Modern Physics Vol 2: Time

In which The Author muses on the Fourth Dimension

A word of warning: If you thought Space was complicated, wait until you start thinking about Time. As Cypher says in The Matrix, ‘Hang onto your hat, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye.’
Most scientists will point out that what we call ‘time’ is merely a way of rationalising the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the famous one about Entropy tending to a maximum. This means that the energy in a closed system will spread itself out evenly over time.
In layman’s terms, it means that complex systems inevitably break down into simpler, more stable elements, as the energy involved in holding them together dissipates. Elaborate structures decompose into their component parts.
A pint glass dropped onto a solid surface (such as the tiled concrete floor of this pub) will shatter into a hundred pieces. The energy stored during the process of creating the object is released in a small ‘explosion’ of kinetic energy (as the pieces fly around the pub) and sound (which is the cue for all the punters to start cheering.) We can film it in slo-mo and watch the structure collapse in minute detail.
If we’re making an episode of Doctor Who, we might decide to run the film backwards instead. Amy and Rory watch in amazed silence as the fragments of glass slowly reassemble themselves into their original form. But in the real world, we’d have to wait for an infinite length of time for this spontaneous reconstruction to occur. It would involve an unprovoked increase of energy and a simultaneous decrease of entropy – which the theory says is impossible.
This expression of the Second Law is commonly known as Time’s Arrow. Causality follows directly from this. You can’t have an effect preceding a cause. That’s pretty much the situation in a nutshell.
Physicists, philosophers and sf writers have been fascinated with Time for well over a century. From H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller, through Asimov and Heinlein, to Ian Watson’s nightmarish story ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ and the Back to the Future movies, right through to River Song’s incomprehensible life story, every aspect of time travel has been explored in fiction. World-class scientists differ over whether it’s possible in reality.
Others question the whole existence of Time as anything other than a human construct. Meanwhile, recent results from CERN provisionally suggesting the existence of faster-than-light neutrinos, have called into question Einstein’s Upper Limit of velocity in the universe. That’s a whole new can of Annelidae.
As before, the theory has little or nothing to do with the subject of this entry. I’m looking at Time from a more human perspective. It is said that we can measure it more accurately than any other real-world variable, and yet it still defeats most people entirely. Outside the textbooks, Time stops, bends, folds, warps, vanishes, and runs out of sync across even the smallest distances.
I first became aware of this as a teenager. I would look at my digital watch (the hot accessory to have in those days) and it seemed to me that more than one second would elapse before the digit counter moved. Even now I can look at a clock and perceive a time lag before the second hand moves. Maybe it’s my imagination. Maybe, like other physical phenomena, Time depends on the presence of an observer to become measurable. Who knows?
My real interest in the nature of Time began over twenty years ago, when I first started commuting to work. Every morning – without fail – the train would be held outside Pontypridd for at least five minutes, while the late-running service from Treherbert cleared the section ahead. People working in Pontypridd or the subsequent stations were late for work regularly as a result. After several weeks of this, a number of older passengers wrote to Howard Morris, the area manager of the train company, to complain. (I was too young and mild-mannered to join in back then!)
Mr Morris actually joined us one morning to experience the journey at first hand. When my fellow commuters asked about the constant delays, and their entitlement to compensation, Time bent in a way I’d never imagined before.
Apparently the train was scheduled to leave at a certain time (which it had) and arrive at its final destination at a certain time (which – barring accidents or incidents – it would.) Whatever happened in between was irrelevant. Mr Morris’ explanation was the macroscopic equivalent of a Feynman Diagram. The transition from Initial State to Final State made sense in an abstract, intuitive, aesthetically-pleasing way, but you didn’t want to contemplate the intermediate stages in too much depth. That way, madness (or a Nobel Prize) lay.
As for trains in general, they do vindicate Einstein’s predictions. The faster the notional speed of the rolling stock, the longer the elapsed journey time from the point of the observer. Ten years ago it took 52 minutes to travel from Aberdare to Cardiff Queen St. Now it’s increased to 58 minutes. Relatively speaking, that’s progress.
Then I started working in Cardiff and, priced out of the market, I switched to the buses. That was where the fun really started!
The disjunction between Theoretical Result and Practical Observation was never more apparent than in the age of the Shamrock Coach Travel Company of Pontypridd. Mention the name of Clayton Jones, the company owner, to anyone in the valleys (especially the Aberdare and Pontypridd areas) and I guarantee that you’ll get a litany of complaints about his business. A number of my Letters to the Editor concerned Shamrock (or Shambles, as they were known in the Cynon Valley) and its foibles.
Anyone who’s tried driving through Cardiff will know that it’s well-nigh impossible to get from the Bus Station to Junction 32 of the M4 in less than twenty minutes on a very good day. Google Maps gives the journey time as sixteen minutes. To do it in that time, you’d need to choose a quiet Sunday morning and hope that every single set of traffic lights was in your favour. During the rush hour, with half a dozen sets of lights to negotiate, you’d be lucky to get from the Bus Station to the Castle in five minutes.
Yet the brains behind the timetable had decreed that the Aberdare bus was to leave the Castle at 1735, and then leave Tongwynlais (off Junction 32) at 1740! Even if it were legally permissible, that’s still 6½ miles in five minutes, during the rush hour. Warp Factor Three, Mr Jones…
And Time was flexible as well. The last bus (which I had the misfortune of catching on several occasions) was scheduled to go off the Bus Station at 2130. In the real world, it would leave anywhere between 2115 and 2210. There was no alternative, either – the last train had long since left, so you played Russian Roulette at the departure bay. You couldn’t even risk going for a piss. If you were more than five seconds’ sprint from the bus door, it would shoot through the station without any pretence of slowing down.
The following morning, my regular phone call to Shamrock would be rebuffed by the Duty Inspector, denying any knowledge of the incident. Letters of complaint would be followed with Clayton Jones’ standard reply, ‘Our driver acted in good faith’ – a stock phrase which meant simply, ‘Tough shit!’
Early running was also a common cause for complaint. Late running can be explained by traffic conditions, but (as my friend Alun once said) early running is the cardinal sin. Stagecoach weren’t much better in those days. At one point BT wrote to me, asking if I wanted to add Stagecoach and Shamrock to my Friends & Family list, as I was dialling their numbers more often than anyone else’s.
Browsing through the Argos catalogue one day, I found a little battery-operated clock which was perfect for my needs. It set itself automatically to GMT or BST, using a radio signal broadcast from the atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory. I wouldn’t even need to touch it when the clocks changed twice a year. I’d wake up in the morning and it would already be in sync with the rest of the world. I bought it straight away. It was small enough to slip in my jacket pocket. Then I really declared war on public transport. Every time the bus turned up a couple of minutes early, I would take great pleasure in challenging the driver and showing him the exact time.
Early in 2002 I embarked on a one-man monitoring exercise for a few months. I logged the actual departure and arrival times of every bus I caught, and charted them next to the information from the timetable. After accumulating a representative sample of data, I sent it to the offices of the Traffic Commissioner in Birmingham. At the same time, and unknown to me, the Vehicle Inspectorate had also been carrying out a monitoring exercise on Shamrock. Their information and mine reinforced each other, and Shamrock were called before a Traffic Court in Llwynypia.
I booked the remainder of my annual leave and spent three days in the public gallery as Clayton Jones and his cronies entertained the audience. One of the great court exchanges of our time took place on Day Two, as Traffic Commissioner David Dixon quizzed Clayton Jones about aspects of his operation in the Treforest area.
DIXON: Mr Jones, I’ve been looking at your services numbered 8 and 8A. Now, bearing in mind that I’m not familiar with the area, I found the timetable rather confusing. Do you feel that other passengers might have the same problem?
JONES: Mr Commissioner, I’ve been running buses around here for twenty years. You show me one person who finds my timetables confusing, and I’ll give you a thousand pounds.
DIXON: It’s probably not a good idea to offer me money, Mr Jones.
On Day Three I decided to play my trump card. Leon, the IT guy from Shamrock’s office, had come to court to demonstrate the Wayfarer ticket machine. Every Monday morning, each machine would be plugged into the computer in the office and the clock would be updated. That clock, and no other reference point, was the benchmark by which Shamrock operated. Mr Dixon sat through this explanation as if he was a complete technophobe, and then Leon produced a machine which had been reset that very morning. He read the time out before the court – and it was three minutes fast.
I passed my little clock along the row, where I was sitting with representatives of Stagecoach, First Bus, Cardiff Bus, Newport Transport and Bebb’s – all of whom would have to plug the gaps if Shamrock actually lost their licence to operate. Finally it got to the woman who’d carried out the monitoring in the first place. We all grinned at each other and said nothing. The point was made.
When it comes to Time, the presence of alcohol is guaranteed to cause massive distortions. Taxis are a great example. Try phoning a taxi from the pub and one of two things will happen:
A) The driver says, ‘I can’t do anything for half an hour.’ So you get another pint in, only to have to gulp it down when the bugger arrives less than five minutes later.
B) The driver says, ‘I’m two minutes away.’ So you decide not to get another pint, and half an hour later you’re still waiting.
In some pubs Time ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. Wetherspoon in Aberdare is a classic example. You can wait ten minutes for a coffee in the afternoon, while half a dozen staff members mill around in the wings apparently doing nothing. At the other end of the day, you can get a pint at 2330, knowing that you have half an hour left before closing time. At 2345 they decide to close without even calling ‘last orders’, and you end up in Taxi A Situation again.
Some years ago I was in a pub in Cardiff with Alun and another couple of mates. There was a wall clock which worked on the same lines as my pocket clock. A printed sign underneath advised customers that ‘When we say it’s time, it actually is time!’ What a cool idea!
Anyway, I was thinking about all this earlier, while waiting in the pub for C— to turn up. There’s one thing which is 100% certain to destroy all concepts of Time. Two X chromosomes in the same genotype. When a woman says, ‘I’ll be five minutes,’ you know you’re safe to order at least another pint in the meantime. Shanara once took twenty minutes to walk the ‘five minutes’ from Aberdare Station to the Cambrian.
C— texted me earlier and said she’d meet me at midday tomorrow. I texted back and told her I’d pencil her in for 1.30. On the other hand, I might wait until quarter to two, just to save hanging around.
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