The Shape of Time
© Copyright 2022 by Kalyan Gullapalli
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Prof. Ravi Rai looked like anybody’s uncle. He was bald, rotund, funny and didn’t seem to take himself seriously. In fact, he was a genius in Mathematics and a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India’s premiere technical institute and one of the world’s best. A brilliant student, he had done his B.S in Mathematics, M.S in Computers and his PhD in Applied Mathematics to Quantum Computing, all from IIT-B, and had graduated summa-cum-laude in each of his endeavors. Naturally, he received several job offers, with great pays and fantastic prospects. But when Prof. Rai was a kid, his little village school’s teacher had once casually remarked that the future of a nation was determined by the quality of its teachers. That day, little Ravi’s fate was sealed. The day he finished studying, he began teaching as a junior lecturer in his alma mater. Today, thirty seven years hence, Prof. Ravi Rai was delivering his last lecture.
The lecture hall was packed to the hilt. R-squared, as he was nick-named by his students, was one very popular man. Not only had he an easy personality, but he also made learning easy and interesting. He combined technical concepts like Advanced Calculus with expositions from the Indian Epics, The Gita and the timeless Puranas, and often experimented with music, art, architecture and philosophy to explain esoteric concepts like Quantum Computing. He designed and delivered his courses with one mantra in mind – a student should leave his class, not only learned, but also a slightly better man. In return, his students revered him.
Tonight, he would retire from IIT-B. So for his last lecture, he had planned a special topic. The lecture hall was filled with not only his students, but also with his faculty colleagues and the Dean himself.
And so his final lecture began with a cheeky invitation to engage -“What is the shape of Time?”
Rahul, an unabashed DCP (Desperate for Class Participation), raised his hand. Prof. Rai nodded once, encouraging him to respond, as the rest of the class sniggered.
“Linear, of course, sir,” replied Rahul cockily and then ploughed on to explain. “Time moves in a straight line - past, present and future. One takes birth, grows into an adult, ages and dies. Every creature follows the same path. So I think, Time is linear, sir.”
Prof. Rai nodded multiple times, as if the reply was extremely profound. But a small smile still hung to his lips. Rahul knew at once, as did the entire class, that there was more to the shape of Time than that.
“Thank you, Rahul. Any other views?” posed Prof. Rai.
There was silence for a while. Deepak, a second year undergrad, raised his hand. Prof. Rai turned towards him encouragingly.
“Sir, Time is like a sine wave. There are crests of good times and troughs of bad times. Circumstances seem favorable at times and unfavorable at others, in alternating cycles – just like a sine wave,” Deepak spoke slowly and deliberately, searching for words, as a few of his mates nodded to support his theory. Prof. Rai nodded back, appreciating Deepak’s effort in articulating his feelings.
“Anybody else?” R-squared challenged his audience.
This time, Neha spoke. “Sir, I think that Time is like an exponential curve. In any initiative, the effort put in initially does not yield proportionate result. But beyond a certain point in time, the results are exponential. Even in case of investments, money grows exponentially beyond a particular inflection point in time, doesn’t it?”
“You do have the soul of an investment banker, Neha,” said Prof. Rai good-naturedly, as the class split into laughter, whole-heartedly agreeing with R-squared. Even Neha joined them. It was no secret what she wanted to specialize in, in due course.
Swami raised his hand next. Prof. Rai’s expression suddenly became mock-serious. “Yes, Swamiji,” Prof. Rai said, expecting a scriptures-steeped exposition. He was not disappointed.
“Sir, according to the Hindu scriptures, Time is cyclical,” Swami began in earnest, quite oblivious to the muted laughter of the class. For him, Scriptures were serious business, not worthy of lesser mortals like his mates.
“Sir, according to our Vedas, Time is divided into four Yugas or Ages – Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga, all of which are cyclical and keep repeating themselves once every 4.32 million years.”
“That may be true, Swamiji, according to the Hindu scriptures. But, what is your opinion?” grilled Prof. Rai. Swami sat stunned. His devotion to the Holy Scriptures had not necessitated him to frame an independent judgment.
While Swami futilely tried to come up with an impromptu original opinion, Prof. Rai futilely tried to mask his disdain for blindly accepting theories written in books without personal exploration, irrespective of whether the book was an age-old scripture or the latest scientific journal.
“By the way, do you realize that cyclical and sinusoidal are the same thing? They just have different frames of reference. Think about it. You and Deepak are both saying the same thing. At least, Deepak’s point of view is from his own experience, whilst yours is coming from a text book.” Prof. Rai drilled his point home.
Prof. Rai searched the room for the next volunteer and found none. But he spotted a familiar face. Experience had taught him that sometimes, brilliant answers came from unexpected quarters. He wondered if he could provoke a response from Sandeep, the eternal back-bencher.
Their eyes met and Sandeep caught the cue. He thought for a second and replied, in his usual carefree manner, “Sir, I live in the moment. I have fun and enjoy every second of life. So for me, Time is a dot, a point.”
There was a ripple of murmur in the class as students and teachers alike shared notes with each other on Sandeep’s methods of having fun – booze, smoke and girls.
“Interesting!” exclaimed Prof. Rai, ignoring the whispers. Sandeep sat back, not sure if that was a compliment or a rebuke.
Prof. Rai took a deep breath and continued, “Ok. Thank you, gang, for your candid views. In this class room, as in life, there are no right or wrong answers. There are just points of view. You have shared yours generously. Let me now venture my opinion.”
The whole class sat up in anticipation as they sensed that R-squared was getting into his ‘zone’.
“Imagine a primitive caveman in 10,000 BC, sitting in front of a bon-fire, amidst his tribe, dinner done, and gazing into the distant stars.” Prof. Rai paused for effect, looking at some imaginary horizon, embarking on a journey, and taking his audience along.
“How do you think the caveman knew that time had elapsed?” he provoked his class to wonder.
A few moments of silent contemplation was followed by a barrage of replies.
“By the movement of the Moon and the Sun?”
“By the passage of night and day?”
“By the length of shadows?”
Prof. Rai nodded acquiescence to each opinion until silence resumed. He then summarized, “The caveman knew that time had elapsed because some change happened around him, isn’t it?”
As the class wondered what R-squared’s point was, he explained, “Time is a human expression to quantify change. We call the period between sunrise and sunset as Day and that between moonrise and moonset as Night. The time the Earth takes for a full revolution around the Sun is a Year. We broke a day into hours and minutes and finally seconds. Net-net, we quantified what we perceived as palpable change and invented the concept of Time, isn’t it?”
The silence of thoughtful minds in the room was deafening.
“So, in fact, Time does not exist. Constant change is the only reality,” Prof. Rai whispered through the waves of silence. He knew that each one in the room was lost in their own world, but would come back eventually, slightly changed, a slightly better man.
Meanwhile, the brightest minds in the country were swimming in chaos, some correlating this hypothesis with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, some others grappling with Stephen Hawking’s singularity in a Black Hole and a few others drawing inspiration from Mahakaleshwar - a form of Shiva - one who has transcended Time.
“What then is the shape of Time?” asked a still-cloudy mind.
Slapping his hand on the desk in front of him, Prof. Rai replied with sudden energy, “Since Time is a psychological invention, its shape depends on its bearer. From an individual life’s standpoint, it is linear. Seen from the perspective of eons of evolution, it is cyclical. From the point of view of human experience, it could be sinusoidal. From the perspective of persistent effort, it has an exponential effect. And in a state of pleasure, hours pass away like a dot.”
Prof. Rai continued quietly, “The shape of Time is irrelevant. What is important is that we understand the true nature of Time, and realize that when we talk of Time, we in fact talk of change. And when we talk of managing Time, we in fact talk of managing change.”
“In all my years as a student, teacher, parent or friend, in short, a human being, I have realized that the best way to manage change is to handle this moment well. Thank you for being such a great audience.”
R-squared finished his last lecture to a standing ovation, wondering how many in this class would find the courage to master Time by being totally involved in each moment, without getting attached to any. He knew by experience that it would take a lifetime of conscious effort to do that!