The Arrow of Time


Now that Robert Hugh, Ph.D., (Associate Professor, Physics, Stanford University) had destroyed time itself, he could finally relax.

After a day’s travel from the cosmology conference half a world away, Robert shambled through the door of his apartment, dragging the remains of his old suitcase that had almost completely fallen apart on the trip.

It was good to be home.

He left his luggage and coat in a heap by the door and retreated to his study.

Already, he was rewriting his memory of the awards banquet, which, he had to admit, may or may not have happened, based on the parameters of his theory. Still, it was a pleasant memory, and he wished to retain it, albeit with some modifications.

As he recollected the experience, he made some revisions here and there, retooling a misplaced joke here, erasing an awkward pause here, wiping away the nervous sweat from his brow. In his memory, he accepted the award with the unshakable smile of an athlete, and did not have to read his acceptance speech from a card.

It had been vindicating to be honored for his work, especially after he had sacrificed so much to complete it. Although he was still confined to the obscurity of academic circles, some had said that the practical applications of the paper he presented at the conference in Turin were potentially world-changing: wars that had been fought between peoples for centuries would cease, long-standing oppressive regimes would crumble and fall. On an individual level, his theory would transform every aspect of peoples’ lives: psychologically, socially, ethically, religiously.

But the most satisfying part of his achievement had been to receive his award with Marta sitting right there in the front row, gazing coldly at him from the seats below as he stood up on the dais.

Still, he was already trying to forget her name, even as he thought of it.

He poured himself three fat fingers of scotch, with two rocks to perfect the chemistry, and savored a sip of his victory. All the days and nights he’d spent holed up in this very study, working out the intricate proofs of his theory, had cost him much: his friends, his wife, his life, and even his beliefs.

But if he was correct, all of those things would soon go away, as they never existed in the first place.

It was fitting that she--old what’s-her-name, he thought, smiling--should be there to see his dream come to fruition. She had been there when it all started.

She had been there on that night when he, then a young theology student, obsessed with the notion that he could indeed find empirical evidence for God in the universe--as part of a larger theory reconciling reason and faith--had the flat world pulled out from under his feet.

He had gone to the lecture of the world-renowned cosmologist Elias Funk, who was getting so much attention at that time, the frizzy-haired man with the auctioneer’s speech and the PowerPoint slides, the man who was quickly proving that Science doesn’t become “Popular Science” without a certain amount of demagoguery, and who used his own bully pulpit not only to describe how the cosmos came to be, but to make a case that no matter how infinite it was, there was no room for God in it.

“If there is a way to prove, through observable phenomenon, that the universe could have come into being without a God, the Law of Parsimony demands that we look no further for an explanation,” Dr. Funk declared.

“Don’t look,” Robert said, to no one in particular. He had gone to the lecture by himself, which usually drove him to annoy those around him with his comments. But he could not help himself. “It’s against the law!”

The woman next to Robert, who he had not met, smiled slightly, although she was still trying to listen to Funk’s lecture.

“He’s right about there being no God,” she said, without even looking Robert’s way. She was cute, with short brown hair and big dark eyes. “But humans can’t stop looking for one. It’s a biologic need.”

The virtual particles came out of nowhere, both literally and figuratively. The next PowerPoint slide, with its rudimentary jerky animations, featured these subatomic particles that, in quantum mechanics, could appear out of nothingness, exist for a short time, then vanish, as if they never existed.

“If this is the case,” Funk argued, “...then the singularity which contained all of the matter that exploded into being at the Big Bang, that could have appeared spontaneously out of nowhere at all, with no cause and no creator. And if there was no need for a cause, then there was no cause.

It was then that the first part of Robert’s theory struck him, along with a wave of nausea that forced him to leave the lecture hall and locate the nearest pub before Funk had a chance to make his closing remarks.

Robert’s mind was racing:

If all of the universe can appear spontaneously as a superdense singularity, he thought, not from any plan, but for no reason at all, but out of nowhere, then isn’t it also possible that the universe could appear spontaneously but fully-formed, in its current state, only having the appearance of having been under development for millions of years?

Maybe there’s no need for time itself.

After all, it is no more strange for a universe to show up fully-formed out of nowhere than it is for a singularity that contains all the matter it takes to create a universe in an area smaller than the head of a pin to show up out of nowhere.

As Robert sat at the bar in the nearby pub, watching the bubbles slowly pop on top of his half-drunk pint, a group of other young students poured in, laughing and chatty, having come from the lecture. It was group of mostly men, a mixed group from different sciences, laughing, and chatting about the lecture. There was a single woman’s laughter heard in their midst.

Looking down as he was, Robert could only see her figure, perched on the corner barstool, out of the corner of his eye. He tried to remain lost in his thoughts, but could feel the vague heat of someone looking at him. When he looked up, he caught her smiling in his direction. It was the woman from the lecture.

Although he would have liked to stay in his melancholy, and let his newfound theory gather some wool, he couldn’t help but smile back at her, somewhat childishly.

“All wrapped up in your thoughts,” she said.

“I’m trying to think up a replacement for my lost God,” he said.

“Sometimes you have to just follow biologic necessity,” she said.

It may have been the beers, or he might have blushed.

“I’m Marta,” she said. “Neurobiology.”

“Robert,” he said. “Formerly theology.”

At least that was how he remembered it. But now that Robert had introduced his theory, it could have happened any way he wanted it to, or even not at all.

Now that causality was effectively gone, even those objects and occurrences we would normally think of as evidence of the past--books, recordings, photographs, the atomic record--could possibly have possibly fully-formed, full of energy and misleading clues about the millions of years they had been drifting away from the center of the universe.

Even these artifacts right here in this room--the dinosaur pillows she had given him that were still stuffed into the corners of the sofa, the picture of them smiling in front of Lake Geneva that he had wedged into his reprint of Newton’s Principia as an impromptu bookmark, that lavender soap she had left in the bathroom but could be faintly detected even amid the dark wood and leather of his study--none of these were evidence of any past events, or of anything at all, except their own current existence.

Of course, if she had not been here--that is, she-who-shall-not-be-named--it might have taken him much longer to come across the last piece he needed to complete the puzzle.

This was toward the end of their relationship, long after that brief initial flirtation yielded a night of stumbling through that front door together, followed by another night, and so on, in steady progression, until finally he made her a key. It was after he dramatically professed his love for her, with the intensity and abandon of a religious convert. It was after that initial zeal began to cool into domestic negotiations, of proximity, and scheduling, and dinner.

That was when he finally looked at her lying next to him one morning and realized that this really might just be biology. That was the first day he got up from the bed and crept off to the study, looking for something more.

That was when he went to work on his theory in earnest.

After a certain timeless period of scribbling in his dim study--it could have been days or months, he couldn’t tell--that this woman flung open the door to his study with such force that his papers went flying everywhere. Sunlight from windows in the next room streamed into a room it had not seen in some time.

"This is all you do," Marta said, pointing at the papers on the floor, on which the sun shone so brightly, they looked like they might burn. "I might as well not be here at all."

"You told me, before we even started, how you felt about love, and how you felt about need. You told me that in this life, need came first."

"I said no such thing,” she said. “You're misremembering."

"I remember it like it was yesterday."

"That is the myth of long-term memory," she said. "You're writing it as you go."

Another light, something from within, felt like it shone across his face.

"Yes," he said, suddenly animated. "Of course, you're absolutely right. Now, if you'll please leave me, I have some work I have to do."

She stared at him incredulously, and finally turned and left the room, without another word. He lifted his pen and went back to work.

Recent research in neurobiology--including research that Marta and her colleagues were performing right here at Stanford--had demonstrated that when we remember, it is not as if we are merely going back, accessing the same videotape and watching it again. 

The results demonstrated that, instead of remembering the same events over and over again, we are actually “re-remembering,” spontaneously rewriting each experience out of the raw materials of our biochemical hard drive as we re-live it, through the filter of our current thinking. This process of memory retrieval gives us the potential to alter details, and, in doing so, alter our sense of history itself. In a way, when we remember far-off events, it is as if we are living those events for the first time.

From there, it was not too difficult to demonstrate that having a memory of past events was no evidence that anything had ever gone on before. Like matter and energy, those memories could actually be spontaneously generated out of whole cloth in this instant--the only instant that can be empirically proven to exist. 

In exactly the way that Marta the neurobiologist said that Robert’s memories were rewrites, Robert the current physicist posited that they were first drafts.

And so, even our own memories--so precious--memories whose testimony saved souls and convicted killers, had been shown to be nothing more than spontaneously generated stories in our heads.

Robert’s theory was finally complete. Time, he asserted, simply did not exist. There were no other moments, except for this one right now. At least there was no empirical way to prove that any other moment had existed, and if there was no evidence, there was no reason to believe it.

Now, there was only now.

For a man who had a history of sins, failures, and broken dreams, and who now had no God to console him or forgive him, there was some comfort in the fact that he could finally now accept for himself any history that he wanted to.

Or, if he so chose, no history at all.

Robert poured himself a second drink, relaxed into the embrace of his deep-cushioned leather chair, and began to consider this newly blank slate of his existence.

He picked up a remote control that sat on the arm of the chair and turned on the stereo. The device was now itself sort of a historical relic, one of those mechanical changers with 100 CDs in it--completely anachronistic in an age when one could fit an entire lifetime of music in one’s pocket.

He had given one of his students a credit card and asked him to purchase and set it up for him, CDs and all, in the distraught and confusing days after Marta left him, when poor Robert had nothing but vinyl records and cassette tapes, and nothing to play them on.

Robert pressed a button marked “Random.” He wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.

The inner workings of the machine shifted, clicking and sliding a shimmering disc into place at the front of the machine. A rubberized wheel gave it a good spin, and seconds later, the echoing ancient recording of a long-ago faraway trumpeter filled the room.

As soon as he heard those first heralding notes, a pain, more psychic than somatic, but real nonetheless, pierced him through.

“Love, walked right in and drove the shadows away,” Louis Armstrong sang.

And with that, all of those terrible memories came flooding back, gushing over the blank white wall of forgetfulness he had built around himself.

Robert wondered, for a moment, about the probability that the song he played would be this one. Chances are, he thought, it was going to be a love song. Most are. But for all he knew, with the new laws of causality taking over, that could be the only song in the whole player, over and over again, on all 100 CDs.

Maybe it was the only song in the world.

Marta, he thought. You should be here. None of this makes sense without you.

He drained his drink, and poured himself yet another, praying that he could again forget.

At least for tonight.