One of the subjects of great debate in physics goes under the moniker of “the arrow of time.” The basic debate here is (very) roughly to try to understand why time goes it’s merry way seemingly in one direction, especially given that the many of the laws of physics appear to behave the same going backwards as forwards in time. But aren’t we forgetting our most basic science when we debate at great philosophical lengths about the arrow of time? Aren’t we forgetting about…experiment? Here, for your pleasure, then, are some of my personal observations about the direction of time which I’ve observed over my short life. Real observation about the direction of time should lead us to the real direction of time, no?
(With apologies to Alan Lightman)
- Physicists: It is right and proper to start with the physicists, those kings and queens of relativity, time ordered products, and keepers of the definition of a second. Observations tell us that for physicists time always goes up. Up? Yes: have you ever seen a space-time diagram in which time goes down? Or time goes left-to-right? Never! Such ideas as time going down or right or, god forbid, left, well that’s just blaspheme. Time goes up, damnit, and that’s all there is to it. Or so say the physicists writing on their blackboards.
Oh I hear you. Yes there are physicists for which time doesn’t always go up, but which can also go up but also in a circle. Yes, Virginia, general relativity allows those crazy solutions (nevermind that they might not be stable.) But those are really loopy physicists who believe in closed-time-like curves. I mean, that sect of the physicists is always going on and on and on about killing their grandfather. Sheesh they’re enough to make Oedipus jealous (and why is that they kill grandfathers all the time and not their fathers?)
Conclusion: direction of arrow is up unless grandfather killers are found to be right, in which case all hell breaks lose.
for (int i=0; i<137; i++)
Computer Scientists: Time for a computer scientist is truely bizarre. Things start of fairly nice, say in “main” and then you start moving down through a program, but then ack, what’s that, you just branched to a piece of code in another file? Oh boy, and here comes a loop: round and round time goes, where it stops, only a conditional statement knows. For computer scientists, time is always down. But, as a loop in code demonstrates, just because you went down that piece of territory once doesn’t mean that you might not go it again. And of course your may think you’re about to make it down to that final return statement in the sky, but wait, you get sucked into a procedure where you spend the rest of eternity trying to efficiently solve a large instance of 3-SAT ( A strange purgatorial hazard in time travel as understood by the computer scientists.)
Conclusion: the arrow is always down but often jumpy or round and round.
- Biologists: The biologists seem to be a clan which does not have a preferred direction of time, but they certainly have a preferred topology for time: cycles, cycles, everywhere, and not a straight line in sight. I mean they’ve got a cycle for everything under the sun: the Krebs cycle, the Calvin cycle, the glyoxylate cycle, etc, etc. It’s a wonder they get anywhere, these biologists, what with their time running circles around them. Now the question arises, of course, in a world in which time is circular, as to whether this circle is traversed clockwise or counterclockwise. Of course the answer to this is easy: it is always clockwise because that’s the direction in which a clock turns!
Conclusion: the direction of time is clockwise and those who disagree are just aiding the creationists.
- Left-to-right Writers: At first glance, writers of languages like English seem to be those who favor an arrow of time which goes left to right and down the page. Page breaks are some sort of discontinuity which doesn’t seem to bother them, but seems to bother a related clan, the copy editor. But a closer inspection of the writer clan shows that they’re arrow of time is at best a confusing mishmash of directions. For example, an often employed trick is the so-called “flashback” in which the reader is magically transported back in time to an event which the writer couldn’t figure out how to include otherwise or was to lazy to figure out how to include without using this trick of the trade. Another common technique is the mental head fake on the arrow of time known as “foreshadowing.” So while the rhythm of reading may go left to right and down the page, this direction in time is often a farce, disguising a deep disregard for any pure direction of time, but allowing all sorts of internal analepsis, external analepsis, and prolepsis.
Conclusion: the arrow appears to be left to right and down, but in postmodern interpretation is to be regarded none of anyone’s business.
- Journalists: Another clan in which time goes left to right and then down (except where it goes right to left or up to down, i.e. local writing customs may apply.) Distinguished however, by, an inverted pyramid where the more meaningful content is put at the beginning of time, and the less meaningful content as put at the end of time. In other words, for journalists the true direction of time is from more meaningful to less meaningful. This explains why you are often dumber having finished reading an article in the newspaper.
Conclusion: The arrow is from meaning to less.
- Accountants For accountants, time is called “date” and is put into the form only when a transaction which can be quantified in money occurs. This is not to be confused with the related temporal messing around known as the transactional interpretation of quantum theory. Thus time, for an accountant, moves in the direction of money. As to whether the direction is related to money increasing or money decreasing, well that all depends on the how good your accountants are.
Conclusion: The arrow of time points in the direction of money. Taxes appear to be trying to flip the direction of time.
- Mathematicians: Time proceeds in the direction of proof, according to the mathematicians. That is to say the arrow points from less theorems to more theorems. Or at least that is what I thought until I found the quote “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” This implies that, actually, the arrow of time for mathematicians points in the direction of more caffeine consumption. There are rumors, which I have not been able to substantiate, that the direction of time for mathematicians may also point in the direction of amphetamine consumption.
Conclusion: The arrow points towards more theorems which is also the direction of more drug use. No word on whether the war on drugs has changed the arrow of time.