You might not think there's a connection between former supermodel Elle Macpherson and time-travel science, but you're wrong.
From time to time, I make time to think about time. But the more time I spend thinking about time, the more I think I might be wasting my time, because time is very confusing.
For example, even though everybody says time keeps on ticking, I often seem to be running out of time.
When say I’m running out of time, I don’t mean literally. Time is very large, and I don’t have the endurance or aerobic conditioning required to run out of it, let alone the motivation. I think it would take practically forever, and I honestly believe I don’t have the patience for that.
What I really mean is that I don’t feel like I have enough time to do all things I want or need to do. Consider tomorrow’s to-do list:
1) Accidentally sleep 12 hours, wake up too late to get to work on time, take a few hours of sick time.
2) Take a sauna, shower, check the e-mail, watch The Price is Right and Jeopardy!, start writing my postmodern, magically realistic, historical science-fiction novel about Abraham Lincoln and his time-travelling personal assistant, U Thant. (Don’t judge it until you read it. There’s a reason why Lincoln seemed so far ahead of his time.)
3) Go to work, check the e-mail, find out what people did for fun last night, kill some time by filling up the inbox on my desk with old reports and memos so I look busy when my boss stops by to sign my time sheet.
4) Eat lunch, go on a walk and take time to smell the roses, pick up groceries for tonight’s meal, return to work, check the e-mail, find out what other people had for lunch and are going to do for fun that night if they have the time.
5) Go home, nap, make dinner, check the e-mail, find out how my wife’s day went, watch The Mentalist, The Office, 30 Rock, any episode of Glee featuring Jane Lynch, CBS News 4, Parks and Recreation, Criminal Minds, The Amazing Race, Body of Evidence, The Closer, Southland, David Letterman, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, reminisce with my wife about how much time we had for fun before we had kids, read a magazine article or three, argue about religion and/or politics online with somebody I don’t know, finish my novel, check the e-mail, take a relaxing sauna, go to sleep.
Is it any wonder I feel like I’m running out of time? Sometimes I feel like I should institute a little time management and quit work just so I can cram the important stuff in.
On the other hand, I often feel like I also have too much time on my hands.
I don’t mean literally on my hands, because I don’t know if that’s possible, let alone safe. Time might be radioactive for all we know, or worse, affiliated with the politically conservative Tea Party. If I thought I was going to have poisonous, brain-killing time crawling all over my hands, I’d wear surgical gloves 24/7 for protection, even if people thought I was a doctor and kept asking me to give them rectal exams, which I’d probably decline to do no matter how much time I had available.
What I really mean is that sometimes time feels like it stops moving very quickly and suddenly starts moving very slowly, or not at all, just like kids act when you ask them to do their chores. In fact, there seems to be a sliding scale of time, or what USS Enterprise Science Officer Spock might call a Time-Event Anomaly:
1) Mind-blowing sex: 20 minutes = 20 seconds.
2) Good movie: 2 hours = 20 minutes.
3) Vacation day: 24 hours = 2 hours.
4) Work: 1 minute = 2 hours.
5) Meeting with income-tax preparer: 1 hour = Eternity, in the 9th Circle of Hell.
These wild variations in my perception of time make no sense. It ought to feel as regular as clockwork. My Timex wristwatch certainly appears to measure time in nearly perfect one-second increments, one following the other every day until the battery dies.
Some people prefer to do their time travelling in a modified DeLorean, but I like the copper-and-brass Victorian stylings of H.G. Wells.
Which reminds me, I need to add getting a new watch battery to my to-do list.
Even if my watch isn’t running, however, the latest atomic clocks over at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) near my house in Denver are. Scientists there claim their clocks are astonishingly accurate, gaining or losing less than a second of time over a billion years, although I doubt anybody makes a battery that good, or that anybody’s going to wait around to see if they’re right.
Planes, trains, buses and ships worldwide rely on NIST’s split-second timekeeping to maintain their schedules, which is strange because whenever I travel I’ve come to expect accuracy of minus one hour to one day. That sort of delay feels like a billion years, give or take a second, especially if you’re stuck somewhere like Idaho’s Boise Airport. It’s got a dinky terminal and a lousy food court featuring the inappropriately named Maui Taco restaurant, Home of the Honolili Burrito.
I mean, come on, Boise, you’re totally land-locked and three time zones away from Hawaii!
A Hawaiian burrito?
Scientists can’t explain Idaho—they don’t even try—but they are feverishly working on a definition of time, perhaps because they know better than anybody that time is of the essence. Scientists like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking argue that the passage of time is an illusion, that clocks don’t measure the speed or flow of time, just the distance between events, which are packed together in something they call “space-time.” In simple terms, which are the only terms I have the slightest chance of understanding, the current theory is that time isn’t like a river, flowing in one direction from the past into the future, but more like a lake. It’s not moving at all, it’s just hanging out passing time, waiting for us to go fishing or skinny-dipping.
I like this description of time, partly because it means time travel is theoretically possible. You don’t have to paddle like a madman to reach the past or future, you simply dive into a different part of Loch Chronos.
Imagine the possibilities: With a time machine—I’m partial to the brass-and-copper Steampunk contraptions envisioned by H.G. Wells—you could float over to the 1980s and catch former supermodel Elle Macpherson skinny-dipping. Or have lunch with Abraham Lincoln. Or catch Elle Macpherson skinny-dipping with fellow supermodel Christy Turlington. Or have dinner with Jesus. Or maybe have lunch with Lincoln and Jesus, take a long nap, and then join Elle and Christy at the hotel later for dinner and apéritifs.
Anyway, I mostly like the latest concept of time because it helps me answer a question that’s always bothered me: If there is no time like the present and the time is now, then why am I able to envision the future and remember the past, or at least the parts of my future and past that don’t involve remembering my relative’s birthdays or when and where I lost my car keys? Theoretically, the future hasn’t happened, and the past is gone, and yet there they are, shimmering like the surface of a lake in the afternoon sun.
I'm no neat-freak, but this artist's rendition of space-time seems a little messy to me.
With Elle Macpherson.
The problem is, scientists don’t know if they’re right.
They never know if they’re right, to be honest, particularly when they’re talking about something as elusive as time, which is always getting away from us. Scientists used to believe the world was flat, for instance, and that Pluto was a planet instead of an oversized cosmic ice cube. Or that the insufferably cute Triceratops was a separate type of dinosaur and not just a baby Torosaurus, one of the meanest, ugliest reptiles ever—essentially the prehistoric world’s version of a loveable kitten that turns into a—gasp!—aloof cat that believes it belongs on the cover of Cat Fancy magazine.
So for all scientists know, time is exactly like a river, and we’re floundering in its Class 6 rapids without a life preserver, rushing headlong toward the Waterfall of Oblivion.
Only time will tell if their research is time well spent, or just a waste of time. I just hope they figure it out before I run out of time, because time is everything, and it’s a-wasting.