Life is a Braid in Spacetime

February 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

How to see yourself in a world where only math is real

By Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen. Originally published on Nautilus, January 9, 2014

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“Excuse me, but what’s the time?” I’m guessing that you, like me, are guilty of having asked this question, as if it were obvious that there is such a thing as the time. Yet you’ve probably never approached a stranger and asked “Excuse me, but what’s the place?”. If you were hopelessly lost, you’d probably instead have said something like “Excuse me, but where am I?” thereby acknowledging that you’re not asking about a property of space, but rather about a property of yourself. Similarly, when you ask for the time, you’re not really asking about a property of time, but rather about your location in time.

But that is not how we usually think about it. Our language reveals how differently we think of space and time: The first as a static stage, and the second as something flowing. Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion. Einstein taught us that there are two equivalent ways of thinking about our physical reality: Either as a three-dimensional place called space, where things change over time, or as a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.

I think of the two viewpoints as the different perspectives on reality that a frog and a bird might take. The bird surveys the landscape of reality from high “above,” akin to a physicist studying the mathematical structure of spacetime as described by the equations of physics. The frog, on the other hand, lives inside the landscape surveyed by the bird. Looking up at the moon over time, the frog sees something like the right panel in the figure, “The Moon’s Orbit”: Five snapshots of space with the Moon in different positions each time. But the bird sees an unchanging spiral shape in spacetime, as shown in the left panel.

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