Now that we’ve ticked past the one-year mark of COVID-19 safety restrictions, the calendar is scrolling once more through the same holidays that punctuated the early pandemic. Yet again, curtailed Purim and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations teed up a round of socially distant Passover Seders and virtual Nowruz, Easter and Ramadan gatherings.
As the seasons slog on, it’s easy to think of time as an arrow, beginning at birth and launching ever onward until death do us part. But many physicists have long begged to differ with that portrayal. Now, even we nonphysicists who have been stuck in seemingly endless lockdown loops are increasingly aware of a different sort of time.
French respondents reported experiencing a “slowing down of time,” in a survey conducted March 31 to April 12, 2020.
Since then, others have pointed out how days seem to run together in a merging of minutes dubbed “Blursday.” Could it be that quarantine is revealing time’s less linear and more authentic plastic, elastic nature?
“The pandemic has made time very like a Dali-esque clock, both distorted and heavy yet slipping away from us,” explained author Susanne Paola Antonetta.
In her new book, “The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here,” she intertwines family stories of séances, seaside cottages and skinny-dipping with insights on time that help illuminate the passage of these peculiar days.
While the mid-pandemic “sameness of our time may be a struggle,” Antonetta said, it also opens up other ways to imagine that “this feeling of time’s recurrent nature may be literally true and ultimately comforting.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: You didn’t write this book during or about COVID-19, yet it tackles questions about time, life and death that feel particularly relevant now. What has this extraordinary year revealed?
Susanne Paola Antonetta: We’re living in a paradoxical time. There’s a “Groundhog Day” sense that we just get up and do the same things — put on our coffee, have our Zoom meetings. But there’s also this push forward with: “I can’t believe it’s been a whole year.”
When life feels slowed down or stretched out or oddly compressed or folded in on itself, the irony is we’re experiencing something that’s closer to reality. As Albert Einstein discovered, time is not linear; instead it gets warped and rippled by gravity. Space-time (the four-dimensional continuum that fuses time and three-dimensional space) is itself a curving thing. In a strange way, this moment could be granting us a window into time’s true nature.
CNN: Has your work on this book helped you process losses, including the deaths of your mother and grandmother?
Antonetta: Learning about time fundamentally changed how I thought about the tragedy of those two deaths. It was very healing to connect my own personal experiences with what we know about the universe.
In a letter to the family of his closest friend, Einstein wrote that the man’s dying meant nothing because “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
I find comfort in that idea, along with physicist Julian Barbour‘s notion of time as an endless series of “nows” that are always existent. He, and many other physicists, see each individual moment as distinct, whole, complete and everlasting, arrayed like Polaroids laid out on a table, all together.
Many spiritual traditions call upon us to live in the present moment to give ourselves the gift of experiencing our lives in an immediate way. I see those as connected.
The last scene in “Terrible Unlikelihood” shows my grandmother still existing in the world and having existed through the events that followed her death. I find comfort in the possibility that the “chaos of time” has allowed her to have been here always — and still.
CNN: So many people are grieving lost loved ones. How might examining the fundamental forces of the universe offer comfort?
Antonetta: I can’t in any way try to diminish someone’s grief. It’s real. It’s terrible. But when I go back to Einstein, I understand that my perception of my very real grief may not be the end of the story. I want to offer people a way of looking at this marvelous universe and what that gives us in terms of how we can interpret our lives and our losses. It’s kind of a meditative practice. I think about the world we live in and I find my mother and grandmother still really present.
I asked Barbour, “What do your physics beliefs do for you as a human being?” He answered that it made him aware that despite life’s difficulties, there is peace in knowing that the way we experience our lives is not disconnected, but part of these universal processes.
Many of the physicists I interviewed spoke of the beauty of our relationship with the universe. Because we’re not separate, our lives have a real fundamental meaning. Each of us has existed, interconnected with the most basic level of reality. Nothing, not even death, can take that away. That is where the hope comes in.
That thinking doesn’t negate my grief. The loss is very real, but there’s more going on here than loss. The universe has made us out of stardust, literally. And the universe doesn’t waste a thing.
CNN: Your book highlights the fact that both physicists and spiritualists work to reveal what you call “hidden and bendable worlds.” How do you see the overlaps between science and spirituality?
Antonetta: Scientists are often really uncomfortable with that connection. The fact that spiritualists are going on intuition and not proof puts them on a very different plane from somebody who is relying on the equations that demonstrate how the universe is fine-tuned to support life. It is really humbling to know that we’re here, however you explain our existence.
Yet the existence of our real, human bodies and the inevitable aging process makes it difficult to see that time is an illusion. We are part of larger processes that are more than we are, and that are also as real.
CNN: Are you saying there are realities beyond those we experience on a day-to-day level?
Antonetta: Absolutely. Space and time seem like the most fundamental things, but they’re not unmoving or stable in the way we often experience them because we are material. If I said, “From now on, as you walk through the world, imagine the space around you curving,” you wouldn’t be able to do that. But that doesn’t mean the space around you isn’t capable of curving.
In fact, we know it is because of Einsteinian calculations, which actually enable your GPS to work. The satellites have to account for the bending of space-time to be accurate. These are not esoteric things; they’re part of how we live.
We also know, because of entanglement, that particles may be able to influence each other even from far apart. But that can also be difficult to imagine.
CNN: Some people struggle with how unreal pandemic time can feel. Does what you have learned change how you experience daily life, especially during quarantine?
Antonetta: Considering the fact that we exist as conscious beings in this universe that’s provided an astonishing ability to sustain life helps me work against the feeling that the days no longer matter.
The days matter tremendously. We are so deeply and fundamentally embedded in this amazing universe. Life feels so much more precious when you really understand those things. Maybe someday we’ll develop an ability to experience time in a way that’s more aligned with physics time.
Meanwhile, one positive legacy of COVID might be how we’ve learned to create moments that will continue to matter. I look at the sunset so much more. I get glued to watching a meteor shower. I want to create distinct moments that will continue to stand out within my own time.