Past masquerading as present


Primal by MC

Reading about a gas cloud three times the size of Earth moving toward the center of the Milky Way has returned me to one of my all time favorite scientific/philosophical themes. I have frequently written about how everything in the universe is always communicating through its past and never its present. All phenomena that we experience are dated.

There is no real real time contact among objects considering that the time lag between any two object is considerable. As you begin to look beyond the interplanetary and into the intergalactic the distances become so vast that they no longer make sense on the human scale. It is from this standpoint that I read Ron Cowen’s story “It’s snack time in the cosmos.”

The story says:

In March or April, a gas cloud that has been hurtling toward the center of the Milky Way is expected to collide with Sagittarius A*, a black hole that lies just 26,000 light-years from Earth. (The actual event, of course, took place 26,000 years ago.)

The cloud is as massive as three Earths — no match for the black hole, which has the mass of four million suns.

“This is a rare opportunity to witness spoon-feeding of a black hole,” said Avi Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard. “Will the gas reach the black hole, and if so, how quickly? Will the black hole throw up or spit the gas out in the form of an outflow or a jet?

“The experience is as exciting for astronomers,” he went on, “as it is for parents taking the first photos of their infant eating.”

The idea that scientists are getting excited about an event that happened 26,000 years ago because we get to see it only now is a strange one. To be sure, whatever had to happen to the gas cloud and Sagittarius A has already happened a long time ago. Spoiler alerts are not necessary when it comes to such cosmic occurrences because there is no one else who has seen them in our general vicinity before we are about to. And we do not even know whether the gas cloud was eaten up by Sagittarius A or not. That is the excitement. It is a very very slow folding story because even if the black hole did indeed gobble up the gas cloud, as the story reports, it could take years before we get to see the attendant fireworks.

The gap of 26,000 years before the actual possible gas cloud-Sagittarius A encounter and what we are getting around to only now is a fascinating one. One way to get around this problem of enormous datedness is to collectively agree that our past is in fact jointly our present and our present will be our joint future. I use “our” in a cosmic and not an earthly sense. All that we can do is together decide that the present is when we see it and not when it might have actually happened in relation to a particular event or an object.

Of course, we can also resign to the fact that there is no real present but perpetual past and there is no real future but nascent present. Moments are taking birth and perishing all the time. Our immediate anthropic present will never reconcile or converge with that of even our nearest planetary neighbor, the moon because of the time lag, albeit miniscule in this particular case.

For all practical purposes it does not really matter that we are never up-to-date about the universe because we have to live with what appears before us.

There are two kinds of present, one that is real present as experienced by the object in question and the other as experienced by those away from it. This time lag exists even on our own planet but it is so small that as human we cannot perceive it.

The trick is to treat the human present as the time we humans experience it even if it may have in reality happened a long time ago, as is the case in the gas cloud-Sagittarius A encounter. It sets off my mind on to another paradox. At the cosmic scale reality is not when it is actually real but when we experience it to be so. Since that is indeed the case, don’t talk to me about what is real. Real is real only for the object in question. For the rest, it is all past masquerading as present.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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