The Quest for the Elusive Chronon
In the past century, human science has advanced beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: we’ve put humans into space, eliminated entire cities with a single bomb, industrialized the genocide process, poisoned our entire planet, and figured out how to stick over 5000 albums into a small plastic box. We have peered billions of light years into the cosmos, we have unraveled the atom and discovered quantum weirdness, and even transcribed the human genome. As a direct consequence of all this glittering achievement, scientists are understandably pretty cocky these days. However, I would like to pass anyone reading this the Silver Bullet to instantly deflate the ego of anyone who’s exponentially more intelligent than you are: just ask them to explain what time is.
Time is the single most universally constant of physical constants, and yet we barely know anything at all about it. Here in 2007, we still don’t even have a working definition of what it is.
The inspiration for this article is something of a mystery—a quote I have transcribed in a notebook and attributed to Dennis & Terence McKenna. According to my notebook, the quote is from The Invisible Landscape, but I’ve just spent the past hour going through that book and I can’t find this passage anywhere. Stranger still, I haven’t had a copy of any other McKenna books for at least 2 years now. With that said, here’s the core concept:
...if the Universe is a computation, there is likely to be a smallest unit of time (time is granular) which cannot be broken down further. Such a hypothetical smallest unit of time is known as a chronon. A chronon is an absolute moment in which the Universe is in a particular state. This state will then proceed by a discrete ‘jump’ to form the next chronon according to whatever laws are operating on that state, much like the movement of electrons which are supposed to discretely jump from one orbit to another. There are believed to be no intermediary states between successive ‘jumps’.
“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.”
--St. Augustine, Confessions
1. Does time accelerate as scale decreases? Galaxies evolve over billions of years. Redwood trees stick around for thousands of years while few humans live past 100. During a human lifespan, insects will go through thousands of generations, and single-celled organisms have far shorter, faster lifespans than we do. Molecules move even faster, and on the quantum level things move so fast they appear to flicker in and out of existence.
2. Is our perception of time related to our diet and metabolism? I have no idea, but the concept fascinates me. I’m building a monster research pile over at the Brainsturbator forum, if you’re curious. (There’s also a large dose on brainfood about human body water content and chemistry.)
3. Can we deliberately alter our perception of time? The evidence would appear to be in for this question, and the answer is clearly yes. I would imagine most people reading this would agree just based off personal experience, especially those of y’all in the Magick community. This concept will definitely be explored in future episodes—I don’t think I’m going to focus on much else for the next month.
4. Does Time Even Exist?
Give time and thought to Julian Barbour, one of those talented and original physics thinkers of the past 50 years. Here’s his nutshell summary:
What is distinctive about your approach?
BARBOUR: My basic idea is that time as such does not exist. There is no invisible river of time. But there are things that you could call instants of time, or ‘Nows’. As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows, and the question is, what are they? They are arrangements of everything in the universe relative to each other in any moment, for example, now.
We have the strong impression that you and I are sitting opposite each other, that there’s a bunch of flowers on the table, that there’s a chair there and things like that—they are there in definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once in a definite mutual relationship. The interconnected totality becomes my basic thing, a Now. There are many such Nows, all different from each other. That’s my ontology of the universe—there are Nows, nothing more, nothing less.
But where does our experience of the flow of time come from?
BARBOUR: That has always proved to be difficult to attack, because if you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure that it’s there but they can’t get hold of it. Now my feeling is that they can’t get hold of it is because it isn’t there at all. That what we think is the flow of time—and even seeing motion—is actually an illusion. But I come to that after seeing what the quantum mechanics of the complete universe might be like.
If that was interesting, you will definitely enjoy his interview with the good folks over at EDGE.
History Revised, History Revisted
I had a really abrupt moment a few years when I was in the middle of a sentence. I was explaining the history of medicine as best I knew it, and I suddenly realized all I knew was the history of what white people have discovered. That’s not just medicine I’m talking about, the nauseating truth that hit me just then was that our whole history of philosophy and science is cracker-biased and pathetically incomplete. It’s been a steady trickle, though, of small headlines about startling discoveries.
We’re gradually admitting how much the rest of the world had progressed ahead of us white devils: “Indians Predated Newton ‘Discovery’ by 250 Years”—Study Finds Advanced 20th Centrury Geometry in 15th Century Tilings”—“Carbon Nanotubes in an Ancient Damascus Sabre”—and let’s not forget the nuclear reactor in Africa that’s 1.8 billion years old. We have been coasting along on inherited assumptions spoonfed to us by popular science magazines and teevee shows, and meanwhile the past decade has been the greatest reniassance in the known history of humankind. Everything changed, and you’ve got to really put in some work just to keep up with reality: “Everything We Know About Earth’s Core is Wrong”—“Economic Inequality Obeys Mathematical Power Laws”—and the pretty lady at Harvard who slowed light down to 38 miles per hour and later converted light into matter. As if that wasn’t offensive enough to common sense, some Germans had to go and break the speed of light, apparently just out of spite.
I don’t want to muse on human stupidity, though, that would be stupid. I’m actually thinking about Kevin Kelly’s old essay about how information spreads just like diseases do. I’m also thinking about light itself. After all, the speed of light was supposed to be a constant—a fundamental limit. Yeah, so much for that...so much for any and all attempts by human beings to impose boundaries on an infinitely baffling Universe.
Of course, this has some strange implications for time. Here on Earth in 2007, most humans are using “atomic clocks” as the Gold Standard measure of time. It’s difficult to give an easy summary of this logic and the process behind this without making it sound like bullshit—and perhaps it is. Although atomic clocks provide a high degree of accuracy, it’s still not a completely accurate system. Than again, when you only have to adjust your system by two seconds in 10 years, perhaps “completely accurate” is completely over-rated, huh?
Are there regions of the Universe that have a lesser or greater “density” of time than our own? Are any of them nearby, and do you have money for cab fare? If the speed of light is not a constant, like previously thought, does that mean we only got it wrong about the speed of light? Or could we be living in a Universe that’s composed of silly putty?
Ask a Bald Scottish Lunatic
...and they explained to me what time is all about: the Universe we live in is designed to grow larvae, right? They explained to me that, beyond space and time, we have our actual selves. These things that we’re experiencing right now are sections through time. Everyone in here is a section through time, but in actual fact, you’re not experiencing your real body.
What is your real body? Your real body is a process, it starts when you’re born and it moves forward until you die. That is you, seen from outside...you look like a giant centipede. Think of “ourselves” as processes through time, that’s what we actually are. We all know we were 12, but where is that? Point to it. Show me!
So these things said to me, “This is whats going on. We use time to grow larvae, because outside of space and time, you can’t grow anything. It’s timeless. If you want to make one of these higher dimensional beings—which is actually one of us, already—is you grow it in time. So, you make a Universe.”
And how you make a Universe is that you plug a little bit of yourself into the information world that they live in—which is what I seemed to be experiencing, a sea of pure information.
The MERLIN Project
As Pope Meyer has been known to remark: “too much is always better than not enough.” And I am definitely loading this up with too much, but that’s because there’s too much to explore. For an exceptionally curious journey down a weird corridor, I recommend checking out this Rigorous Intuition article about The MERLIN Project. The article is from 2005, and it would appear that the MERLIN track record is beginning to falter:
Osama bin Laden will be “in strength” in 2005 and 2006.
Something out of the ordinary starts in the next year or two and culminates at the end of the decade. At the end of 2005, something profound will happen. They’re not sure what, exactly, it may be but it could be an asteroid strike or a massive UFO invasion. (Comment: I swear to you, these guys sounded scientific, not flaky.)
In 2008-2009, something even more profoundly changing will happen that will affect about 4 out of 6 people. Something like a pandemic.
Full Circle and Back
It was McKenna who started this off, and I feel obligated to let him have the last word. “Time must be well used: this is a basis for a possible theory of ethics.” I’ve always been pretty fond of that one, mostly since it resonates with my own War on Sleep and the obsessions that make my dreams feel like a surrealist extension to my regular workday. (This is not “unhealthy” and I am not complaining.) For the big finish, though, I’d like to share one of the best riffs McKenna ever gave about time, during the course of an interview with Boing Boing Magazine:
So this process of complexification is going on in nature. When you look at it you realize that it happened faster and faster. It took a long time for there to be life, or just for planets to form, and stars to settle down. Then once you get life, you get a very rapid proliferation of form, and by rapid I mean in scales of hundreds of millions of years, and then you get higher animals. After that you get animals like ourselves, and you get language, and culture, and writing, and electronic media. Each of these steps occurs more and more quickly, leading to the conclusion that human history and the presence of tool making, poetry making, and thinking creatures on this planet have something to do with being caught, or you might otherwise say, fortunately positioned very close to a kind of anomaly that is haunting space and time. You can think of it as a collision with a hyper dimensional black hole.
We and our universe and everything in it are being sucked closer and closer into the presence of something which seems to be made out of pure idea. It’s very hard to English, but it explains basically what’s going on on this planet - why it is that 50,000 years ago, shit-hurling monkeys decided to set off on the long march toward the space shuttle, and an integrated global economy, and toxic pollution, and the whole ball of wax? A process of some sort unique in nature was unleashed 25-50,000 years ago. From that point on there was a tremendous push into symbolic expression and the cultural consequence of symbolic expression which is technology. And now, we’ve run the nut right off the end of the bolt, and the planet’s finite limits are being reached. But the process shows no sign of slowing down. So rather than see it as some apocalypse or some terrible flaw of human fate run amok, I see it as a natural phenomenon. Human history is not our fault.
The world is getting weirder and weirder by leaps and bounds. It’s moving faster and faster. It’s very science fiction. You have potentially human life-extinguishing epidemic diseases, at the same time that you have whispers of cold fusion and journeys to the stars. Meanwhile people are meeting little rubbery beings in their bedrooms in the middle of the night, and having rectal examinations. All this crazy shit is going on which is called the melt-down of Western civilization at the end of the second millennium. Then if you toss psychedelic drugs into the mix, shamanic plants and this sort of thing, and make journeys out into the architectonic superspace of the culture, you quickly realize the cosmic egg is cracking.
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