It’s no fairy tale: There once was no time

Once upon a time there was no time. I know you are expecting a fairy tale, but this is a science column. We scientists don’t believe in fairies. However, scientists do believe that once upon a time there was no time. 

That is because time is a dimension in which events can be ordered from the past, to the present, to the future. Events, on the other hand, are descriptions of things that happen in a material world, that can be described by physical laws, and that can be ordered in time. So if there was ever a time when there were no events, there would be a time when there was no time. 

Oh, I know it’s not as simple as that makes it sound. Sir Isaac Newton had a so-called realistic view of time. He saw as a container in which things happened in sequence. So let’s talk about time in volumetric ways like one would a container. “I’d like an extra quart of time please.” “Yes, I believe I’ll have two scoops of time.” That doesn’t work too well, does it?

Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, thought time was a purely intellectual concept, like numbers, and couldn’t be measured or traveled. “Dr. Who” fans will find this idea unacceptable. Of course, that doesn’t ring true either because there seems to be a distinct difference between the time the alarm rings and the time I actually get up.

Having not enough time is not the same as having no time. Not having enough time is incorrect. Everyone has all the time there is available at the time. It isn’t that we don’t have enough time. It’s that we have too many events. If we cut out some events, we would find that we had more time, even though the amount of time we are talking about is the same as before when we had more events. 

Thomas Aquinas, more than 800 years ago, maintained that every physical event has a cause. He further pointed out that the cause of any physical event had a previous cause, and that previous cause would have also had a previous cause. If there was ever a time when there were no previous causes, there would also be no time. But what does he know? He wasn’t even a scientist. In fact, science hadn’t even been invented at that time. 

Modern physicists who are, of course, real scientists think that there was a time when there were no events. The first event was a massive explosion which created the universe, sort of like, “Let there be light.” All the matter in the universe came into existence at that time as well as all the laws of physics. Since there were no events prior to that time, there was no time. Time came into existence when things started to happen that could be put in sequence. 

What existed prior to time? That was eternity. Eternity isn’t time. It’s like a novel. Events in a novel take place in the time of the novel. However, the time in the novel has no meaning in the author’s time other than the time it takes the author to write about the time in the novel.

This is no different than events in a novel. If I commit a murder in a novel I write, it doesn’t apply to me. I cannot be arrested for a “novel murder” unless it is a murder in real time committed in a novel way. I am not part of the events of a novel, and my time is not part of the novel’s time. I am eternal from the point of view of a novel. That’s why stories always occur in “once upon a time.”

Anyway, I thought I ought to use this week’s column to remind you that tonight is the time for the event in which you set your clocks back one hour.

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


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