I’ve often wondered what might be an effective form of therapy following the death of a loved one. Here is a Layman’s Guide to Theoretical Physics as Therapy, by Dr. Uniquely Unqualified (inspired, and by inspired I mean taken mostly verbatim from, a NOVA special on this stuff hosted by Brian Greene).

  1. Our past may not be gone, our future may already exist.
  2. There’s no aspect of time which we really full understand.
  3. Time for Issac Newton was an immutable property of the universe. Time changes at the same rate for everyone, was the prevailing thought, and part of Newton’s reality.
  4. Einstein discovered, incredibly, that time could run at different rates. Time for me may not be the same as time for you. He smashed Newton’s conception of reality. Time is experienced individually. Everyone has their own private time which runs at their own private rate. There are “times.”
  5. Einstein came to this revolutionary conclusion by uncovering a special connection between space and time. He discovered a profound link between motion through space and the passage of time. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.
  6. In other words, motion through space affects the passage of time. Time is running more slowly for the person who’s moving. That was uniquely Einstein.
  7. On Earth with such slow speeds, motion’s impact on time is so small we don’t experience it.
  8. So in 1971, an experiment was set up. Folks took 2 atomic clocks set to the exact same time down to the millisecond, left one on a jet airplane that few around the world, and compared it to one they had left on the ground. After the flying clock’s journey, they were compared, and the 2 clocks no longer agreed! They differed for a few hundred millionths of a second, but it was real proof of motion’s effect on the passage of time.
  9. Space and time could no longer be thought of as separate things. They were fused together into “spacetime,” a 4-dimensional structure. This fusion would lead Einstein to the most mind bending realization of all: The sharp difference we see between past, present and future may only be an illusion.
  10. In day to day lives we see time as a continuous flow. But you can also see time as a series of snapshots, unfolding moment after moment after moment.
  11. Picture all snapshots lined up – every moment on earth, earth orbiting sun, and every moment in universe, you’ll see every event that has ever happened or will ever happened, each any every moment in time – from the Big Bang 14b years ago, to creation of earth 4.5b years ago, to events happening on earth today.
  12. Think about the simple concept of now – what’s happening on this “now” snapshot on earth, in our galaxy, on other galaxies, and so forth. We can call this the “now slice.”
  13. We would all agree on what happens on a given now slice. But Einstein says when you take motion into account, this common sense picture of time goes out the window. Because motion affects the passage of time, someone who is moving will have a different conception of what’s happening now; they’ll have different things in their now slice. They will carve out the slices at a different angle, and their slices won’t be similar to my slices of time.
  14. Take an alien 10b light years from earth, and a guy on earth. If the two are sitting still, not moving in relation to one another, they share the same now slice. But if the alien rides a bike away from earth, motion slows the passage of time, their clocks will tick at different rates, and if their clocks no longer agree, their now slices will no longer agree either. The alien’s now slice is angled toward the past. Even if only by a miniscule amount, over such a vast difference, it results in such a huge difference in time. The alien’s now slice no longer includes the guy on earth, or even 40 years earlier when he was a baby. The alien’s now slice has swept back 200 year’s in earth’s history. (Watch the film to see an graphic description that makes it much more clear).
  15. The direction you move makes a difference. If alien bikes toward earth, the alien’s new now slice is angled toward the future and includes events that won’t happen on earth for 200 years.
  16. The Point: Your now can be what I consider the past or the future. Therefore, the past and future must be real — they could be your now slice.
  17. Put Another Way: Past, present, and future are all equally real, they all equally exist. The past is not gone, the future isn’t non-existent, they are all existing in exactly the same way. Just as we think of all of space being out there, we should think of all of time being out there too. Everything that ever has happened or ever will happen, it all exists.
  18. With this insight, Einstein shattered one of the basic concepts of how we experience time. The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.
  19. Every moment in time already exists. e.g. just as all frames of a movie are already on a reel of celluloid, think of all moments of time already existing too.
  20. So how do we explain the very real feeling that times seem to endlessly rush forward? The flow of time may be just an illusion.

Because the past is not gone, and the future already exists, your loved one is still very much present in someone else’s now slice. Present, and fine. Present, and happy.

Like with many things in physics, one day this theory may be overturned (it very well already could be, when was the NOVA special produced?). But in my current now slice, it’s true. And it’s therapeutic.