© Paul K. Davis, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 1, 2012

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

This is the first time I have done this, and yet I have done it several times before. Perhaps that says something about the nature of time.

I have spoken here several times before, but this is the first time I have agreed to speak without already having some concept of what I would speak about. After some weeks of fretting, I settled on "time" as the theme for this service, since it is New Year's Day, at least according to the calendar presently in use in this neighborhood.

I consequently entitle this message "Time", and it is copyrighted 2012 by myself, Paul K. Davis, of Fremont, California, except for the parts quoted in fair use from previously copyrighted sources.

While contemplating this topic, it seemed to me that there were an unusually large number of comics appearing, relating to this topic, culminating yesterday in one which denies the appropriateness of the topic. In this episode of "Dilbert" by Scott Adams, Dilbert is at a New Year's Eve party, and a woman reaches to hug him, shouting "Happy New Year!". Dilbert says, "Whoa! Settle Down. I don't celebrate the magical thinking that says one random point in the space-time continuum is somehow special." She replies, "It's just a hug. You'll enjoy it." But the wary Dilbert can only comment "You're like some sort of oxytocin drug dealer."

Indeed, while most cultures respect the cycle of the seasons, some calendars begin the year in the fall, such as the Jewish, and some begin in the spring, such as the Chinese. Those which begin in the winter may choose a different specific day, such as the day of the solstice, and many try to respect the cycle of the moon along with that of the sun. Even people who use the same calendar begin the year at different moments. A British friend of ours often gives us a cross-year phone call, since his midnight comes eight hours before ours.

Time is certainly a very important and fundamental concept. In the early tenth century by our calendar, which was the late third century by his calendar, the Persian scientist Muhammad ibn Zakariya, who is known as "al-Razi" or "Rhazes" from his town, held that there are five eternal principles: God, intellect, space, matter and time. Despite relativity theory, which emphasizes the similarities between space and time, there are still important unique features of time which have puzzled philosophers, scientists and theologians for, apparently, a long time.

The ancient philosopher Parmenides of Elea, a Greek city in southern Italy, apparently concluded time does not exist. His student Zeno developed some proofs of this, including the famous paradox of the hare and the tortoise. They even have some modern followers, as illustrated by this "Non Sequitur" comic by Wiley, published December 4th. Eddie is at his favorite coffee shop and exclaims, "I've had an epiphany." The waitress responds "Oh, deah... I don't have time fah this Eddie..." But he persists with "Well, that's just it, Flo... I've come to realize that time doesn't exist!" Flo goes "Uh... What?" And Eddie explains "No othah animal in nay-chaw needs a clock to tell them when it's time to eat, drink or sleep! Time is just a contrived concept to control ahr lives... And sell clocks! It's unnatural and I choose to not have my life ruled by the tyranny of the clock anymoah!!" Flo gives in a little, saying "Wow... I nevah thought of it that way... but I already gave last call and it's still closin' time." The defeated Eddie can only say "Et tu, Flo?"

One theologian who pondered the concept of time was fourteenth-century preacher John Wycliffe, who also began translation of the Bible into English and opposed the power of the Catholic Church. He concluded that space consists of distinct points and time of distinct instants. Among other considerations, this undermines Zeno's paradox, which relied on indefinitely dividing time into smaller and smaller increments.

While the atomic theory is now well established in regard to matter, the question is still open in regard to space and time. One indication in modern physics is the Planck time, defined as the time it takes light to travel one Planck length. This latter is calculated from constants of nature, including Planck's constant, name after Max Planck, founder of quantum theory. It is the length at which quantum effects apply to space itself. It is about ten to the minus thirty-five meters, an extremely small length. Perhaps it is the distance between two fundamental points of space. The Planck time is less than ten to the minus forty-three seconds - extremely, extremely small, perhaps the time between two fundamental instants.

Not only have we come to accept and measure extremely small amounts of time, but we have also accepted and measured very large amounts of time. Over two centuries ago most people in the western world reckoned the earth at about six thousand years old. Various scientific inquiries led to extending this. As a graduate student I was involved in part of the process, performing radioactive Potassium-Argon measurements on meteorites and moon samples. I can say, from direct investigation, that the solar system is about 4.6 billion years old. Others have concluded that the Big Bang was about 13 billion years ago. It is as difficult to conceive these large numbers as the small numbers mentioned earlier, but Grandpa in the "Pickles" comic strip by Brian Cane, tried on December 21st. He asks Grandma, "How many Christmases have we spent together, Opal?" She replies "I don't know, quite a few, I suppose." He persists, "Quite a few? More like oodles. Tons. A lot! I mean a whooole lot!! It sort of boggles the mind." All she can say is "Okay, okay. I got it."

My mind was boggled by the size of the solar system when I first began to work for NASA twenty five years ago. Down the hall from my office was the Pioneer control center. Pioneers 10 and 11 were the first human-made objects to leave the solar system. My co-worker would send an instruction to one of them by radio transmission, and about the same time the next day they would receive the response. And the solar system is just a very tiny portion of the known universe.

One startling finding of modern physics is that time does not flow the same everywhere in the universe, though I think this is known to every couple who have tried to coordinate their schedules. Gravity-Probe-B and other spacecraft have indeed confirmed the prediction of relativity theory, that less time is recorded by some objects than others, as a result of their relative motions. A more extreme example is that it has been calculated, if we sent a spacecraft, perhaps with people, to the nearest star, over four light-years away, and if we were able to accelerate them enough for it to feel like the Earth's gravity, and then decelerate the same way (though this is entirely impossible by any presently conceived technology) people on Earth would time the round trip at about twelve years, but those on the spacecraft would have experienced about seven years.

Of course the comic strip artists have heard of this, and can fancy even more extreme examples. In "Pearls Before Swine" by Stephen Patch on December 20th, Goat asks Rat and Pig, "Where were you guys?" Rat responds, "Seeing that new 4D move." Goat further inquires, "4D? The fourth dimension is time." Rat explains, "Yeah. The movie ends before it starts." Poor Goat says, "Never mind." But it's too late, Rat continues, "Strange things happen in the fourth dimension." Pig now concludes with, "Look! My popcorn's still warm."

A deep puzzle about time is its direction. All directions in space seem to be alike, apart from the uneven distribution of matter. However the future is distinctly different from the past. This is despite the fact that most laws of physics are time-symmetric. By this I mean that, if a satellite can go one direction in an orbit, it could also go the opposite direction. If a radioactive atomic nucleus can decay into smaller nuclei, we can put them back together in a cyclotron. There are many more examples. Nevertheless, water flows down from a waterfall, not up. Three explanations have been proposed: that the weak-force radioactive decay of neutrons actually is time asymmetric, that the second law of thermodynamics concerning entropy gives a direction to time, and that the Big Bang defines the direction of time. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman wrote a book defending the second of these, but I believe the question is still open.

The divisions of time are displayed in the diagram I have chosen for the Order of Service, and have been projecting on the screen. This is Einstein's version, in which the present is more than a single instant throughout space, for there are substantial regions of space-time which we can neither receive a signal from, nor send a signal to. Nevertheless, for any specific particle or person, the present is merely that point in the middle.

The directionality of time has a dominating affect on people. We can remember the past, but not change it, though many people seem to try. We can, within limitations, predict and/or plan the future. Reverend Jeremy pointed this out as a key feature of people in his recent sermon, "Remembering the Future" delivered on blessing-of-the-animals day. Besides the past and the future, there is also the present which must contain all of our memories of the past and all of our plans for the future. The present is the time in which we take action.

There seem to be some people who live mostly in the past, spending their time remembering or fantasizing what was. There seem to be other people who live mostly in the future, spending their time planning and expecting. Brian Cane again takes a stand on this issue in the December 11 episode of "Pickles". Grandma opens, saying "I'm trying to reduce my Christmas stress by living 'in the moment.'", continuing with, "I read that most stress is either in the past or in the future, not right this very moment. So I'm trying to live 'in the moment.'" She asks, "Are you living 'in the moment,' Earl?" But he retorts, "Nope. I'm living on a gorgeous beach in the Bahamas, and you're blocking the sun."

My own goal is to balance these three: learning from the past as well as savoring the good which has been accomplished, doing our best to predict and plan for the future including time-management (which seems to me the most difficult to accomplish well), and always remembering that the present is where we are and where we can take action.

Thank you. I hope I have amused you, informed you, and encouraged you.

New hymn verse to be sung to the tune of "Tis a Gift to Be Simple"

© Paul K. Davis, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

'Tis a gift to remember and to learn from the past,
'tis a gift to plan for what we hope will last,
and when we find ourselves in the present's light,
'twill be with the knowledge and plans that are right.
When true perception is attained,
of all that has past we won't be ashamed.
To learn, learn will be our delight,
'till by learning, learning we sense what's right.


Time is a great equalizer. As the author C. S. Lewis said, "The Future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is." I would like to conclude with the words which the medieval Persian poet-historian Abolqasem Ferdowsi wrote about Alexander the Great:

"Alexander departed, and what remains of him now is the words we say about him. He conquered thirty-six kings, but look how much of the world remained in his grasp when he died. He founded ten prosperous cities, and those cities are now reed beds. He sought things that no man has ever sought, and what remains of him within the circles of the horizon is words, nothing more. Words are the better portion, since they do not decay as an old building decays in the snow and rain. I have finished with Alexander now, and with what he built; may our days be fortunate and prosperous."

Go in peace, and may the words which survive you be words of good - words of love.

Back to Top