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Aug-12-2012 19:00printcomments

Einstein on Mars: Seven minutes of terror

The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Albert Einstein (Wikipedia)

(Calgary, Alberta) - Woody Allen: “The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God’s mind—a pretty uncomfortable thought, particularly if you’ve just made a down payment on a house.”

Part 1

On August 6 a new NASA Rover, Curiosity—officially the Mars Science Laboratory—landed on Mars. The landing was, by necessity, entirely automated because Mars is too far away for Earth-control.

Signals to and from earth take 13.7 minutes each way—or more than 27 minutes round trip (Mars is currently about 247 million kilometers from earth). The descent from the top of the atmosphere to the surface takes seven minutes. But a few days before, Devin Kipp, one of the engineers responsible for the landing procedures, said that “by the time we get word that the craft has entered the upper atmosphere of Mars, it will have been on the surface for seven minutes – for better or for worse”—the newspaper article was titled: “NASA scientists brace for Mars landing's ‘seven minutes of terror’”

Reframing the event, what this means is that when it is NOW on Mars, NOW on earth is 14 minutes in Mars future and Mars is in the earth’s past. This sounds confusing, so here it is described in a more practical way.

Once landed and operational, the Rover can be driven like a drone by an operator on earth. The drawback is that the operator is 14 minutes behind the Mars NOW. Let’s say there is a quake on Mars and it dislodges a large boulder which is rolling down an incline towards the Rover—the operator estimates five minutes to disaster. To get out of the way, the operator can speed up the Rover or stop it and go in reverse.

Except that the operator is impotent; his view of the boulder is 14 minutes out-of-date. When he first sees the rolling boulder, the Rover has already been crushed for nine minutes.

When we look into space, we look into the past. We’re eight minutes away from the sun. If the sun were to explode into a nova, we wouldn’t know about it until eight minutes after it happened at the Sun’s NOW. If Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to us, were to go nova, we wouldn’t know about it for more than four years after it happened. And so it goes for any object in the night sky. Even the moon is one and a quarter seconds away—two and a half seconds round trip—a delay that was noticeable in communications with the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s.

The inescapable reality is that every location in the universe is at a different NOW.

Isaac Newton and those scientists up to Einstein at the beginning of the 20th century, saw time as something separate and external. Newton defined time:

Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by any means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.

Time was an objective, external aspect of the world. Einstein made time relative and more; it became an integral part of what we now comprehend as the spacetime continuum.

The problem of the NOW seriously worried Einstein. He said that the experience of the NOW means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. He was resigned to the reality that this experience cannot be grasped by science, and that scientific descriptions cannot possibly satisfy our human needs; that there is something essential about the NOW which is just outside the realm of science.

On learning of the death of his lifelong friend Michel Besso, Einstein sent a letter of condolence to his family on March 21, 1955 saying: “So in quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, however tenacious”. Thirty four days later, on April 18, Einstein died.

Physicist Brian Green describes physicists’ contemporary view: “The only thing that’s real is the whole of spacetime,” going on to say that considering all of spacetime as the only reality

events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are. They eternally occupy their particular point in spacetime. There is no flow. If you were having a great time at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, you still are, since that is just one immutable location in spacetime. It is tough to accept this description, since our worldview so forcefully distinguishes between past, present and future. But if we stare intently at this familiar temporal scheme and confront it with the cold hard facts of modern physics, its only place of refuge seems to lie within the human mind.”

Woody Allen again: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

Part 2

In 1955, Frank Sinatra made the song “Love and marriage” popular. Here are my updated lyrics:

Time and space, time and space, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell ya, brother, you can't have one without the other. Try, try, try to separate them, it's an illusion. Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion: Time and space, time and space, Go together like a horse and carriage.

If time is unreal, or at the least its reality can’t be objectively pinned down, so it is with space itself.

This is not a new idea. In the 17th century, George Berkeley developed the philosophy called Idealism which says that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically1, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In sociology idealism emphasizes how human ideas—especially beliefs and values–shape society. As an ontological2 doctrine, idealism goes further, saying that all entities are composed of mind or spirit. Idealism thus rejects physicalist and dualist theories that do not give priority to the mind.

(Note on pronunciation: The city of Berkeley, CA is named after GB and pronounced BERkeley. GB the philosopher is pronounced BARkeley.)

This concept raises for me the question of what we human beings are in the great cosmic scheme of things?

If we assume that life, intelligence and awareness "emerged" from nonlife (i.e., inanimate matter) saying that the universe as a whole is alive and aware is just as valid as saying the same thing about ourselves. As physicist Sir James Jeans wrote in the early 1930s:

Creations of an individual mind may reasonably be called less substantial than creations of a universal mind….the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter—not of course our individual minds, but the mind in which the atoms out of which our individual minds have grown exist as thoughts..

Ordinary GPS satellites, not esoteric physics experiments, have conclusively demonstrated the immateriality of what we believe to be a material world.

Quantum physics says that this immateriality is a probability wave—neither particle nor wave. The probability wave collapses to materiality when observed by consciousness—a person. If no one is looking, the moon is not there. As physicist F. David Peat puts it,

Physics has finally broken with a reality based upon local and mechanistic concepts…what seems to be called for is the development of new mathematical forms and a more subtle use of language to investigate this new order in nature.

Einstein could have been speaking for physics or for Buddhism when he wrote:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

After a lifetime of studying physics and its various offshoots, I’ve come to the conclusion that universe itself is alive and we are a transcendent aspect. Our belief in the pre-eminence of consciousness is the stumbling block. Our bodies run perfectly well without it. As medical scientist Lewis Thomas pointed out, using operant conditioning rats can be trained to raise and lower blood pressure, increase and decrease heart rates, and so on. He says:

"My trouble, to be quite candid, is a lack of confidence in myself. If I were informed tomorrow that I was in direct communication with my liver, and could now take over, I would become deeply depressed. I'd sooner be told, forty thousand feet over Denver, that the 747 jet in which I had a coach seat was now mine to operate as I pleased; at least I would have the hope of bailing out, if I could find a parachute and discover quickly how to open a door. Nothing would save me and my liver, if I were in charge. For I am, to face the facts squarely, considerably less intelligent than my liver."

Physicists are not the only ones to apply a more holistic perspective. British novelist J. B. Priestley suggests that he has tapped into this holistic reality.

There is another and slightly different kind of experience that I have had, though only rarely and even then only in later life. I may have been deceiving myself, but here it is, for what it is worth. Unlike the others, on these occasions I have been recalling a person or a scene as clearly and as sharply as I could, and then there was, so to speak, a little click, a slight change of focus, and for a brief moment I have felt as if the person or scene were not being remembered but were really there still existing, that nobody, nothing, had gone. I can’t make this happen: either it happens or it doesn’t, and usually it doesn’t. And, I repeat, on the very rare occasions when apparently it did happen, I could have been deceiving myself: I am now wide open to the charge. Even so, if you think that what I have related is worth nothing, then I am more fortunate than you are—I live a richer life in a more rewarding universe.

I quote Priestley because I have had identical experiences in recent years and gave them no thought until I read the above in his autobiography Over the Long High Wall.

There is a bigger picture—the whole universe—which began 13.7 billion years ago (plus or minus 200 million years) in the so-called Big Bang. The universe appeared in an instant, at some NOW. First there was nothing, then there was everything, which leads directly to what many cosmologists consider the ultimate philosophical question: Why is there something instead of nothing? As cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser puts it:

We have created countless stories, drawings, dances, and rituals in search of meaning, in search of answers. We look at the cosmos with a mixed sense of awe and wonder, of terror and devotion. And we want to know. How can something come from nothing? What is the origin of all things? Can order emerge by itself, without a guiding hand?

Can order emerge by itself, without a guiding hand?

Saying yes sounds like an anti-religious argument if we assume the “guiding hand” to be God which is the standard assumption in our society. But this is the case only if you consider religion to be an organized societal entity like Christianity or Islam. But what if, as astronomer George Seielstad says:

Since we comprehend what it means to be alive, we are the “sensory organs” with which the living universe monitors its own “physiology”, if you will—taking its pulse and measuring its blood pressure. Without us, the universe is “blind”. Our “vision” into the future enables the universe to continue to live.

In other words, we are our own “guiding hand"--albeit on a cosmic scale. I kind of like that idea.


1 A branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.

2 The branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such; metaphysical: Some of the U.S. founders held ontological beliefs in natural rights.

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Daniel Johnson as a teenager aspired to be a writer. Always a voracious reader, he reads more books in a month than many people read in a lifetime. He also reads 100+ online articles per week. He knew early that in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.

He has always been concerned about fairness in the world and the plight of the underprivileged/underdog.

As a professional writer he sold his first paid article in 1974 and, while employed at other jobs, started selling a few pieces in assorted places.

Over the next 15 years, Daniel eked out a living as a writer doing, among other things, national writing and both radio and TV broadcasting for the CBC, Maclean’s (the national newsmagazine) and a wide variety of smaller publications. Interweaved throughout this period was soul-killing corporate and public relations writing.

It was through the 1960s and 1970s that he got his university experience. In his first year at the University of Calgary, he majored in psychology/mathematics; in his second year he switched to physics/mathematics. He then learned of an independent study program at the University of Lethbridge where he attended the next two years, studying philosophy and economics. In the end he attended university over nine years (four years full time) but never qualified for a degree because he didn't have the right number of courses in any particular field.

In 1990 he published his first (and so far, only) book: Practical History: A guide to Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” (Polymath Press, Calgary)

Newly appointed as the Deputy Executive Editor in August 2011, he has been writing exclusively for since March 2009 and, as of summer 2012, has published more than 200 stories.

View articles written by Daniel Johnson

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Deep Space August 13, 2012 12:10 am (Pacific time)

Earth Is The True Planet Of War, Not Mars (Curiosity Rover)

Anonymous August 12, 2012 7:00 pm (Pacific time)

Reminds me of the line in the Beatles' song, Strawberry Fields: "Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about. Strawberry Fields forever."

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