More than 60 years before the misnamed Big Bang came along, the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, had already concluded that the universe was not infinitely old. Maxwell came to this view from the study of thermodynamics. Everything is driven into motion by heat, but as heat is ever being dispersed and can never be re-collected, the universe is like a big clock running down with no mechanism to wind it back up.
You might think that heat can be re-collected when you take the heat out of water and turn it to ice, but in doing so even more heat is distributed by the fridge which is why it gets warm at the back. As a consequence of thermodynamics, if the universe had been running forever, all sources of heat would be dispersed by now. At some time in the limited past, there must have been a single source of undispersed heat, a fully wound-up clock.
As Maxwell puts it, if we 'ascend the stream of time... We thus arrive at the conception of the state of things which cannot be conceived as the physical result of a previous state of things, and we find that this critical condition actually existed at an epoch not in the utmost depths of past eternity, but separated from the present time by a finite interval'.
Current estimates put that interval at about 13.7 billion years. Probably longer than Maxwell had in mind. He did not know that some of his discoveries would later lead Einstein to find that the universal source of energy is far greater than he ever imagined. Energy, that cause of all motion, turns out to be created from that which it moves, matter, and by a fantastically huge ratio – a tiny amount of matter when destroyed creates an enormous amount of energy. That huge ratio determines the quantity of heat created by the sun and all the stars, and thermodynamically determines the age of the universe. It also determines the yield from an atom bomb and perhaps not coincidentally is now known to determine the rate at which time passes.
Our understanding of time was not helped by H G Wells who came up with the idea that the past still exists and could be visited using a machine that could somehow tunnel back. An idea so exciting it has spawned many stories on the theme. So many that some people have forgotten that it's nonsense, as the past does not exist and for that simple reason you cannot build a machine to get there. There is no 'there' to go to.
Not only does the past not exist, neither does the future. Only the lonely present exists containing an ever-fading recording of the past and, if John Calvin or Tolstoy are to be believed, an emerging recording of an inevitable future. We know now there is no predetermined future built into this machine universe for quantum mechanics and chaos theory combine to insist that many very different futures can grow from an identical present, though only one does. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the view of the 1950's physicist Hugh Everett, that all possible futures actually do come about but for self-evident reasons we only ever perceive the one we are in. Quite a thought.
Either way, political leaders who use words like 'destiny' or 'inevitable' should be sectioned under the mental health act and taken to a comfortable sanatorium. They endanger society by spreading a great untruth. Nothing is destined or inevitable.
The only ever-present present can be thought of as being like that instant when the white ball on a snooker table strikes the triangle of reds, but a huge landscape of such events, all unfolding from a previous present – the white ball moving in a straight line before impact – becoming the future present, with the red balls and the white flying all over the place. You can quickly see that a universe such as this will be ever dispersing energy just as the universe does.
Also, many things can happen as a result of one event. While the future present might look quite random, if you calculate all the various directions, combined speeds and masses of the balls after the event, it will turn out to be the same as the singular combined speed, direction and mass of the single white ball before it. Momentum is conserved. The motion of every ball is therefore connected to the motion of every other. This continuity of momentum between the past present, the present present and the future present means matter flows in an orderly way as if time is a river rather than the stroboscopic thing it is. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the momentum of the Earth will have carried you about 206km. The present is a moment in which momentum is exchanged. There is no future nor is there a past for it is all only the present ever changing its shape.
The introduction to book nine of War and Peace
is an essay on the cause of a war. Tolstoy suggests that many events combined to collectively cause this single disastrous thing and he lists the many influences on Napoleon's almost accidental invasion of Russia. 'The wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.'
He argues a kind of reversal of the white snooker ball hitting the triangle of reds, like watching a movie of it in reverse. Where the many reds going in all directions combine perfectly to form a solid stationary triangle, leaving a white ball to move off in a straight line like the first cannon ball fired in that war. Many events combine to cause one and he concludes, although I am not convinced he believes it, that it is all predetermined. An idea like Hugh Everett's Many Worlds
theory, impossible to prove or disprove, unlikely to be true but difficult to dismiss from the mind once suggested.
Maxwell is most famous for suggesting that light is energy trapped in an electromagnetic wave and so will always travel at a speed determined by something like the electrical elasticity and magnetic viscosity of space. It was this discovery that led Einstein to eventually figure out that it is the speed of light that determines the rate at which energy escapes from the mainspring of this clock universe and so sets the rate at which time passes.
Light is the pendulum or escapement mechanism, oscillating with precise regularity between electricity and magnetism, taking the least spacetime to go wherever it goes, carrying energy not in proportion to its speed but in proportion to its rate of oscillation.
In spacetime, a curved path between two points can sometimes be 'time' shorter than a straight line. Look at a fish in water and you know the light is bent, it travels in a kinked path which happens to be the fastest possible path the light can take from fish to eye. (It would take more time to travel in a straight line as light travels more slowly in water.) Double the speed of light and events in the universe would unfold twice as fast but as you would also think and perceive twice as fast would you notice any difference? As far as we can tell, the speed of light always stays the same and fortunately for us all it is not infinity for if it was, we wouldn't have time to sit around thinking about time.
In an interview in The Guardian
, Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukrainian Prime Minister, said of Putin: 'He's driven by this idea of historic mission… it comes from a deep inner desire and belief'. In this case, to return the borders of Russia to wherever they were in the past. Putin is not the only politician in the world driven by such forces. Every other leader on the planet seems to have some 'historic mission', which is to say a mission to restore a historical condition, and is driven by a deep inner desire to make things go back to the past. These leaders rise to the top as naturally as a cork bobs up in water because many of the people they rule over feel that way too and so they are supported. It seems innate.
Many of us have a strong feeling, having learned some selected slice of history, that in the past things were the way they should be and so they should be put back. The trouble is, the laws of thermodynamics tell us that while it is possible to reverse things, the chaos you create in doing so will always be greater than the order you recreate.
We have all heard of futurists, but they are outnumbered I think by 'pastists' – people obsessed with the idea of putting things back the way they were. Pastism is used to justify the unjustifiable. It justifies, not just to Putin, but to millions in Russia we are told, that using violence to make the borders of Russia go back to where they were is right. It justifies that Taiwan rightly be reassumed into China. That the Palestinian people be evicted from land they lived on for generations because another people even more generations previously lived there.
Closer to home, we might think the people of Birmingham and Manchester were odd and unfair to hold a referendum to strip the Scots of their rights as citizens in their city. Yet we do not think it odd or unfair for the people of Glasgow and Edinburgh to vote to strip the English of their citizens' rights in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is evidently perfectly right to take away their rights without them having a say. But why? Because once, a long time ago, Scotland was another country. So it was then and so it should be again.
All over the world, people think the future should be made in the image of the past because it feels right. Perhaps because they are simply incapable of imagining the future as it might be and so they look to the past and see a misguiding mirage. A mirage so convincing it has turned the world into a patchwork of political conflicts and war.
In this present, more than in any previous present, we must look less to the past, stop thinking how it should be restored, and start looking around and thinking more about the now and more about the future. If we don't, we might not have one. That fundamental discovery that energy is created from destroyed matter and by a huge proportion has brought us to this world now, where weapons of unimaginable destructive power, capable of obliterating all human life on Earth, are in the hands of mad men fighting over what time to put the world back to. Some of these mad men even think that they are going to begin a new life after they die in some beautiful hereafter. That view of reality, like the time machine and the parallel universe theory, is highly unlikely to be true.
The 13.7-billion-year chain of events that has led to our existence is so blindingly beautiful in all its unlikely dimensions it outshines the beauty of any religious view, but it also tells us that we have no determined destiny. Anything can happen. A future of great beauty may reveal itself, a time when everyone in the world lives well and the biodiversity of Earth is restored.
Equally likely is a future of great horror, possibly leading to our complete annihilation thanks to that ratio of energy to mass. There is nothing we can do about that ratio. It is the same ratio that gives us the time to think, but in that time, we can surely change the way we do think.
We can surely see the madness of two governments, whose job it is to run schools and hospitals, fighting over which one of them is to run this school or run this hospital, launching guided missiles and drones demolishing those schools and hospitals and killing pupils and patients and many more soldiers in the process. 'They kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people.' All to restore the past.
Maxwell later in that talk about ascending the stream of time says: 'To us who breathe only the spirit of our own age, and know only the characteristics of contemporary thought, it is impossible to predict the general tone of the science of the future as it is to anticipate the particular discoveries which it will make'.
By insisting that the only good future is one where some singular past condition is restored, we shackle ourselves, imprison our minds and blind our eyes to many more beautiful possible futures, some of which are impossible to predict.
John McGrath is a retired teacher of Physics and Maths who lives with his partner and daughter in Portobello