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Carl Wernicke: A Matter Of Time


Time seems to be a big thing these days. Perhaps because for so many baby boomers, there’s a palpable sense that it’s running out.

I like the concept that there is no tomorrow and no yesterday. The only thing you have is right now. No, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t schedule that dentist appointment for tomorrow. But it will be today when it actually occurs, if you see what I’m saying.

Well, wait, you say, but what about yesterday? Maybe nothing can actually happen in the future, but certainly you can look back at what happened when yesterday was today. OK, I admit that presents problems. But then I went to see the movie Arrival (it wasn’t yesterday, but last week) and it deals with the idea of time as nonlinear … more like a continuous loop, where stuff that happens tomorrow can influence what happened yesterday.

Yes, that sort of thinking makes my head hurt, too.

Then there’s a long article in a recent New Yorker examining the concept of time. Its point was that time seems to be a property of the mind, that past, present and future are all immediate in our heads … that is, they are all presumably happening at the same time.

Now, all of us have at one time or another said that “I don’t have time” for whatever. Yet, we all have exactly the same amount of time, no more and no less. Some people just know how to do more with their allotment. Unless, of course, you are on a spacecraft zipping along near the speed of light, in which case time slows down for you compared to people moving at regular speed through the universe. So there’s a hint for all you over-achievers: go really fast and you will have more time than the rest of us. The only problem seems to be that it won’t seem to you as if you have more time. So in reality, perhaps the faster you go, the slower it really is. Sort of like the advice the Red Queen gave to Alice when she told her that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

The New Yorker article talked about an experiment in which sleeping people would be wakened and asked to say how much time had elapsed, to see if the passage of time is marked by the subconscious. Most people were relatively good at it. For years I never used an alarm clock to wake at any specific time, because I could wake up almost to the minute that I chose. I don’t use an alarm now because I’m retired and it doesn’t matter when I wake up, which by the way seems to be earlier and earlier all the time. Yet one thing I read about trying to get a good night’s sleep was the warning to not look at the clock when you wake in the night, because you become fixated by the passage – or non-passage – of time.

One of my favorite bits of science is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, which states that it is impossible to measure both the position and the velocity of an object, at the same time, even in theory. It throws time out of joint.

And probably my favorite joke of all time has to do with time, a pig farm and a traveling salesman. I’d tell it now, but, you guessed it, I’ve run out of time.