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Beyond Time

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Stopwatch Stopwatch (wwarby/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

This hour, Radiolab goes to the front lines with men and women who are battling against time -- or at least the common-sense view of time.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity may have implications on the concept of choice. Namely, that there is none. Do we choose what movie to see tonight? No. (It's already been chosen, some say.) Do we choose to wiggle our finger? No. (Already wiggled.) We'll visit a particle accelerator where scientists recreate the moment just after the beginning of time, and a Dublin artist whose life is a 19th-century time experiment. We end in the Mojave desert, where geologic time flows like a frozen hourglass.


Brian Greene, Dr. Michio Kaku, David McDermott, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Lisa Randall and Terry Wilcox

A Simpler Time

Have you ever wished you could time travel, like in the movies? Artist Terry Wilcox asks us to imagine 1,594 years into the future, when his sculptural clock will chime. A particle accelerator jockey at Brookhaven National Laboratory takes us 45 feet away from the beginning of time. And Swedish ...

Comments [19]

No Special Now

It's not only artists who rebel against time, many physicists too take issue with our standard notion of clock time. Some even deny time exists at all. Blame Einstein. We peer into Pandora's box of post-Einsteinian physics with Brian Greene, Michio Kaku and Lisa ...

Comments [27]

Mojave Road

Finally, producer Ben Adair takes us on a tour of the Mojave desert and, in the process, confronts his own brevity in the face of geological time.

Comments [5]

Comments [41]

Ginseng from Surrey

Don't get me wrong, I love art, but the inclusion of David McDermott took away so much from the podcast. I understand wanting to get away from the contemporary bustle, much in the way people do technology cleanses, but McDermott sounds full of themselves and quite honestly deluded. Call me uncultured, but I don't see how that portion contributed meaningfully in any way.

Jul. 19 2017 02:15 PM

How many times have you said to yourself, "I knew that would happen," when an accident occurs? Often it feels based not on hindsight, but on the recognition of some understanding of physics and situation that your brain may have worked out in advance to anticipate the likelihood of a particular coffee cup being knocked from a counter. It would seem just as logical that this scenario isn't a metaphysical or time altering predictive power, but your subconscious working out things and then alerting you of the important observations, maybe even as part of a trigger for memory recall and learning?

Jan. 13 2016 11:56 AM
Bruce C. from Colorado

Your program generated much good intellectual discussion and debate as it usually does. One question that is being asked these days when science dialogues with religion is "what is consciousness?" exclusively brain activity? Another is "what is mind"? synonimus with consciousness? Has Radio Lab approached those themes?
Buddhism, Hinduism have been asking these questions for over two thousand years. There were many debates within and between traditions. There were early Buddhists atomists who reduced everything to atoms and minute mind moments. Another school could not rationally conclude that atoms and mind moments exist - or do not exist.
The Mind-Life Institute initiated by the Dalai Lama has been hosting dialogues between scientists and sometimes between scientists and philosophers for more than fifteen years. These dialogues of exploration which include the results of brain research might be of interest to some folks.
Lastly, what is considered to be the most advanced teaching in Tibetan Buddhism is the Kalachakra Tantra which relates to "the wheel of time".
Thanks to Radio Lab for posing questions and provoking curiosity.

Jan. 10 2016 12:19 AM
Rob Niosi

If you are a time traveler, you may like to see this. I have built a Time Machine (actually a replica of the Time Machine from the 1960 film). After 12 years of construction, I unveiled my Machine ("sculpture") this passed September. The 50 guests attending wore Victorian clothes. You can see a slideshow of this event here...!blank/u3q3p

Jan. 09 2016 01:22 PM
marley engvall from florence, massachusetts

I was waiting for you to get around to this 'multiverse' concept, which is always where we arrive when somebody wants to believe that 'reality' is not necessarily 'real.'

I am writing you this comment from the universe in which the federal government of the United States of America, in conjunction with the Pentagon and the Port Authority of New York City, declared war on the American people, and murder several thousands on September 11, 2001.

I am writing this comment from a universe in which the laws of physics are constant, 47-story steel-framed structures do not collapse from scattered office fires.

I am writing this comment from a universe in which I, and you, possess free will, a universe in which those who avoid taking their share of responsibility for our collective history are quickly distinguishing themselves as enemies of the human race.

Jan. 08 2016 10:31 PM

Wow. I didn't know it was possible be annoyed with a human being the way I'm annoyed with David McDermott. I get it, I guess; he wants to live in this alternate fantasy -world. But it annoys me. It comes across as wasteful and silly; his art comes across as this ugly little mutant of a period piece.

Maybe I'm projecting, but I doubt I'm the only one who feels this way. Maybe this is what other 'Peter Pan syndrome' types are really like on the inside.

Jul. 06 2014 02:15 PM
Lyfé Wisdom

Radiolab and this podcast is extremely intriguing and develops a sense of thought. The Candid Nation does represent science, philosophy, and current events alike radiolab. Please visit The Candid Nation and we hope for radiolab to connect to The Candid Nation and continue to prosper. Thank you!

May. 18 2014 02:05 PM
Patrick Schechter from Binghamton, NY

This episode inspired me to make this short film:
It's constructed almost entirely out of cinemagraphs. Please check it out!

Nov. 11 2013 09:56 PM
Stefan Lungu

I want to live in a chocolate universe!

Nov. 09 2013 05:37 PM
Spencer from Texas

Holey COW!Check out David McDermott. His art is nearly what you would expect by listening to this program. Watch his video production on time travel and hear how he believes we should stop all progress and live in world piece and allow future earthlings from another universe develope interuniversal time/space travel, and come and take us on tours of everything, not excluding dinosaurs. The guy is a cracked pot, a loon, a weirdo, and I'm sure he loves that fact, as he explores time/space with the chrononauts.

Nov. 03 2013 07:51 PM
Dana from Ontario, CA

At the exact instance where Jad prompted his guest speaker to start talking about quantum theory, I shouted, "multiverse!"

Oct. 24 2013 12:18 PM
Eric Hamell from Philadelphia

The perplexed comments on this show about the Libet experiment reflect a confusion rooted in philosophical dualism. When you complain that "my brain is moving before I made the decision," who -- or, more to the point, what -- is making the complaint? Why, your brain, that's what! So, removing the confused pronouns, your complaint becomes, "This brain is upset because this brain acted before this brain had decided what to do." This is perfect nonsense.

You say that, "logically," "you" have to "make the decision" before your brain can act. But, given that you are your brain, what's actually logical is that you must ACT (make the decision) before you can experience that action. Conceivably, the same brain circuit might perform the deciding and the decision experiencing simultaneously. But more likely, different circuits are involved, in which case the cause (making the decision) logically MUST precede the effect (subjectively experiencing the decision). So, not only is it not "logical" that the decision would precede the blip, it's not even POSSIBLE. Only (scientifically baseless) dualist thinking that regards the self as something distinct from the brain, could possibly lead to the opposite expectation.

Jan. 28 2013 07:47 PM
Ferdi from North Carolina

Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking, refreshing broadcast that keeps the mind sharp and the curiosity awake after the daily grind of habit and routine!

And although there are many questions and objections that can be addressed, on a level of content, to the different understandings of time reviewed in the show - isn't it its goal to raise questions out of the ordinary? - the show itself does an excellent, excellent job in synthetically exposing these different essential understandings. Time understood from the perspective of the now, time understood from the perspective of space, time understood from the perspective of eternity, time as complexity, eternity as simplicity, and vice-versa, simplifying time and complicating eternity, science's concept of time, and history's concept of time, time understood from the perspective of our existential finitude, what is time? and are we time? What else was left out? I have never listened to a more multi-dimensional and in-depth presentation in a ... 59 minute time-span. My best-spent 59 minutes for this year!

Jan. 25 2013 02:37 PM
David Heyl from Michigan

The program--very special!

Physical time (temporal events)--are creative products of the "time of mind experience." There is no room in the physical event for a consciousness that questions, there is only room for the electro-chemical firing of synapses occurring in squishy grey matter that gets labeled brain. In the brain there is no room for the “free will” that is the source of the symbol-generating movement of free thought, i.e., the thoughts that produce our “time of mind” experience. Physical time, vibrations of atoms, biological clock decay, revolutions around the sun, are all “creative acts of discovery” which, in turn, are embedded in the physical events of space/time.

What we do with time ends up in that familiar experience we call temporality. Operationally speaking, when we use implication to construct temporal models of time we are using “time” to understand time, understand the how-to-processes that help us to accommodate/assimilate our environment. The human temporal moment then, carries within itself not one account of temporality, i.e., the video time of sequential physical events; it also carries within itself, as Piaget calls it-- “the center of action." Mind, identity, and time are discovered in this “center of action." Knowledge is accumulated in this liberated and liberating space that gets called “time.” Therefore, if it were not for the existence of determinism, continuity, and locality we would not be free in a world of our own experience (by degrees, experience of our own choosing), seeking truth, justice, and religious meaning!

Jan. 22 2013 09:51 PM
Len Layton from Vancouver, Canada.

Loved the show, but I must take Dr. Ramachandran to task on his concept of free will. The reason he sees neurons firing 'before' the actor is aware of a decision to move is because the brain is running a simulation of the environment continuously and makes predictions about what sensory input is going to happen next - and that includes propioceptic (body postion) sensory input. This predict-error-learn model of cognition is largely due to Jeff Hawkins (see - & btw he would make a great interview subject if you do a show on artificial intelligence.). Ramachandran appears to operate as an experimentalist without the guts to propose a falsifiable model of neurobiology - who revels in sensationalist claims about phantom limbs and sordid freak show exposes of people with brain injuries. (Like Oliver Sacks).

Jan. 22 2013 03:38 PM
Rev. E.M. Camarena, Ph.D

Interesting show. What these scientists proclaim about time, we esoteric practitioners have known for centuries. And we know how to travel at will within the sea of time. Want to cause change in the universe? Manipulating "time" is the way to do it. When a physicist does it it is called "science" and given prestigious awards. When an esoteric practitioner does it, it is called "magick" and denounced by professional de-bunkers. If they only knew! We absolutely do have the ability to skip around in the universe, temporally or otherwise. Time is an illusion, a human concept that allows us to get to work on time.
As to the world of anachronism such as that in which the artist lives, what of your world? Radio! Your work is every bit as exciting as theater of the mind as the War of The Worlds broadcast was, or every segment of The Shadow... Your use of an "old time" method of communication is wonderful!

Jan. 20 2013 07:32 PM
Patrick Lardieri

Great show, quite thought provoking. A question about the multi-universe segment in the show.

You gave an example of how if a person chooses to have vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream both outcomes would play out in separate universes. To date I had understood that experiments have shown that reality behaves in a probabilistic manner at the quantum scale but that no experimental data exists yet that is also holds true at the macroscopic scale of reality e.g. like choosing a flavor of ice cream. In the past examples like Schrodinger's cat were used to illustrate the bizarreness of quantum mechanics and not to suggest there is any evidence that similar mechanics occur at the macroscopic scale. I thought this subtly was absent from the presentation. I would love to know what you and others thought (and I am open to the issue being my own misunderstanding!).

Jan. 20 2013 03:55 PM
Thomas McCann from Southern California

I liked this episode but there is one fundamental assumption that is suspect and colors the whole discussion: namely, that consciousness is, and must be, materialistic (brainwaves, neuron-firing, chemicals).

In a modern world this is understandable but it leaves you with the nonsensical conclusion that consciousness is an illusion. Actually, by ignoring the fundamental nature of consciousness, probably our most personal and assured fact of our own existence, we already assume the answer to our purported question. The question of 'what is consciousness?' becomes 'where in the brain is consciousness?'.

Jan. 19 2013 06:53 PM

I don't know if it was Jad or Robert who said today "he is just an artist so we can kinda right him off" peeeesshhhaaaa!! Artist's are some of the best thinkers ever!!!!! Shame on you boys.

Jan. 19 2013 04:49 PM
adelaide from South

This segment on the desert was either borrowed from This American Life or else used previously on Radiolab. You shouldn't cannibalize NPR material, because many of us listen to multiple shows and it looks like you're hurting for content.

Jan. 19 2013 03:53 PM
Juanami Spencer from New York City

Thank you for another thought-provoking show. I can't think of a better way to spend an hour on Saturday:)

Jan. 19 2013 01:30 PM
Nancy Rosanoff from Briarcliff, NY

Regarding "moments living forever" consider the difference between having an "experience" through sensory perception and the underlying timeless reality. An analogy is: when one watches the sun rise - the sky going from dark to light, the sun coming up over the horizon, it seems like the "sun is rising." The truth is that the sun is always shining - but our experience - sensory perception (based on limited capacity) is that what was dark is now light, that the sun that was invisible is now visible.

So, one's experience is transitory and based on sensory perception. It is also possible to become aware of the non-dimensional reality of being that is timeless, spaceless and eternal.

Jan. 19 2013 12:49 PM
Catwink1941 from Sacramento, California

In the 1970s, when I first discovered the Jane Roberts/Seth books, Seth told about counterparts,( other parts of ourselves)and multiple universes in the two books, Unknown Reality Book 1 and 2. Was the first time I had read of such. That was my first introduction to string theories, as told by Michio Kaku on Coast to Coast AM radio show. Lots of "USs" exist to feed info and experiences into our "main man"!!! One day, I wondered if I had a counterpart anywhere near me, and what he or she would look like, and would I recognize him or her. I was having a Taco Salad at Wendy's. when in walked a man who had the exact same clothes as I did, right down to the Sauconys. Every hair on my body stood up, a good sign, and I noticed that he drove a silver BMW, which I have always wanted to own. I thought, well, one of us has one! He was holding hands with a little girl with SISTER on her tee shirt. My own sister died at one day old, in 1942, as her lungs were not fully developed. I wondered if she had re-incarnated to one of my other selves, a counterpart! I really did walk home that day with a glad heart. There is no end to us ever.

The Unknown Reality,
Volume One

This two volume set introduced the concept of probable realities, the metaphysical counterpart of the parallel universe theory in Quantum Physics.

It is one of the most important and complex concepts in the Seth material, explaining the mechanics involved in materialization of events into our daily lives.

The Unknown Reality,
Volume Two

According to this theory there are other probable versions of history that exist in alternate dimensions.

These versions are as real as ours, and each individual has probable selves that exist in these "parallel" universes.

According to Seth, the exploration of the unknown mechanics and dimensions of our being is the next step in our evolutionary development.

Jan. 18 2013 02:26 PM
Cameron from Philly

This is in reference to the section of this piece that speaks about the experiment done to determine whether or not we have free will by monitoring brain function. As I understand it, and I don't claim to be any sort of great expert on the matter (though it seems thats not stopping me from adding in my two cents) the mind is more of just a series of systems. Consciousness is not really one uniform entity but instead a product of all these systems working together. Its not as though we are not in control but perhaps more that the we, or in this case the I, is somewhat of an illusion. The lone consciousness that each one of us perceives is just the surface, or tip of the iceberg if you will, for all the mechanisms of the brain that lay beneath. While I admit this to be somewhat of a depressing view as it might rob us of some mysticism or romantic idea of humanity it also opens up a lot of doors for future understanding of the human mind.

Jan. 18 2013 11:46 AM

There a couple of things that they did not do "quite" right in this show.
Brian Greene has been a proponent of the multiple universe paradigm (I wouldn't call it a theory since as Lisa Randall alluded to it has no falsifiable predictions (that differentiate it from the other mainstrea Quantum Theories)to the point where I'd characterize him as a fanboy. It is great thinking about choices when they a binary. The universe just splits into two different "tracks" (aka worldlines). The problem is that most QM has **continuous** probabilities so how do you deal with a 1 ÷ π th of a timeline? In other words I can split a timeline into any rational fraction, but once we think about irrational numbers (like √2 or π ) how does the splitting occur? A second problem is in this multiverse there remains an arrow of time (or many arrows of time from each point). What Brian was saying (I have not read his book on the subject) is that time is not anything close to what we commonly think it is. General Relativity postulates a Universe where every event that ever happened or ever will happen has the same "reality" as the moment we find ourselves in now. The past exists as much as the present and as much as the future. Relativity also denies the existence of any universal meaning for the concept of "now". "Now" is local to the observer and can't always be translated to have a consistent meaning to a different observer. (For instance, you and I would agree that yesterday happened before today. The physics is that there is an observer who could *correctly* claim just the opposite; that today "happened" first. This is a great example of the fact that English can not necessarily be used to convey the meaning of (mathematical physics) terms. Using English is like trying to describe the color red to a person blind from birth.
There is also the fact that General Relativity is not able to deal with the very quantum mechanics that Brian thinks is best explained by multiple universes. That is, the two theories are incompatible. String theory offers a possible (so far) way out. Until it has some demonstrated sucesses at predicting something other theories do not get right, it will be considered a very interesting possibility, that's all.
Finally, this show is a bit dated. We know that we make decisions long before we know that we have made them. In some cases, the lag is fractions of a second, but in others it can be minutes, hours, day, or years. "Go with your gut" is useful advice for an excellent neurophysiological reason. Consciousness is NOT a small controller in our head, our mind is a machine with many gears and levers which often leads us to choices long before we are aware we have made them - awareness in this context means having formed a narrative. (One reason why I am a lousy poker player).

Nov. 12 2012 08:59 PM
Sloppy Boggins from Toronto

On nonlinear time...
I'm not sure why Robert, and he's not alone, believe that nonlinear time precludes a "poetry" in our experience. But that is exactly where we experience linear time; in our perception of all things. Our brains simplify things for us so that we can be functional.
Consider the fact that we receive visual stimuli upside down but our brains revert the image to make sense of it. An experiment was done in which special lenses, I'm no optics expert, were made like glasses but showed everything upside down. The wearer wore them all day, everyday for almost 2 weeks before the brain put everything right. At that point, when the glasses were removed, everything was seen upside down. The brain knows we can't deal with upside down so it rights it for us. Considering we can barely grasp the idea of nonlinear time how could we deal with it and would our brain even lets us try?

Apr. 10 2012 09:43 PM
Adam K from MI

If any one can correct me here I would appreciate it, but from what I have learned, that bleep a second before the wiggling could be from our pre-motor cortex actually designing our movement, as it sends the plan to the primary motor cortex which executes the desired voluntary movement. So in a sense, your brain has this "lag" before the executed command. Obviously to us it feels instant, but our movement is first being orchestrated in our brain and then being executed. Thanks.

Mar. 21 2012 12:34 PM
Hans from Anchorage, AK

In response to the idea of parallel universes...

If this is true, there is a universe where my brother and I have each other's name. What's much more interesting though is there is some universe where my brother made every decision I made and visa versa. Therefor we've switched. So essentially the difference between people sort of breaks down with this idea. If I could be my brother in another universe, why couldn't I be my neighbor?

How do other animals fit into this view? Perhaps they too run into situations where their odds are 40/30/30. You can think of this from an evolutionary perspective. Maybe the humans of one universe more closely resemble the lizard people from our conspiracy theories.

Jan. 06 2012 09:17 PM

My absolute FAV radiolabs!
As for separating your brain from you- your mind is you isn't it? just one of the many layers that make up the self- to say you have no free will because your brain controls your movement, seems illogical to me.

Dec. 14 2011 04:36 PM

Nevermind, with the help of Soundhound, I found out it is Monopolist by Efterklang.

Nov. 18 2011 01:31 AM

Anyone know the song from ~43:00?

Nov. 17 2011 08:39 PM
Max Stevens from zephyrhills,fl.

I think if you check out you will see that time travel is a fact.

Oct. 17 2011 05:09 PM
Mandles from Detroit

This isn't really related to the article, just wanted to say that Kraden basically summed up the main idea of The Great Gatsby with the comment, "What I realized is that you can't change the past and thinking about all the decisions you could have made leaves you stuck in time only thinking and not acting or living."

Sep. 21 2011 01:37 AM

I had a fascinating experience many years ago when I was 9 years old.

We went on a cruise (won a holiday, highly suggest trying out radio show call-in giveaways). There was a moment in the youth entertainment group where we were supposed to stand on stage and straight face while others tried to make us laugh. I gave it an attempt, and though I can't remember why, I found it very embarrassing to be up on stage and stared at by well... everyone.

I remember sitting back down very abashed and thinking about wanting to take back my decision, and staring at the waves in the ocean and thinking about where that choice would leave me. What if I succeeded and felt proud? What if I was a different person. And I remember thinking that choices spread out like the ocean I was staring at, and I seem to remember it was a beginning of a simple inner-peace, which ironically actually cured my stage fright.

What I realized is that you can't change the past and thinking about all the decisions you could have made leaves you stuck in time only thinking and not acting or living.

This episode reminded me of that which was an interesting moment in my life that I hadn't thought about in a long time.

So if you get stuck thinking about the fact that you don't have free will. Simply decide to have free will, and you will have it. Else you will never have any more branches in your life ever, free will or not.

Love the show guys. Thanks for my neurons fire. :)

Aug. 30 2011 03:29 AM
Robert from Florida, USA

Regarding the finger wiggling:
Before latching onto a brain prediction, shouldn't the first hypothesis be that we have cognition backwards?
It seems much more reasonable that our decision making happens before we announce to ourselves that we've decided. In stressful situation people often say they acted before they "had time to think," but obviously what we call instinctive reaction is thinking - otherwise the body wouldn't know how it would go about pulling some stranger from a fire. Perhaps "We" still make the choices, but our brains just don't bother our consciousness with the trivial operations of choice. In the case of the finger wiggle, there are probably countless calculations going into settling on timing, which direction to move first, what hand to use, etc. Our subconscious may then just alert our conscious brain, "hey - check it out - we're going to be moving."

How many times have you said to yourself, "I knew that would happen," when an accident occurs? Often it feels based not on hindsight, but on the recognition of some understanding of physics and situation that your brain may have worked out in advance to anticipate the likelihood of a particular coffee cup being knocked from a counter. It would seem just as logical that this scenario isn't a metaphysical or time altering predictive power, but your subconscious working out things and then alerting you of the important observations, maybe even as part of a trigger for memory recall and learning?

Anyway I have no idea how one might test the theory of subconscious centered free will.

Aug. 20 2011 03:53 AM
Ellis from US


The speed of light appears constant no matter how fast you are traveling! Put another way, everyone, no matter how fast they travel, perceives the same speed of light as if they are standing still.

Thus, if you are in a car traveling at a cm/second less than the speed of light and you turn on your headlights, the light will still shoot out in front of you at the speed of light! A person standing to the side of the road watching you go by, however, would see the light gradually creeping out in front of you, getting only another cm ahead every second!

Jul. 23 2011 05:38 PM

Even I would like to acknowledge it for sure.

Jun. 02 2011 02:25 AM
Jim from Lichfield UK

Einstein proposed that if the bus he was travelling on were to speed faster than light, then he would never see the ticks of the clock. However, he suggests that he would be able to observe his pocket watch no problem!
One of the things that confuses me about this is that, if he were travelling faster than light, would he be able to see anything at all? Wouldn't light which left his pocket watch need to be going faster than him (and normal light) to reach his eye? Would light even hit his pocket watch?

May. 25 2011 09:13 AM

The section no special now is very reminiscent of well acclaimed book Slaughter House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.

May. 04 2011 04:27 PM
Jeff Alberda from Edmonton, AB, Canada

What happens if I see the blip but decide then to not wiggle my finger? Seems like plenty of time to just not bother.

Also there is a lot that we don't know about the brain, couldn't it be that the decision happening is inside before it is verbalized in our brains.Voices in your head talked about how we learn to thing and how we develop an inner narrative. Seems likely to me that the inner narrative is a "line out" of whats happening inside. And that we process before we understand we process.

Apr. 18 2011 06:24 PM
allen from newark, ca

I love everything you do. i listen pbs or sports more than music. Its nice to know inteligent mind are stil out there

Apr. 14 2011 12:51 AM

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