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Making A Very Metaphysical Leap Into 2019

Somewhere in between confusion and wonder is not a bad place to be at all.

European Southern Observatory
European Southern Observatory
Vasudevan Mukunth

NEW DELHI — It was recently my birthday. I turned 30. The celebrations were muted – if at all – because there's something of a moment when you exit the tweens, and then the first digit of your age changes from 2 to 3. On that day, it seemed more pertinent than ever to think of the occasion as ‘just another orbit around the Sun." To further blunt the moment, I told myself I was only turning 3.94 galactic seconds old, no biggie.

Time is a strange thing, but let us not belabor the point. Only two statements should suffice to spotlight its strangeness. First, mathematics does not cognize time as an entity in and of itself far beyond thermodynamics: heat flows from a hotter object to a cooler one. The universe was really, really hot 13.8 billion years ago. One day, many billions of years from now, it will go really, really cold and – somewhere in the maze of our equations – time will die. On that day, your birthday will have no meaning. At long last.

Second, there is no absolute time, unless you arbitrarily fix one, because the experience of time is influenced by so many things, such as the speed at which you're moving and your position in a gravitational field. This experience – which scientists have measured using atomic clocks in space – comes straight from Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity.

The last twelve months witnessed a lot of discussion among scientists on time's nature and properties. Like they were at the start of 2018, the arrow of time remains just as mysterious, and time-travel, just as fascinating. It also matters that our experience of time is so essentially subjective, so much so that we would not have to measure time if we weren't also trying to keep track of something important… Of what value is an 8 am on a Monday if it did not portend the opportunities of the next 14 hours?

Of course, when almost every encounter with this dazzling subject ends in poignant moments of wonder, there is a good chance the other encounters are in confusion.

Every object that exists experiences a moment called ‘now." But you're not always going to be able to have all the information about all those experiences simultaneously in your ‘now." This condition owes itself to the speed of light: a fixed constant throughout the whole universe.

If you are looking at a tree 10 meters away, light scattered by the tree is going to reach your eyes in 0.0000000333564095 of a second (assuming the speed of light is the same in the troposphere and in a vacuum). In other words, you can get status updates about the tree once every 0.0000000333564095 of a second. This delay is practically meaningless and can be neglected without consequence.

But when you correspond with a spacecraft billions of kilometers away, the signals are going to take many hours each way. Case in point: the New Horizons space-probe, a NASA mission that flew past Pluto in 2015. It is currently 6.6 billion kilometer from Earth. The one-way signal time – i.e. the time taken by signals sent from Earth to reach the probe, and by the probe to reach Earth – is a little over 6 hours and 6 minutes. In this picture, the probe sends an update and receives instructions on what to do next 12 hours and 12 minutes after transmission.

We are between the profound and the mundane at the same time.

How do you measure time here? You have two frames of reference: Earth and the probe, tracked in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and spacecraft-event time (SCET). These two timezones, in a manner of speaking, can be converted to each other by adding or subtracting the time taken by light to travel between them. For example, if mission control transmits a signal to New Horizons at 12 am UTC, it is going to reach the probe at 6.06 am UTC.

Where it gets a bit trickier is when a probe records an event in SCET, and mission control has to figure out when exactly the event occurred in UTC. On January 24, 1986, the Voyager 2 probe studied Uranus (from a distance 11.5x the planet's radius), and recorded a Bernstein emission at 1315 SCET. Figure out the exact time at which this event occurred from the point of view of an astronomer working in Ooty.

Evidently, we are always somewhere in between confusion and wonder and, to be honest, it is not a bad place to be at all. But on an orthogonal axis, we are between the profound and the mundane at the same time. You can "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!" all you want, it is still going to be 11 pm and time to catch the last train home.

These are two different universes of discourse, though to their credit they are not mutually exclusive. And the only choice you are likely to have is between being condemned to visit all its states or celebrating the inherently unknowable adventure it could be.

Here's hoping your 2019 goes all over this graph.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Bibi Blinked: How The Ceasefire Deal Could Flip Israel's Whole Gaza War Logic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed ahead a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Though the humanitarian and political pressure was mounting, Israel's all-out assault is suddenly halted, with unforeseen consequences for the future.

photo of someone holding a poster of a hostage

Families of Israeli hostages rally in Jerusalem

Nir Alon/ZUMA
Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 at 8:55 p.m.


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war.

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha, he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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