A week ago, a childhood friend of mine passed away inexplicably. Apart from the obvious fact that I am mourning him, and grieving for our nice memories, and suffering for his family, I am also reliving some other recent and very painful grief of my own.
My friend who passed was the same age my husband was when he died: just 36. He was also a physician, and a compassionate and very intelligent person, just like my husband. Also like my husband, we aren’t sure what happened to him and, if the family ever does get answers, it’s likely that I will not learn them. I won’t ask. Sometimes when people asked me how Manny died, it was because they were afraid it might also happen to them, or they assumed a flaw in his character that didn’t exist, or sometimes it seemed like they were just being intrusive, without actually lending much consideration to the fact that a remarkable person was gone from the earth. In the end, the cause doesn’t matter. A person’s void here is a tragedy no matter what caused it. But the reason I keep trying to put the puzzle together for myself is because it roiled up some thoughts that I had been letting rest awhile, and those thoughts are back, at an intrusive, almost obsessive level.
The thought in the foreground of all of these thoughts is on the subject of the illusion of time, and how it relates to the realm of several simultaneous present-tense realities, as well as future realities.
About a decade ago, Discover Magazine published an article on the problem of the existence and the direction of time.
The trouble with time started a century ago, when Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity demolished the idea of time as a universal constant. One consequence is that the past, present, and future are not absolutes. Einstein’s theories also opened a rift in physics because the rules of general relativity (which describe gravity and the large-scale structure of the cosmos) seem incompatible with those of quantum physics (which govern the realm of the tiny). Some four decades ago, the renowned physicist John Wheeler, then at Princeton, and the late Bryce DeWitt, then at the University of North Carolina, developed an extraordinary equation that provides a possible framework for unifying relativity and quantum mechanics. But the Wheeler-DeWitt equation has always been controversial, in part because it adds yet another, even more baffling twist to our understanding of time.
“One finds that time just disappears from the Wheeler-DeWitt equation,” says Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France. “It is an issue that many theorists have puzzled about. It may be that the best way to think about quantum reality is to give up the notion of time—that the fundamental description of the universe must be timeless.”
… But as Einstein proved, time is part of the fabric of the universe. Contrary to what Newton believed, our ordinary clocks don’t measure something that’s independent of the universe. In fact, says Lloyd, clocks don’t really measure time at all.
… As Rovelli explains it, in quantum mechanics all particles of matter and energy can also be described as waves. And waves have an unusual property: An infinite number of them can exist in the same location.”
So, in a flippantly exaggerated interpretation of the above, in this universe you’re reading this article because your person is dead and you’ve taken an interest in articles like this one due to that, while at the exact same time and even in the same exact place, you and your very much alive person are enjoying an ice cream together and talking about the weather. In yet another quantum universe, you are the one who has passed. And they are all true and they are all happening right now, at the same time. The same is true of me, and of every person and thing that has ever existed.
Think I’m interpreting too far? In fact, it seems that Einstein interpreted his own discoveries to mean something like it. Later in the same Discover article quoted above, Einstein is mentioned having written a letter taking comfort after losing a loved one.
Einstein, for one, found solace in his revolutionary sense of time. In March 1955, when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, he wrote a letter consoling Besso’s family: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
There is a wealth of information on this mysterious subject out there on the web, from YouTube to blogs, blockbuster Hollywood movies and Science Journals. Certain controversial but recognized and important scientists, such as Robert Lanza and Deepak Chopra, are pioneering new theories on what reality really is, in spite of what it seems. They stand on the shoulders of such scientists like Carl Jung et al, practicing what skeptics call “pseudo-science.” Of course, I’m not a scientist, but I obviously think that in time, as these theories are further explored and (I truly believe) proven, society will begin to heal from these dark ages, where recorded knowledge is destroyed in wars over centuries (from the great library of Athens to censoring practices under modern dictatorships), or hidden in caves for safekeeping (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). I believe that reuniting with our lost loved ones is a certainty, whether you call it heaven or time or math or consciousness or memory – it is reality, it is now and it’s forever. And it gives me great comfort to know that in some way which I don’t quite understand logically, I am with my loved ones whom I miss in this life, right now. I experience that truth as a peace deep within me, made valid by such points as this one:
Realizing that his explanation may only be deepening the mystery of time, Rovelli says that much of the knowledge that we now take for granted was once considered equally perplexing. “I realize that the picture is not intuitive. But this is what fundamental physics is about: finding new ways of thinking about the world and proposing them and seeing if they work. I think that when Galileo said that the Earth was spinning crazily around, it was utterly incomprehensible in the same manner. Space for Copernicus was not the same as space for Newton, and space for Newton was not the same as space for Einstein. We always learn a little bit more.”
As I bid farewell to my friend in this life, I take comfort in this sort of secret that I harbor, that he didn’t go anywhere at all, that he is still very near, somehow. As Deepak Chopra says, “Where can the self go, when all that is, is within it? If a pot is taken from one place to anther, the space within it does not move, for space and time derive their meaning from consciousness alone.” Stay open, my beloveds.