Subjective Time

by James Wallace Harris, 5/11/22

I’m in a short story club where today’s discussion story is “Common Time” by James Blish from 1953. This blog will be my comment to the group, but I feel my insight is personal enough for this blog.

“Common Time” is about an astronaut in an experimental spaceship traveling at twenty-two times the speed of light. When the astronaut regains consciousness after launch he can’t move and it takes forever to open his eyes. He discovers that time is moving very slowly. He is able to count to 7,200 between each tick of the second hand on his clock. Eventually, his perspective speeds up until the hour hand is flashing around. The story is about how this astronaut reacts to the different perspectives of time.

I think time is a fascinating topic. I use the picture of a hummingbird above to illustrate subjective time. To a hummingbird, a human appears like a statue, frozen in time. I’ve often wondered how an intelligent robot will perceive time. The clock speed of computer chips is currently in the gigahertz range – that’s billions of cycles per second. Will AI minds even notice us? Of course, their bodies won’t be able to move a billion times faster than ours.

I also like to think about the concept of now. Is there a universal now everywhere? Now exists without clocks. Now can exist without even the concept of time. If we had a smartphone connection to a planet 1,000 light-years away that had an instant speed of communication we could talk to our alien friends in the now. Is that true for the whole universe? Or do different locations experience different nows? What about the multiverse? Is there one moment of now everywhere? Or many?

How long is the moment of now to a hummingbird or future robot?

Yesterday I woke up feeling better than I have in years. I noticed this when I was planning my day. I felt good enough to plan to work on a long-term project. Lately, I haven’t been feeling good, and the only things I wanted to do were those activities that focus on the moment. I was disappointed yesterday when less than two hours later after my aches and pains returned I only felt like reading, watching TV, or listening to music. I loved that feeling I had more time.

I can remember being young and feeling like I had all the time in the world to do everything I ever wanted to do. I’m writing this essay early in the morning because I feel like I have enough time to finish it. I won’t feel like that in a little while.

Jim Harris

3 thoughts on “Subjective Time”

  1. It is my understanding that currently with our speed of light barrier, “now” is relative to where you are located and they differ.

    1. I thought the perception of the speed of time was different. I don’t know anything about this for sure. But if a person was in a spaceship traveling near the speed of light would they feel different? Wouldn’t they have a now? If now last no time, would it matter if time was going slower or faster from their relative positions?

      This is hard to imagine. Let’s say there are intelligent beings on a planet 100 light-years away. Why would our now be different from theirs? I can understand any recording of their moment would take at least 100 years to get to us, but does that matter? Let’s say an intelligent being took a spaceship to bring a video of their moment here and traveled at near the speed of light. Wouldn’t the time dilation effect make the time from that moment be the same for beings who stay on that planet and us, and just the space traveler would experience time differently? But at various points in the trip, wouldn’t a person here, the alien on the ship, and aliens on the other planet all experience the same now? Their clocks would be different. I don’t know.

      Maybe another way to say it would be a thought experiment. Let’s say a human, and two aliens (one on the ship, one staying on their planet) have instantaneous telepathy. If any one of them thought “NOW” wouldn’t the other two experience it at the same time? Or would the two planetary bound individuals hear the word “NOW” slowed down from the space traveler, and the space traveler would hear the other two as squeaks?

  2. I find that as I age I’m spending more time contemplating time and the concept of time. As ours bodies wear we need to manage our time better to be able to do what we once did without a thought. We have to fit any exertion into the optimum time of day. Before we know it a day has gone, a week, a month…while those younger than us feel that time is dragging. Now I must leave this contemplation as the optimum time window is about to open.

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