We Can Only Live Forward

Health & Wellness on 11.19.12
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Image: Rob Brewer/CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently celebrated another birthday. That alone predisposes the grey matter to devote an excess of energy to pondering the nature of time's arrow. A birthday gift from my oldest daughter enhanced the melancholy joy of wandering mentally through memories of years past; she drop-boxed a video she made and put to music from scans of old family photos.

How long ago it seems: those moments of proud new parenthood, the giggles of little girls in leotards putting on a show, little sister glancing admiringly at her role model, big sister protectively embracing away any fears. The family trips, turtle races, and annual ceremony of designing bunny and teddy bear costumes for Halloween have become a gallery of instants preserved in film. 

Naturally, the fact that we can only live forward poses the perennial challenge: accept things as they are, seize the day, make the most of the time we have got. The overwhelming universality of these thoughts forced me to take refuge in the realm of science, which calms me with a sense of order in the metaphysical conundrums that confront our self-awareness. How lucky for me to find that science recently solved a problem at the very heart of our one-way trip through time.

Sure, we know we can only live forward. But often the particles studied in physics appear to have no such limitations. Imagine watching a film of a white cue ball bumping into a red billiard ball, both reflecting off each other onto a new path. Now imagine the same film played backwards: without any external reference points, you would think the backwards-playing film is really playing forwards.

The apparent indifference of fundamental physical interactions to the direction of time has long puzzled physicists (are they also trying to escape the inevitable march of days by gazing deeply into these complexities?) It goes to the heart of the question of why our universe even exists...why did matter beat out anti-matter to form the stuff around us? What original conditions could lead to the place we are now? (And perhaps most importantly for the escapist dabbler, can we invent a time machine to circumvent the wheels of fortune?)

What scientists of the California BaBar experiment in particle physics discovered after analyzing reams of data on colliding particles proves that time runs one way for certain fundamental physical processes -- in this case for B-mesons changing states. I use the word "proves", which must be handled delicately when it comes to science, because the BaBar results are being described as "impressively robust," with a 14-sigma level of certainty. You may recall the concept of 6-sigma quality, which was intended to guarantee consumers 99.99966% defect-free rates -- if so, you can imagine that 14-sigma is quite an accomplishment.

Proof that the quantum arrow of time goes inexorably forward, just as does our human clock, marks one more step in humankind's journey to understand who we are and why we are here. The publication of these findings will certainly settle fondly into the memories of the scientists at BaBar, sharing neuronal real estate next to images of their own mothers' hugs, their fathers' words of encouragement, the first baby steps and the hopping lope as their toddler runs to greet them when they come home from the lab.

We can only live forward. All the more reason to hug the ones you love.

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