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About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution


About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution Cover






Time is at the heart of all that is important to human beings.
Bernard d'Espagnat


Time must never be thought of as pre-existing in any sense; it is a manufactured quantity.
Hermann Bondi

In a dingy laboratory in Bonn lies a submarine-shaped metal cylinder. It is about three meters long, and rests comfortably in a steel frame surrounded by wires, pipes and dials. At first glance, the entire contraption looks like the inside of a giant car engine. In fact, it is a clock — or, rather, the clock. The Bonn device, and a network of similar instruments across the world, together constitute "the standard clock." The individual instruments, of which the German model is currently the most accurate, are cesium-beam atomic clocks. They are continually monitored, compared, tweaked and refined via radio signals from satellites and television stations, to cajole them into near-perfect step. At the International Bureau of Weights and Measures at Sèvres, not far from Paris, the data are collected, analyzed and broadcast to a time-obsessed world. Thus originates the famous pips, the radio time signals by which we set our watches.

So, as we go about our daily toil, the Bonn cesium-beam clock keeps the time. It is, so to speak, a custodian of Earth time. The trouble is, the Earth itself doesn't always keep good time. Occasionally our clocks, all supposedly linked to the master system in France like a retinue of obedient slaves, must be adjusted by a second to track changes in the Earth's rotation rate. The last such "leap second" was added on 30 June 1994. The planet's spin, accurate enough to serve as a perfectly suitable clock for a thousand generations, is now defunct as a reliable chronometer. In this age of high-precision timekeeping, poor old Earth doesn't make the grade. Only an atomic clock, man-made and mysterious, serves to deliver those all-important tick-tocks with the precision demanded by navigators, astronomers and airline pilots. One second is no longer defined to be 1/86,400 of a day: it is 9,192,631,770 beats of a cesium atom.

But whose time is the Bonn clock telling anyway? Your time? My time? God's time? Are the scientists in that cluttered laboratory monitoring the pulse of the universe, fastidiously tracking some abstract cosmic time with atomic fidelity? Might there be another clock, perhaps on another planet somewhere, faithfully ticking out another time altogether, to the joy of its makers?

We know clocks need not agree: the Earth clock gets out of sync with the Bonn clock. So which one is right? Well, presumably the Bonn clock, because it's more accurate. But accurate relative to what? To us? After all, clocks were invented to tell the time for entirely human purposes. Are all humans "on" the same time, however? The patient in the dentist's chair and the audience listening to a Beethoven symphony experience the same atomically tagged duration in quite different ways.

So much of what we believe about time is a result of cultural conditioning. I once met a mystic in Bombay who claimed he could alter his state of consciousness through meditation and so suspend the flow of time altogether; he was unimpressed with talk of atomic clocks. In a lecture in London some years ago, I found myself sharing the platform improbably with the Dalai Lama. Our task was to compare and contrast time as it enters into Western scientific thinking and Eastern philosophy. The Lama spoke with quiet assurance, but unfortunately in Tibetan. Though I tried to follow the translation for enlightenment, I didn't receive much, regrettably. Culture clash, I suppose.

After my lecture, we had a tea break, and the Dalai Lama took my hand as we walked out of the building into the sunshine. Someone dropped to his knees and presented His Holiness with a daffodil, which he graciously accepted. I had the overwhelming impression of a gentle and intelligent man with insights of value to us all, but prevented by the trappings of his office from effectively communicating them to the assembled Western scientists. I came away from the occasion with a deep sense of missed opportunity.


Eternity? thou pleasing, dreadful thought?
Joseph Addison

In the madcap world of modern Western society, where time is money, railways, airline schedules, television programs, even cooking are subject to the tyranny of the clock. Our hectic lives are firmly bolted to the treadmill of time. We are slaves of our past and hostages to the future. But was it always thus? Running like a common thread through the history of human thought, East and West, North and South, is a belief that the entire paradigm of human temporality is rooted in some sort of monstrous illusion; it is but an elaborate product of the human mind:

And likewise time cannot itself exist,
But from the flight of things we get a sense of time....
No man, we must confess, feels time itself,
But only knows of time from flight or rest of things.

Thus wrote the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius in his first-century epic De Rerum Natura. From such unsettling ideas it is but a small step to believe that the passage of time can be controlled or even suspended by mental power, as we discover in the following haunting words of the sixteenth-century mystical poet Angelus Silesius:

Time is of your own making,
its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought
time too stops dead.

For such temporal relativists, true reality is vested in a realm that transcends time: the Land Beyond Time. Europeans call it "eternity," Hindus refer to it as "moksha" and Buddhists as "nirvana." For the Australian aborigines it is the Dream Time. Angelus Silesius again:

Do not compute eternity as light-year after year One step across that line called Time Eternity is here.

In our struggle to come to terms with mental and physical reality, nothing vexes us more than the nature of time. The paradoxical conjunction of temporality and eternity has troubled Man through the ages. Plato concluded that the fleeting world of daily experience is only half real, an ephemeral reflection of a timeless domain of pure and perfect Forms, which occupy the realm of eternity. Time itself is but an imperfect "moving image of Eternity which remains forever at one," but which we human beings incorrigibly reify: "The past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence.

The abiding tension between the temporal and the eternal pervades the world's great religions, and has led to generations of heated and sometimes violent theological debate. Is God inside or outside of time? Temporal or eternal? Process or Being? According to Plotinus, a third-century pagan, to exist in time is to exist imperfectly. Pure Being (i.e., God) must therefore be characterized by the utter absence of any relation to time. For Plotinus, time represents a prison for human beings, separating us from the divine realm — the true and absolute reality.

Belief that God lies outside of time altogether also became the established doctrine among many early Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius and Anselm, starting a tradition that continues to the present day. Like Plato and Plotinus before him, Augustine places God in the realm of eternity, "supreme above time because it is a never-ending present." In this existence, time does not pass; rather, God perceives all times at once:

Your years are completely present to you all at one because they are at a permanent sta

Product Details

Davies, Paul
Davies, P. C. W.
Simon & Schuster
New York :
General science
Einstein, albert, 1879-1955
Space and time
General Science
Relativity (physics)
Science Reference-General
Science General-Reference
Edition Number:
1st Touchstone ed.
Edition Description:
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
April 1996
Grade Level:
9.25 x 6.12 in 11.585 oz

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About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Simon & Schuster - English 9780684818221 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , With wit and clarity, the author of more than 20 popular science books, including God and the New Physics and The Last Three Minutes, now explores the riddle of time, examining the consequences of Einstein's theory of relativity and offering startling suggestions about what recent research may reveal. 50 line drawings.
"Synopsis" by , Includes bibliographical references (p. [293]-294) and index.
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