“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Space might be big, vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big but our orbit of the Sun scribes out such a small part of it that it takes only a year for us to come back to the same spot on it again. The Sun itself has moved on in its own orbit of the Milky Way so it’s not the exact same spot in space. For me, that just adds to the arbitrariness of the notion of a New Year.
The thing about time I really don’t understand is why it’s on such a strong ratchet. Our experience of time passing changes depends on how bored or tired we are but we don’t experience the future before the past. I really should insert a get me the lottery numbers joke here but while you can’t know what’s in the future, some tropes are predictable and therefore boring and good bloggers should avoid them like the pl…
I’m not going to mention transmissible diseases today.
I am going to mention general relativity. I’m probably going to mangle it and get dragged off by the Physics Police for some re-education but here goes. Time slows down when there’s a lot of gravity around the place, but only from the point of view of an observer where there is less gravity. That’s your actual time dilation, that is. I think. It also slows down the faster you’re moving but that’s special relativity and I’m just going to ignore that. It’s irrelevant to the point I’m almost certainly going to miss because I’ve forgotten what I was talking about at the start of the paragraph. For you, lovely reader, probably only ninety seconds or so have passed. For me, it’s been about an hour while I read up on Einstein and black holes and pointedly avoided looking up stuff about quantum physics.
Frames of reference are important in relativity and there are equally important frames of reference in reading, and in creating a narrative. I am aware that I’m letting you peek behind the curtain here and nobody really wants to see how political deals, sausages or blog posts are made. Nevertheless, an hour, that’s how long it took me to create what was supposed to be a brief linking paragraph and now you’ve wasted another minute on my excuses for its rambling nature. Onwards.
In spite of time slowing down in the presence of a strong gravitational field, it doesn’t ever start going backwards. The biggest, strongest, weirdest objects in nature can’t change the direction of time. That’s what I meant about time having a ratchet on it. One of those nice clicking screwdrivers that let you screw your things together but not unscrew them unless you slide the slidey mechanism over a couple of notches, a bit like that.
We can’t go back in time. We can only go forward in our frame of reference at the rate of one second per second, one minute per minute, one hour at a time, one day at a time, every week of every year. This particular spot we’re passing through now is not the same spot we were passing through this time last year. Everything is moving in relation to everything else, and it’s moving with what Douglas Adams would have called mind-boggling speed and we can barely tell. It’s only noticeable if you pay close attention to the sky on dark nights, months apart, and who has the time anyway? Who has the time to do that other than astronomers and dreamers?
To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter. Our days, this year just gone of all years, have all melded into one. Ironically, as far as this blog post is concerned, only the longer nights and shorter days give us much sense of change. The gentle, relentless, pulse of the seasons as the year proceeds is what gives our year a rhythm. Without that, we’d have no marker of change. That in turn is a result of another arbitrary thing, the tilt of our good Earth on its axis.
I’m going to try to wrap up some stuff here. Space might indeed be sphincter-wiltingly big. The passage of time is absolutely relentless. We can’t change that. All we can do really is find people with whom to share the experience as we complete another orbit of the Sun. If you feel the need for a start to things I’m just about human enough to wish you a Happy New Arbitrary Moment In Time. Happy 2021, people. Be nice to one another.