WHAT WE DID: Time passes quickly up there in the mountains?

THURSDAY, JULY 12, 2018

Part 4—Bob Dylan, turned on his ear:
"Times passes slowly up here in the mountains."

So Bob Dylan improbably claimed in the song, Times Passes Slowly, on his 1970 album, New Morning.

In our view, the album describes the unexpected discovery of personal happiness in married life and fatherhood. In the song Day of the Locusts, Dylan seems to describe an escape from an earlier crabbed, crowded world:
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
Took ahold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive
It's one of our favorite lyrics. That said, The album crawls with imagery of personal contentment in the uncrowded west.

When Dylan said that "time passes slowly," he seemed to be saying that he had left a type of rat race in favor of a different and better subjective experience. In Sign on the Window, he borrowed from the folk tradition as he described this new/improved state of affairs:
Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me "Pa"
That must be what it's all about,
That must be what it's all about.
"One named Paul and one named Davy?" Dylan was working directly from the tradition—and he claimed that time was passing slowly, in a deeply agreeable way.

Presumably, everyone knew, in a general way, what Dylan meant by his claim. That's fortunate because, as it turns out, the gentleman—a college dropout—may have been technically wrong.

Does time pass slowly up there in the mountains? In his new book, The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli says no.

His claim comes right at the start of his short book's Part 1, in a sub-section called THE SLOWING DOWN OF TIME. Beneath a citation from Horace's Odes, the great simplifier says this:
ROVELLI (page 9): THE SLOWING DOWN OF TIME

Let's begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.
Rovelli has always resented Dylan! one of the analysts angrily cried. We talked her down from her limited view, then returned to Rovelli's text.

Stating the obvious, the "simple fact" Rovelli describes is highly counterintuitive. More accurately, it isn't clear, at least at this point, what Rovelli actually means by this puzzling statement at all.

At least in a general way, everyone knew what Dylan meant by his (poetical) statement. He seemed to mean that he had escaped a hurly-burly when he went, with his wife and his children, into the mountains to live a simpler life.

That was poetic, but Rovelli's a physicist. What the heck does Rovelli mean when he says that time passes faster up there in the hills?

Basically, this passage constitutes his full explanation. These are the first two pages of Part 1 of his short, allegedly very clear book:
ROVELLI (pages 9-10): Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.

The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces
that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.

It is not just the clocks that slow down: lower down, all processes are slower.
Two friends separate, with one of them living in the plains and the other going to live in the mountains. They meet up again years later: the one who has stayed down has lived less, aged less, the mechanism of his cuckoo clock has oscillated fewer times. He has had less time to do things, his plants have grown less, his thoughts have had less time to unfold. Lower down, there is simply less time than at altitude.

Is this surprising? Perhaps it is. But this is how the world works. Time passes more slowly in some places, more rapidly in others.
Say what? "There is simply less time" at sea level? Set side your views on Dylan's work. Based upon that brief explanation, do you feel you understand what Rovelli's statement means?

Truthfully, we do not. We were puzzled when we first read that passage. We're still puzzled today.

According to Rovelli, clocks run slower at sea level. Assuming that statement is accurate, why couldn't that be an artifact of gravity's effect on a clock?

Rovelli also says this: "all processes are slower" at sea level, including the aging process. Why couldn't that simply be a statement about the effect of gravity upon physical processes, including those of the human body?

Clocks run slower at sea level? Human bodies age more slowly? What turns these straightforward claims about clocks and bodies into a murky statement about time, indeed about "less time?"

Why does "time" have to come into play here at all? What turns a bunch of straightforward statements about physical processes into a puzzling statement about "time"—indeed, about the amount of time available in different places?

"Lower down, there is simply less time?" We're not real clear about what that means. Consider:

The friend who has lived at sea level has revolved around the sun the same number of times as the friend in the mountains. In what sense has he experienced "less time" when they meet again?

Why hasn't he simply "aged less" in the same amount of time? Are you sure you're clear about that? Unless we simply agree to repeat the things authorities tell us to say, it seems to us that this "explanation" is perhaps a bit undercooked.

"Times passes slowly up here in the mountains?" Dylan was speaking poetically about a subjective experience. Speaking as a physicist, Rovelli flips Dylan's tale on its head.

Time passes faster up there in the mountains, Rovelli says. Making his brief even less clear, he even says that there is less time at sea level.

Please understand! We're not saying Rovelli is wrong; we're saying his claims are unclear. And until you can make a statement that's clear, your statement doesn't rise to the level of being wrong.

From (slightly) slower clocks and (slightly) slower aging, we've moved somehow to "less time." This move didn't seem real clear to us.

Heroically, we continued reading. Did Rovelli, the great clarifier, ever straighten this out?

Tomorrow: Various places to quit

25 comments:

  1. I am bathing as we speak.

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    1. I know and love “New Morning” and saw the House Dylan wrote it in this week ( though he cut it in NYC). I doubt you’ve heard it.

      Delete
    2. "I", "I", "I", "I".

      The Self Portrait Bootlegs bring New Morning to life!

      Delete
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  2. Here Somerby confuses physics with psychophysics, the subjective human experience of the physical world. The earliest psychophysicists back in the days of Helmholtz understood that physics and psychological experience are different. Somerby apparently didn't get that news -- most likely because he never bothered to take a psychology class at Harvard. Psychophysics is the starting place for experimental, scientific psychology, just as physics is the starting place for experimental, scientific exploration of the physical world (previously called natural philosophy).

    But Somerby is an ass. Even his analysis of Bob Dylan's lyrics doesn't capture the idea that subjective time passes slowly when you are having new experiences but passes very quickly when engaged in routine activity. The more you pay attention, the slower time passes, subjectively.

    Since people are aware mostly of subjective time, it doesn't matter whether time slows down or speeds up at higher altitudes. That is important to engineers whose devises depend on precise timing, but not to people.

    Why is it that guys like Somerby are full of wonder about things like physical time in the mountains and the concept of time in the cosmos but don't bother to care about the way people experience time? Or even dogs and other animals. The sense of time varies according to the ecological niche of the animal and its survival needs. Does Somerby wonder why hamsters should have the closest biological clock to our own? That is a greater oddness than time in the mountains.

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    1. “Why is it that guys like Somerby are full of wonder about things like physical time in the mountains and the concept of time in the cosmos but don't bother to care about the way people experience time?”

      You’re hopeless. That seemed to me the whole point of this essay. You inverted everything he wrote. I get it, the hate goes on. Are you an ex-wife or something?

      Leroy

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    2. No, my point was not Somerby's. He used Dylan only as a literary device, not to contrast physical with subjective time. The rest of Somerby's essay knocks Revelli's explanation of the physical. It ignores the psychological. So you are mistaken about Somerby's intent.

      I don't hate Somerby. I am disappointed in him. I used to defend him until I caught on that he expresses conservative talking points while pretending to be a liberal engaging in critical thinking. He is just furthering conservative aims. But he is dangerous because he was once a respected part of the liberal blog community. I don't know why he changed but it is clear that he did.

      Somerby has never been married, to my knowledge. That's no one's loss.

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    3. Bob is only dangerous in your own fevered imagination.

      I for one enjoy this blog. Perhaps you might show me where Bob's writing is disseminated, far and wide, that creates the danger you imagine.

      Looking forward to it.

      Leroy

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    4. You defend truth by pointing out lies. Lies are the enemy of democracy and the weapon of fascists. You don't have to read any comments but you have no business trying to suppress other commenters here. Somerby used to be listed in nearly every liberal blogroll. Now only Kevin Drum occasionally quotes him.

      The danger to our democracy isn't in my imagination. Because of Bros like Somerby, enough people went third party to put Trump in office. His relentless attacks on liberal media won't help in the midterms. He has no kind words for liberals. He couldn't do a better job if he were a russian bot. If this isn't obvious to you, it is because you are no liberal yourself, as I believe you have stated here.

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  3. "Time passes faster up there in the mountains, Rovelli says. Making his brief even less clear, he even says that there is less time at sea level."

    If time passes faster in the mountains, the clock in the mountains will register more hours than the clock at sea level, assuming both places stop and start measuring time at the same command. That means that at sea level, there will be fewer hours recorded than in the mountains, hence less time.

    What is difficult to understand about that?

    The measurement of something is independent of the eity being measured. Maybe that is where Somerby is getting hung up?

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    1. That's about clocks, not time.

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    2. What is time, outside of clocks? Whether you use atomic processes a la atomic clocks, a metronome, an hourglass, the position of the sun in the sky, or the revolution of the earth on its axis or around the sun, you are using a "clock" to measure the passing of time.

      Within a single frame of reference, say, sea level, you measure time however you want. You can use the same method on the mountain, and you won't notice time passing any differently. But compare the two, and they will be different. On earth, for human purposes, the difference is negligible. But it is there.

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    3. Time outside of clocks is measured in other ways. By seasons and light and dark and biology. We didn't have clocks for most of our lifespan as a species. This discussion is applying a cultural artifact to the discussion of physics that transcend human inventions. That makes it pretty odd.

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  4. The idea that time time itself is affected by gravity (and motion) is something that has been in every popularization of Einstein's theories ever published. Everybody except Somerby understands that Rovelli is referring to it. I don't know if Rovelli succeeds in explaining Einstein's concept of time, but the mere fact that Somersby ties a handkerchief to his head and tells us his brain hurts doesn't say much either way about Rovelli.

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    1. “Everybody except Somerby understands that Rovelli is referring to it.”

      Maybe. But this phrase by Rovelli really is quite puzzling:

      “Lower down, there is simply less time than at altitude.” That actually doesn’t make sense. There is a slowing of time when gravity, acceleration, or velocity intrudes, but is there isn’t less of it due to relativity.

      It’s classic Bob. Of course there isn’t “less time.” There is only “relatively” less time. I just had a sudden urge to watch “Planet of the Apes.”

      Leroy

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  5. Well, yeah, that seems pretty unclear to me too. The problem for me, is that he does not quantify it. Of course, if he used numbers, other people would run away screaming and claim it was too hard to understand. (Because they cannot understand the difference between 1,000 minutes and 1,000.00000001 minutes? Or the fact that at that rate of "time difference" that after 100 years they guy with the "faster time" would have live an extra 0.03 seconds?
    Admittedly it is kinda hard to wrap your head around the concept of 0.03 seconds. Maybe it could be related to the RPMs of the average lawnmower.)

    Then there is the question of clocks and time. To my left are two battery operated clocks. For some strange reason, they sit side by side (they actually do, this is NOT a total thought experiment). At one point a couple of months ago I synchronized their second hands (and also their minute hands) but now I can observe that one of them is two minutes ahead of the other.

    That said, nobody is going to say that TIME itself has been altered just because one of my clocks (which one? (probably both)) does a bad job of measuring time.

    For another experiment, I can smash one with a hammer. Again, nobody is gonna say that a hammer stops time. Or I can start it on fire, or drop it in water. Again the clock stopped working, but time itself, marches on. (which happens to be the last line that marching band plebes were supposed to say when questioned by a "stooge master" in the U of Mn marching band) (but I slow your time with these pointless anecdotes) (prolixity slows time).

    Physicists are much more confident of their atomic clocks. You can hit them with hammers, start them on fire, drop them in water and nothing phases them. Like a Timex, they take a licking and keep on ticking (raise your hand if you saw that one coming). Thus, when they find something that affects their clock, they feel like it has effected not just the clock, but time itself.

    Not sure why Ravelli could not, or did not, explain that, because he doubtless knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. (I am one year of classes and a project away from a BA in physics, but do not remember any real discussion of atomic clocks in any course I took (of course a lot of time has marched on since then too). I am not about to spend a few thousand dollars on precision clocks to test that theory either.

    The other part is that if atomic clocks are slower than every other process, like neurons firing, cells replicating, muscles contracting - life processes - those are going to slow down too.

    The other paradox is that after 100 days have passed, the earth has rotated 100 times in both Denver and Miami. So if Denver has extra seconds, where do they go? Does Denver need to fall back an hour every thousand years to keep them on the same time as Miami? Or do they just get 1440.00000001 minutes every day instead of 1440 like the rest of us?

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    1. The effect of gravity on time is independent of any "clock" used to measure time.

      And in the case of your Denver and Miami example, it isn't technically a paradox, because it is true. Yes, the clocks in Denver would show a different amount of time had elapsed. Actually, because both locations are in motion, there is an offsetting effect due to that. Look up the adjustments that have to be in the GPS satellite clocks, a very real, everyday practical example of the consequences of the effect.

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  6. "The friend who has lived at sea level has revolved around the sun the same number of times as the friend in the mountains. In what sense has he experienced "less time" when they meet again?"

    When you compare clocks.

    The person at sea level notices his 100% accurate nanosecond-measuring clock measures time in the normal way. The friend who takes his 100% accurate nanosecond-measuring clock to the mountaintop notices time passes in the normal way.

    But upon his return 10 years later, their clocks will show different amounts of time have elapsed.

    Both would say they have experienced 10 "years" of time.

    But the surprising thing is, let's say the exact time when the two friends meet again was pre-arranged, i.e. July 12, 2028, at precisely 12 noon.

    Guess what? The friend in the mountains would show up early, according to the sea level friend.

    The effect on earth, at least in human terms, is quite small, (but large enough to impact real life applications like GPS). However, one could postulate a scenario, for example, a black hole, where the effect is large, even causing measurements to differ by days, or perhaps years.

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    1. Not if both have an Apple watch.

      Delete
  7. I don't know whether or not Somerby was being facetious. If not, he could have just written "Rovelli is a bad popular science writer." If not, he is as guilty of Rovelli himself of making an argument in an oblique, confusing way.

    If so (Somerby was being facetious), he still loses points. Here's how to critique Rovelli: His writing is so oversimplified and his assertions so hyperbolic, one has to wonder whether or not Rovelli was just pandering to an audience he thinks of as "teh stoopidz". Just as I don't know about Somerby's facetiousness, I don't know whether or not Rovelli was dumbing-down his writing in a cynical way. If not, he's a remarkably bad popular writer. If so, shame on him.

    I won't explain the phenomenon Rovelli was trying to describe; above posts have done a superb job with that.

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  8. God, Bob is ancient and senile. Stay tuned for fourteen more chapters of Bob Somerby raging against a science book he doesn't understand!

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  9. Then again, perhaps Bob Dylan was engaged in wishful thinking, rueing the day he “Threw it all Away”.

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    ReplyDelete