Real or Imaginary Time? Even Stephen Hawking Wasn’t Sure

I’ve been reading A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s bestseller. It’s a bit dated now, having been first published in 1988.  I’m not a scientist, but I imagine there have been many knowledge updates since then.

I found it tough in the beginning to get into the book, but now that I’m near the end, I’m really liking it. Not only do I enjoy building my scientific literacy, but the book started to read like a novel to me. Especially the chapter about black holes. Wow! What suspense! What characters! That poor astronaut who keeps getting sucked in and turned into spaghetti! (Those who have read the book will get my humor.) In fact, I appreciate that such a monumental mind had a sense of humor.

The book takes you on a journey, as the title says, through humans’ observations, theories and understanding of the nature of the universe, time, and space. Hawking walks you through how scientists actually conduct research into such an esoteric and controversial subject. There is so much we know now, and so much we still do not understand about the nature of our universe.

One can read this book in a vacuum, though I am certain Hawking would insist that there is no such thing as a vacuum in space. But I couldn’t shut out the current world political scene while reading parts of it.

One passage in particular jumped out at me for its absurdity. I loved it so much that I have copied it for my own reference. I took philosophy in college and loved it. It challenged my brain, and expanded my ways of thinking and analyzing situations. I have found Hawking’s writing much like philosophy. It puts things in perspective and sometimes makes you throw up your hands and surrender to the cosmos.

The Brain Twister

Following is the passage that so tickles me. It might amuse you, it might intrigue you, or it might simply annoy you. I might just let this guide my view of life from now on.

“This might suggest that the so-called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like. But according to the approach I described in Chapter 1, a scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds.  So it is meaningless to ask: which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”

Got that?

Bonus

While reading A Brief History of Time, I felt my brain being stretched to its limits, much like the astronaut being stretched to death in that black hole. What sprang to mind was one of my favorite and most appropriate Far Side cartoons from decades ago.

I hope I don’t violate any copyright laws by sharing it here. All credits to Gary Larson and The Far Side!

Published by

Joan E. Miller

I live in the amazing Pacific Northwest. I'm a writer, photographer, birder, nature lover. I'm also a gardener, of food, flowers and shrubs.

3 thoughts on “Real or Imaginary Time? Even Stephen Hawking Wasn’t Sure”

  1. I agree.

    I stood watching cars go by and thought how my brain was translating the images of the cars to make a picture of movement. And how my knowledge of cause and effect was reading into the picture the idea that the engine was turning the wheels that was moving the car by friction over the road surface. But really all I was seeing was a picture of a car, a picture of a car, a picture of a car. We have moments, and there seems to be a continuum.

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  2. Joan, Love the quote, not sure I get it yet, but I’ve always thought that each of us sees a different slice of reality and also always wondered how we stitch that together.  When I view a painting, a tree a flower, a book, am I truly seeing it the same way you do?  Unanswerable but there. Annie O

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