The River of Time

Publicist Note: "Fabric of the Cosmos" hosted by Brian Greene will premiere on NOVA fall 2011

Time.  We waste it, save it, kill it, make it.  The world as we know it runs on it; and yet, ask any physicist what time actually is, and the answer might shock you: They have no idea.  And that deep sense we all have of time "flowing" from past to present?  It might be nothing more than an illusion.  Instead, all moments past, present, and future exist now, meaning that Elvis really does live, along with your great-great-grandchildren, the end of life on Earth, and the Big Bang, all "at once"!  

If your head is about to explode, you're not alone.  We at NOVA have just begun production of our 4-hour miniseries, The Fabric of the Cosmos, hosted by author and physicist Brian Greene, and our heads are spinning!  

Just this week our "Time" production team shot its opening scene with Brian in Canyonlands National Park overlooking the Colorado River. An incredible vista, but what does it have to do with physics?

Host Brian Greene in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.  This location is known as Thelma & Louise Point--that's right, the very same cliff where that final scene took place!  Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

Fabric of the Cosmos "Time" crew filming Brian Greene. Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

Well, it's here where Brian introduces us to a central theme of our series:  our perceptions have led us astray. For centuries we've constructed a picture of the universe that is misleading at best, and often downright wrong.  The river, for example, represents our common-sense picture of time: something that "flows" in only one direction--toward the future.  But modern physics now demands a new picture of time, one in which all moments past, present and future are frozen together in a block of spacetime.  In this strange and still place, there's no such thing as the present as we know it. There's no "flow," no universal clock ticking across the universe.  Instead, what you and I describe as happening "right now" depends on where we are and how fast we're moving relative to each other. A tiny step a few billion light years away could mean my "now" includes events that to you already happened hundreds of years ago.  Flip it around and your "now" could include events that are hundreds of years in my future!  That means my future, which seems completely undecided to me is something that, for you, already exists!  It's an idea that flies in the face of common sense, and yet this our new picture of reality. 

Headache yet?  That's just the start.  In this hour, produced by Randy MacLowry of The Film Posse, we'll ask how our understanding of something so familiar and basic could be so wrong.  Where does the apparent flow and direction of time we experience come from?  Can we ever travel through time at will?  Did time ever have a beginning?  Will time ever end? 

As we push through production, keep an eye out for more entries about our "Time" hour and other three Fabric hours--"Quantum," "Space," and "Multiverse"--for a sneak peek at our exciting series! 

Left: Fabric of the Cosmos series Director of Photography Mike Coles.  Right: Producer/Director of the "Time" hour, Randy MacLowry.  Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

Anna Strachan

Anna Lee Strachan is the series coordinating producer for NOVA’s The Fabric of the Cosmos miniseries and associate producer for the “Multiverse” hour. She has had the fortune to live the better part of a summer on Mars time (NOVA: Is There Life on Mars?), fulfill a life-long dream of catching birds (NOVA scienceNOW: Gangster Birds), and burrow into the dark depths of the evolution controversy consuming this country (Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial). Before NOVA, Anna Lee wrote for NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist website and produced for NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. She has a degree in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard and an M.S. in science writing from MIT. She looks forward to updating you about Fabric on this blog!

NOVApbs Twitter Feed

    Other posts by this Contributor