Eddington 1927: Absolute Past and Future

Fig 4

Reference: The Nature of the Physical World

This paper presents Chapter III (section 3) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Absolute Past and Future

Let us now try to attain this absolute view. We rub out all the Now lines. We rub out Yourself and Myself, since we are no longer essential to the world. But the Seen-Now lines are left. They are absolute, since all observers from Here-Now agree about them. The flat picture is a section; you must imagine it rotated (twice rotated in fact, since there are two more dimensions outside the picture). The Seen-Now locus is thus really a cone ; or by taking account of the prolongation of the lines into the future a double cone or hour-glass figure (Fig. 4). These hour-glasses (drawn through each point of the world considered in turn as a Here-Now) embody what we know of the absolute structure of the world so far as space and time are concerned. They show how the “grain” of the world runs.

Father Time has been pictured as an old man with a scythe and an hour-glass. We no longer permit him to mow instants through the world with his scythe; but we leave him his hour-glass.

It is difficult to get an absolute view from a model based on relativity. Some absoluteness is linked to the velocity of light, but a collection of localized awareness may provide an absolute view of the local area, but it can never provide a universally objective view.

Since the hour-glass is absolute its two cones provide respectively an Absolute Future and an Absolute Past for the event Here-Now. They are separated by a wedge-shaped neutral zone which (absolutely) is neither past nor future. The common impression that relativity turns past and future altogether topsy-turvy is quite false. But, unlike the relative past and future, the absolute past and future are not separated by an infinitely narrow present. It suggests itself that the neutral wedge might be called the Absolute Present; but I do not think that is a good nomenclature. It is much better described as Absolute Elsewhere. We have abolished the Now lines, and in the absolute world the present (Now) is restricted to Here-Now.

Perhaps I may illustrate the peculiar conditions arising from the wedge-shaped neutral zone by a rather hypothetical example. Suppose that you are in love with a lady on Neptune and that she returns the sentiment. It will be some consolation for the melancholy separation if you can say to yourself at some—possibly prearranged —moment, “She is thinking of me now”. Unfortunately a difficulty has arisen because we have had to abolish Now. There is no absolute Now, but only the various relative Nows differing according to the reckoning of different observers and covering the whole neutral wedge which at the distance of Neptune is about eight hours thick. She will have to think of you continuously for eight hours on end in order to circumvent the ambiguity of “Now”.

The wedge-shaped neutral zone shall disappear if the knowledge of a universal law, which makes universal awareness possible, is available. Maybe the universal law of quantization when discovered could lead us closer to the universal viewpoint.

At the greatest possible separation on the earth the thickness of the neutral wedge is no more than a tenth of a second; so that terrestrial synchronism is not seriously interfered with. This suggests a qualification of our previous conclusion that the absolute present is confined to Here-Now. It is true as regards instantaneous events (point-events). But in practice the events we notice are of more than infinitesimal duration. If the duration is sufficient to cover the width of the neutral zone, then the event taken as a whole may fairly be considered to be Now absolutely. From this point of view the “nowness” of an event is like a shadow cast by it into space, and the longer the event the farther will the umbra of the shadow extend.

As the speed of matter approaches the speed of light its mass increases to infinity, and therefore it is impossible to make matter travel faster than light. This conclusion is deduced from the classical laws of physics, and the increase of mass has been verified by experiment up to very high velocities. In the absolute world this means that a particle of matter can only proceed from Here-Now into the absolute future—which, you will agree, is a reasonable and proper restriction. It cannot travel into the neutral zone; the limiting cone is the track of light or of anything moving with the speed of light. We ourselves are attached to material bodies, and therefore we can only go on into the absolute future.

The speed of matter can never approach the speed of light because of its inertia. I don’t know what experimental evidence is being referred to here. Field-particles do not have mass. There may be confusion coming from the use of the word “energy” for field-substance and also for kinetic energy.

Events in the absolute future are not absolutely Elsewhere. It would be possible for an observer to travel from Here-Now to the event in question in time to experience it, since the required velocity is less than that of light; relative to the frame of such an observer the event would be Here. No observer can reach an event in the neutral zone, since the required speed is too great. The event is not Here for any observer (from Here-Now) ; therefore it is absolutely Elsewhere.

The trouble with this section is the non-recognition of field-substance and a lack of understanding of the phenomena of quantization and inertia. The considerations about time and space arising from the theory of relativity apply to field-substance and not to the material-substance. Our world is made of material-substance. It is not changed in any way by the considerations arising from the theory of relativity.


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