experience but also observed objectively by, say, a bystander?

      1. Of course the levitation is observed by bystanders. The TM Group even did a public demonstration for the media in 2013 or early 2014. I think it was called Flying Olympics, where some of the better levitators were doing some long and high hops sitting in full lotus. I’m not quite famous enough to be in one of those groups, but eventually I will go the the TM dome at Fairfield Iowa to join upto one thousand people doing their levitation program. have a look at this: about nine minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlw8CxTkyxA and or quicker two minutes at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kelb5IGbLXM
        Catching a film of the rarer instances when someone stays up for say ten seconds or a minute is a bit more difficult.
        Gerry

        1. Hm, watched the two minute clip. Far from levitation. I’ll have to check out the longer clip after my nap. It would be amazing to see somebody actually levitate. Until I see it with my own eyes, however, it’s likely that I’m going to remain skeptical.

  2. You said, “In every moment of our experience time proceeds from moment to moment, with each present becoming a new present.” But here you are supposing in the first place that our experience even can be divided into moments. You begin by declaring that “IN EVERY MOMENT OF OUR EXPERIENCE time proceeds from moment to moment, with each present becoming a new present.” I believe the fallacy becomes much more apparent if we are to restructure the sentence so that it reads: “Time proceeds from moment to moment in every moment of our experience.”

    You said, “Moreover, if the past, present and future are all in some manner already in existence then there is no room for free will. As with the flow of time, I sure feel like I have free will so there is an empirical issue when a theory suggests otherwise.” Your feeling that you can deliberately control the motion of which you experience, is nothing other than a feeling. Feelings are inherently neither true nor false but indeed can be true and or false. Did you yourself generate the feeling that you have freedom of will? Or exactly what caused that particular feeling to arise within you?

    Those specific words—’past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’—just as ‘time’ and ‘up’ and ‘down’ and ‘left’ and ‘right’ and the whole of language itself—and their corresponding concepts are abstracted from that which we experience. From exactly what aspect(s) of our experience are these words abstracted? To be completely frank I haven’t the faintest idea. What I do know, however, is that the ‘past’ is associated with memory, the ‘future’ with imagination, and the ‘present’ usually with that which is directly perceivable or at least can be perceived in one way or another; whereby, memory and imagination (or that which constitutes their substance) are virtually if not fundamentally indistinguishable from one another, other than the degree of familiarity that is associated with each. I also know that we utilize those words, their tenses, and language in general to demarcate our experience conceptually, and then sequence or resequence aspects thereof, which generates or further generates the ability to the modify our behaviour and subsequently the environment in very peculiar ways.

    Personally, my beefs with Einstein, his theories, or perhaps interpretations thereof (mine and others), are:

    Foremost, I find it to be odd and amusing that people consider the supposed phenomenon of time dilation as a result of and in relation to increasing velocity without ever considering that velocity or speed itself is the ratio of space to time.

    Time expands if distance decreases, and vice-versa, because space and time are not only inversely proportional but parallel to one another, thus naturally one covers more distance in the same amount of time if one moves at a faster speed.

    Similarly, it amuses me that we speak of length contraction, again, without considering that obviously distance or space itself contracts if you speed up. Therefore, if something were to travel at the speed of light, from its perspective (rather than an observer’s perspective) everything else would consequently contract and its size would necessarily increase. Oddly, my interpretation seems converse or backwards in comparison to popular interpretations; I’ve never understood this. Whose logic is actually incorrect?

    P.S. Nice little pun there at the end 😀

    P.P.S. I wish CE’s security feature wasn’t preventing me from posting my response to your other comment in our other discussion because a lot of what I had written corresponds to some of the very issues that I have with this article also.

    1. You begin by declaring that “in EVERY moment of our experience time proceeds from moment to moment, with each present becoming a new present.” I believe the fallacy becomes much more apparent if we are to restructure the sentence so that it reads: “Time proceeds from moment to moment in every moment of our experience.”

    2. I forgot to mention–regarding time, the past, the present, and the future–consider that, that which once was (perhaps a moment ago) must somehow still be, otherwise we either wouldn’t be able to discern one moment from another or the act of distinguishing any other moment from the present moment is conceptually fallacious and entirely absurd.

      1. (Really sorry for the spam, but I would like to make myself or my comments clear.)

        …conceptually fallacious, insofar as ‘a moment ago’ or ‘a moment that is no longer’ refers to nothing in existence and thus nothing at all.

  3. When it comes to free will you have to consider that all options will play out in parallel universes. You must see time as multidimensional as well. You can’t see it as a straight line. This is why you can’t come to terms with past, present and future already existing. Also, don’t imagine the three never changing, they are constantly changing. Remember the only constant is change.

    1. But what once was must in some way still be for change to be even knowable mentally and materially. How come my bookshelf rarely if ever visibly changes?

      1. Silhouette, many aspects of your bookshelf are constantly changing. Come back in five hundred years and tell me how your bookshelf looks then. All things are in a constant process of change, including apparently firm things like Half Dome or the Sun. Given enough time all things may well melt into dust.

        1. I’m sure on a cellular, molecular, or subatomic level, at some micro scale it might be in a state of flux. At which scale is this the case? Surely on our plane of existence specifically, inanimate objects such as bookshelves, rocks, or glasses, for instance, usually do not visibly move or transform unless such objects are directly acted upon by animals or nature.

          1. Everything is in a dynamic tension at all times as a result of the causal web that is reality. Things don’t just abide; rather, they are literally suspended in a causal web that is constantly in flux. Or, to be entirely accurate, reality is nothing but this fluxing causal web and what we think of as things are actually localized and concentrated processes that are always changing and evolving. This isn’t a statement of faith or mere philosophy; it’s a highly empirically-supported statement about the nature of reality.

        2. (It wouldn’t let me post this in response to your other comment.)

          Which aspects of my bookshelf and at what scale?

          “Or, to be entirely accurate, reality is nothing but this fluxing causal web.”

          So my bookshelf, what effects it? What does it effect? Of course it does have an effect that isn’t all that noticeable, the fact that it takes up space which I might otherwise use in one way or another if it weren’t placed there, if you would call that an effect.

          A river won’t respond to a whistle, but it will respond to a dam.

          “What we think of as things are actually localized and concentrated processes that are always changing and evolving. [These aren’t statements] of faith or mere philosophy; [They’re] highly empirically-supported statements about the nature of reality.”

          Exactly how is my bookshelf a localized and concentrated process that is always changing and evolving?

          You’re selling me short. Give me some highly empirically-supported examples!

          1. What keeps your bookshelf in place? What keeps the books on the shelf? What keeps the molecules in the bookshelf and books in place? What keeps the protons and electrons in each atom in your bookshelf and books in place? My point with these questions is to highlight the various forces at work (gravity, electromagnetism and strong nuclear) to illustrate the causal web that is the mini-reality of your bookshelf, which of course can’t be separated from your room, your house, your planet, your solar system, your galaxy or the universe as a whole. It’s all one giant causal web flexing and fluxing into the future in each moment. And each node of that web, which we call things but are more accurately described as processes, is a participant in each moment in making the entire web what it is in the next moment.

        3. Touché!

          So what you were saying is that electromagnetism, gravitation, the strong nuclear force, et cetera, are always part and parcel of concentrated and localized processes such as, say, bookshelves? I think I now understand what you were saying.

          That is fine and dandy, but such change is taking place in another dimension altogether, which is only detectable from our realm with extremely sophisticated technologies. Sure, its effect must seep through the perceptual barrier in one way or another, but we do not experience that change.

          And if the fundamental interactions are always enacting an influence upon reality, all of the time, could it not be said that there is a good chance the process of which you speak might be better described as a cycle or a circuit? What even could fuel bottomless influence, endless power as such? Energy is neither created nor destroyed, right? Therefore, isn’t the process of which you speak necessarily cyclical or circuital, whereby apparent novelties are just rehashed constants?

          You still haven’t sold me on this whole time thing. How many moments are there in a second, a minute, or an hour? How long is a moment? What differentiates one moment from the next?

          How are we at all able to discern difference and change in the first place?!

    2. Jessica, the idea of past, present and future existing already in some manner rules out free will because this “block universe” idea by definition precludes the possibility of change. So, no, the past and future can’t be changed in the block universe. And the block universe flows from Special Relativity’s choice of definition for simultaneity, as I discuss in detail in my piece. Accordingly, we are justified in seeking alternatives to Special Relativity and other theories of physics that seem to contravene directly the evidence of our senses and our instruments, if we are to be empirical (as of course science is supposed to be).

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