Spacetime, Consciousness and Death


(Mint Images/Art Wolfe/Getty)

I've been thinking a lot about spacetime recently, in large part because of the excellent World Science Festival panel "A Matter of Time."

It's weird when you start trying to grasp this interconnection of spatial and temporal existence. As I mention in our upcoming episode "On the Clock," we scarcely have the language to talk about it -- outside of physics of course.

But then what happens when you place these quandaries of spacetime on the same shelf as our experience of time? How does the physics impact our contemplations of past and future?

First, consider this summation from Dr. Luke Jones, an experimental psychologist specializing in time perception, as quoted in Forbes' "In Their Own Words: 14 Experts On Time."

"In human consciousness, the nature of time differs both from the physicists' view and from the institutionalized ritual of 'clock time.' "In our consciousness, we have a persistent feeling of events receding into a past of non-existence, of the future as a nebulous void of possible existences to come, and of the 'now,' to which we grant a higher level of existence. "But in the physicists' view, the dinosaurs, your birth, Christmas morning 2012 and your death bed all have the same level of existence as this very moment. It is only our consciousness that gives special importance to any place in the timescape."

I find that last bit rather comforting, as I find myself at a contemplative crossroads in my life. It's nothing abnormal in the course of human existence, but isn't that always the case? My father died a little over two years ago and in a matter of months I shall become father to a son as well. Naturally, I'm somewhat saddened they'll never meet as grandfather and grandson.

And yet, if I look at things in the light of physics, my father is not a person who existed in space time but who exists in its rich fabric. And so am I. So is my son. So are all our ancestors and decedents spreading out in a vast tapestry. Again, perhaps tensed language fails us in discussing such things.

But I like the notion of it all. Our experience and understanding of time is linear, but the grander picture is less confining.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.