Have you got the time? The answer is relative

Here we are at the beginning of another cycle. I think the idea of beginning is hard to understand. Wasn’t what happened before the beginning the beginning of the beginning? So how can there be a beginning of anything if something else occurred before the beginning?

That which came before the beginning must be the real beginning.

For example, was the beginning my wife’s shy smile at the football game? Or was the beginning my wife’s previous proper parenting that taught her to be kind to dumb animals? Or was the beginning when my buddy and I decided, several hours before the football game, to go out looking for girls. Why did we even climb the fence to a high school football game when we were such cool, mature college men?

I think beginnings are always more interesting than endings. I look forward to each new semester. For 40 years I have thought that in the next semester I will surely be a better teacher and scientist than I was in the last. Beginnings are dangerous and mysterious, like the opening murder in a mystery. Sometimes beginnings are romantic, and sometimes beginnings are hard work, like with the birth of a child.

I think endings are sort of downers. The exciting new ideas are old now, and it’s too late to change things very much anyway. It’s probably clear to most of my students by midterm that the class isn’t ever going to get any better. There is nothing left to do but grind it out, while looking forward to the next beginning. I am already excitedly planning new ideas for spring semester of 2013. Does that make me an eternal optimist?

Much of life is cyclical, but most of science is linear. Scientists like straight lines that they can extrapolate into the future. To be sure, there are lots of bell-shaped and geometric curves, but we assume they repeat themselves into the straight-lined future. Yet we live in cycles: life cycles, lunar periods, planetary cycles, oscillating atoms and of course birthdays.

Mankind has understood the planetary cycles for thousands of years as evidenced by Stonehenge and the Mayan calendar that didn’t predict the end of time. I once served with an Army sergeant who could tell time to within a quarter of an hour from a clear night sky. He is the only person I have ever personally known who could do that. I suspect in ancient times it was a routine and necessary skill. Most modern Americans probably haven’t really seen the night sky since they got the satellite dish.

Sir Isaac Newton thought there were two kinds of time: absolute and relative. Absolute time moved without reference to anything external to itself. Relative time he thought was measured by the means of motion. 

We use the motion of planets to define the hour, a month or a year.

It was Einstein who pointed out that time was sensed differently by people depending on their positions in space and whether or not they are moving. For example, if traveling by train, one will visually perceive things ahead of them at the speed of light plus the speed of the train. It will take even more time for the person on the train going the other way to perceive the same thing.

I guess all one has to do to be ahead of their time is keep moving.

Apparently, according to Einstein, time is marked when two moving objects arrive at the same place simultaneously. That is what my wife and I have managed to do over many years.

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand them that I think beginnings are exciting. Oh, I’ve got great plans for next semester.

Blessed are they who go in circles for they shall be known as big wheels. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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