How do we experience time? Is it by staring at the clock; perhaps watching the second hand moving continuously? Is time only imaginable by crossing days on our calendars? Can we see time? These and other questions, many of them quintessential enigmas of the mathematical component in traditional physics, are discussed with Nicholas Suntzeff, director of the astronomy program at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas.

The prequel to this in-depth look at t=time starts in 2017, during a literature review of sensory systems, in which a stark discovery – at least for this author – is revealed: Homo sapiens could have the least privileged sensory apparatus in the aerobic species arena. Bats, elephants, dolphins, snakes, and other species, easily overwhelm humans in their distinct abilities to make decisions based on naturally altered states of our sensory abilities. In such a broad study, the question of l=light (electromagnetic radiation perceived by the human eye) becomes the focus of a story that leads to how human sight is responsible for an oddly categorization of t=time.

Concept of time

So the principal question from a qualitative scientific approach is: does the present even exist? In the traditional formula of physics, the answer is provided by the calculation of light travel, explains the astronomer. “We do see everything in the past, just because of the finite speed of light,” says Suntzeff. He adds, “So everything that is coming into my consciousness here has taken a while. You know, across the room – that’s five nanoseconds ago; across the street – that’s 300 nanoseconds ago. But then in astronomy we go way far beyond that. So our telescopes are like looking back in time. The farther we look into the universe, the farther back in time it is.” Such rule, when applicable to daily life, away from telescopes and astronomy becomes a philosophical discourse: are constantly living in the past?

Dr. Suntzeff does not think so, albeit he acknowledges every bit of light coming into our conscious is, in fact, nanoseconds late to actually be the present in our perception. “In modern physics we describe reality by describing four coordinates, made famous by Albert Einstein. And it’s not a single four dimensional space. These are complicated in the sense that there are three dimensions where I have free will. The fourth coordinate, time, is always stuck in the present. We can’t jump in time. I don’t have the ability to swim across time.”

The assumption here is that this particular coordinate, then, has to be accepted as a convention of what we call the present. Many scientists have determined time is an abstract construct based on gravitational time dilation. However, according to Suntzeff, matters are much more complicated than either accepting time as a relative concept or the product of a diverse set of variables in and of themselves packed with subsets of variables too numerous to dissect. “While I am talking to you and looking at your face, I don’t pick up all the information about your face as it comes into my present, says Suntzeff. “My brain adds a huge amount of information as to who you are because I have already met you. So my brain is not only accepting the state (of what) comes in, but it’s adding a heck of lot which is important for consciousness. It is also a bit dangerous because you can easily find stereotypes and judge a person based on those stereotypes. But the actually sensory information is phenomenal, you know, with five senses. What I am actually feeling is a huge lot more because my brain is inventing it based on prior experience.”

Nicholas Suntzeff

The astronomer believes this is one intersect between science and sociology. He mentions the use of Bayesian statistics, where probability expresses reality, as the explanation of general perception. However, he limits his opinion on the perception of time based on a single item in the biology of mankind: consciousness. Suntzeff agrees there has to be a definition of consciousness in order to explain time, and many other concepts of reality.

For now, time, indeed, is different for everyone – inside and outside our body. In one dimension, it is calculated by the perception of light and how each object in our consciousness is interpreted by our brain – plus the (+/-) of each one of our individual sensory systems. What we live is time in the present, if we forget the nuances of light travel. And, finally, accepting a physics concept as a determinant of our social life, could very well serve as a pivotal increment of understanding why things matter, or don’t.