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Flow

Sure, you can go with the flow. But what does that mean? Physicists assure us time doesn’t flow. The laws of nature say no way.…By Kevin Berger

Sure, you can go with the flow. But what does that mean? Physicists assure us time doesn’t flow. The laws of nature say no way. Only your brain wants time to flow from one instant to the next. But your brain can’t make up its mind about the length of the instants. Time can fly or creep in a petty pace. It depends on your mood, your age, whether you’re listening to the Ramones or Erik Satie.

Engineers tell us flow describes how fluids or gases behave in relationship to their environment. Flow can be laminar (smooth) or turbulent (chaotic). But when it’s turbulent, scientists are baffled about what in the world’s going on. Then again, flow can be a transcendent feeling. It can lift you out of time, make you feel one with the universe.

Scientists and writers may not be able to pin a definition on flow, but they love to allude to it.

Julian Barbour, physicist: “There is nothing in the form of the laws of nature at the fundamental microscopic level that distinguishes a direction of time. One of the intuitions that most people, including many scientists, find very hard to shed—that time is real and does flow—may well be an illusion.”

Werner Heisenberg, physicist (reportedly): “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions. Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.”

Jonathan Berger, composer: “During a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes.”

Heather Berlin, neuroscientist: “During ‘flow states,’ where one is completely immersed and absorbed in a mental or physical act, people often report an altered sense of time, place, and self.”

Samantha Larson, rock climber: “I started climbing. My brain practically shut off as my body took over in the flow of the movement: plug in a piece of gear for protection, sink my fingers into the crack, paste my feet against the granite. I felt elated, alive.”

Each of the remarks above was featured in Nautilus. Put them together—with their entire articles, of course—and you emerge with a comprehension of flow. And that’s how Nautilus goes. We designed our magazine on the principle of connections—the idea that singular themes in science can be refracted in its myriad fields. Each month we introduced an important theme and asked writers, scientists, and artists to explore them in their own original ways, allowing the connections in their works to speak for themselves.

And those connections continue to surprise. As a new group of investors cements the groundwork on Nautilus’ next stage, we’ve identified themes in our archives that shine a new angle of light on our stories. And one of those themes, as you have guessed, is “Flow.”

So each week this month we’ll revisit two “Flow” stories, along with new posts and a new feature. This week that feature is “The Dam Problem in the West.” Environmental writer Heather Hansman takes a bold rafting trip down the Colorado River to explore the water crisis in the West. Along the way, she confronts her treasured environmental preconceptions being overturned.

As always, we’re thrilled you’re with us, in the, well, you know.

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