New Year’s Eve brings memories of childhood: black and white television pictures of men in kilts, lumps of coal, and tenor voices declaring the virtues of laddies and lassies. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it seems in the memory, perhaps there were songs other than “Loch Lomond” and “Donald, where’s your trousers?”
Whatever the reality, the abiding perception of New Year’s Eve is of fuzzy television pictures from some studio, where they all thought that turning a page of the calendar was something to be marked by the singing of what might well be the worst dirge in human history.
Drawing on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You suggests the possibility of a world freed from Hogmanay, of there being no need, other than that of cultural tradition, to sing Auld Lang Syne ever again:
The space time of the Universe can be thought of as a vast map. All events – from the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang to your birth at a particular time and place on Earth-are laid out on it, each with its unique space-time location. The map picture is appropriate because time, as the flip side of space, can be thought of as an additional spatial dimension. But the map picture poses a problem. If everything is laid out-preordained almost-there is no room for the concepts of past, present, and future. As Einstein remarked: “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion.”
It is a pretty compelling illusion, though. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the concepts of past, present, and future do not figure at all in special relativity, one of our most fundamental descriptions of reality. Nature appears not to need them. Why we do is one of the great unsolved mysteries.
Time and space are not distinct, they are one and the same. The passing of time is illusory; the perception of the passing of time is a mystery.
If Einstein’s theory of relativity is fundamental to our understanding of reality and Einstein rules out any distinction between past, present and future, then Hogmanay itself is an illusion; at best an arbitrary division of dates on a calendar, at worst a delusion that the customs mark something that is real.
If the whole of one’s life is laid out with a precise space-time location, then past, present and future are all the same moment and marking the existence a particular moment in space-time is of no more significance than marking a particular location in space-time. In Einstein’s theory, a celebration of Hogmanay seems no more logical than a celebration of John O’Groat’s; being logical, we could rid ourselves of it forever.
Of course, having dispensed with Andy Stewart & Co on 31st December, the logic of Einstein does seem to suggest that if past, present and future are all the one moment, then we are predestined to certain things from the moment we are born. Predestination is the particular realm of Calvinism and dark-gowned Presbyterian ministers.
It seems there is no escaping from Scotsmen.