Monday, October 29, 2012

i, clock

mr. einstein (yes, the same einstein) said that time is what clocks measure. (and that distance is what rulers measure.) this he said as the face of the newtonian  world was beginning to fail to give what seemed to be the true time.

such an understanding of the world, with constancy and extension and causality, had been around at least since the time of aristotle. it was isaac newton's singular gift to find the 'natural laws' required by such an understanding, and to express it in the language of mathmatics.
. . .
i started writing this post more than three months ago. it was going to be an easy middle piece of a series exploring how we folks see ourselves in our biggest new thing. this one would be about clocks, with the third exploring our self-concept as computers.

but, it hasn't been that easy. i was going to mention robert hooke's 1660's invention of coil spring mechanisms for clocks, newton's laws as a suggestion that if we knew the position of every thing at a particular time, and their motion, we could predict the position of every thing at any other time. of course there would be a paragraph about reliable clocks as the british solution to longitude, and their importance to the empire. laplace's remark to napoleon that the hypothesis of god was no longer needed, and i would end with einstein's looking out the patent office window at the swiss standard railroad clock and his mind experiment about time as measured by clocks on a train.
but clocks are harder to dismiss than that. apple computers still use the swiss railroad clock face, rendered digitally. i have been fascinated that adverts for watches continue to be an important source of revenue for print media. and despite the perhaps wishful thinking of john wheeler and roger penrose, time remains irreversable for us. tim keeps on slipping into the future, and the time runs out of us.

so: how to look at the universe as a clock? where do we fit into such a universe? the answer is that we are the observer, the watcher. there is no longer any universal time, despite the success of british navigators. they were successful in returning to new zealand, for instance, time and time again merely because of the convenience of scale. but when one moves really fast or in very small spaces, all newtonian bets are off. there is only the observer's time. the tree in the forest is only an observed tree. schrodiger's cat has no say in its own life or death.

(obviously if this were a wikipedia article it would be criticized for lack of sources. but i'm assuming that you, gentle reader, can google as easily as i.)

the image that keeps coming back to me thinking of the universe as a clock and ouselves as the observer whose constant gaze holds it in existence is that of a small child, who thinks that covering one's eyes makes the world go away.

i find thinking about such a world confusing. when i lived in santa fe i was surrounded by rich folks drivding big white toyotas like some sort of ngo, with bumper stickers saying 'i create my own reality'. i wondered what the folks in the toyota factories thought of those bumper stickers; were they merely part of some very rich divorcee's dream? and i wondered about starving refugees--what were they thinking? couldn't they come up with a more nourishing morning affirmation?

and sometimes i think with miranda, someone who exists to be observed, an early 17th. century character born just before accurate clocks, long before japanese virtual character hatsune miku, ' what brave new world, that has such creatures in't?' if the world is a clock that exists because we are watching it, who or what is watching us? that leads to the next installment: world as (perhaps quantum) computer.