Archive for theory of time

Questions of Time, New Year 2004

The beginning of a new year invariably leads to meditations on the human understanding of time, and this year is no exception. An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by Brian Greene focuses on some of the big questions we have about time.

Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia (and author of The Elegant Universe and the forthcoming The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality), emphasizes the power that conventional representations of time have over everyday experience–notably the fact that every year millions (if not billions) of people gather at public places, religious rituals, or private parties (I had a good time at the party I attended, by the way) to mark the beginning of a new year.

He then discusses the radical changes in our understanding of time over the last century, specifically the changes created by relativity and quantum mechanics and suggests that scientists’ views of time will likely undergo a radical change in the coming years:

Today’s scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval, one that will pinpoint the more elemental concepts from which time and space emerge. Many believe this will involve a radically new formulation of natural law in which scientists will be compelled to trade the space-time matrix within which they have worked for centuries for a more basic “realm” that is itself devoid of time and space.

I’m still trying to grasp exactly how these changes will be articulated, but Greene’s discussion of the tendency to compartmentalize time–to separate scientific and subjective representations of time–is quite interesting.

I do have a few other observations that I’d like to work through, perhaps in ways that inform my book project:

  • The relationship between the human subject and temporal movement: Greene seems to emphasize the power of the individual over time, commenting that, “In my everyday routines, I delight in what I know is the individual’s power, however imperceptible, to affect time’s passage.” This is something I’ve been trying to work through lately, specifically how many time-travel films provide individual time travelers with so much power over how events unfold in time
  • The cinematic metaphor: Greene describes the subjective experience of time under relativity theory in terms of a “global” freeze frame, with the passing of chronological time unfolding like an “old-time flip-book.” If film theorists have described cinema as a type of time machine, then physicists frequently seem to suggest that passing time is an incredibly large film.
  • The role of time in everyday life: Greene argues that “Time dominates experience. We live by watch and calendar. We eagerly trade megahertz for gigahertz. We spend billions of dollars to conceal time’s bodily influences. We uproariously celebrate particular moments in time even as we quietly despair of its passage.” I want to complicate this notion of time, and the references to time’s effect on the body will likely be severely challenged as scientists develop “anti-aging” technologies.

(By the way, there’s a rumor floating that bloggers can create permanent links to Times articles without having to pay for access. Any suggestions or information would be welcome.)

Update: Thanks to Jason J and Invisible Adjunct, here is the New York Times link generator.

Jason also links to The Weather Project at the Tate Museum, which reminds me to think about the connections between representations of time and weather (but I’ll put that project on hold for now).

Comments (4)

Could we ever be Time Lords?

Via Crooked Timber, a link to an article in The Age on the physics of time travel. Most interesting for my purposes are the references to the Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors, as an illustration of the “many universes” hypothesis, and to Stephen Hawking’s “Chronology Protection Conjecture,” which, according to Leo Brewin, basically implies that time travel paradoxes won’t happen because we can’t make sense of them.

Game Update: Alas, it looks like I bragged about my the Braves a little too quickly. They’ve come back a little (it’s 4-2 as I write), but they are almost out of chances. Maybe I could build a time machine and get the Cubs’ bus lost in Atlanta traffic….


New Theory of Time?

Via Blogdex: I’m generally skeptical of any theory that offers itself as “ground-breaking,” but Peter Lynds’ “Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Discontinuity,” soon to be published in Foundations of Physics Letters is apparently making waves, specifically for the Lynds’ apparent resolution of two of the most famous of Zeno’s Paradoxes.

The most famous involves an arrow being fired toward a target. Zeno argued that the arrow should never reach its destination because before it does, it has to travel half the distance to the target, when it again must travel half that distance, and so on. Lyndes’ solution to the paradox is that motion cannot be derived from freezing objects in a single instant:

According to both ancient and present day physics, objects in motion have determined relative positions. Indeed, the physics of motion from Zeno to Newton and through to today take this assumption as given. Lynds says that the paradoxes arose because people assumed wrongly that objects in motion had determined positions at any instant in time, thus freezing the bodies motion static at that instant and enabling the impossible situation of the paradoxes to be derived. “There’s no such thing as an instant in time or present moment in nature. It’s something entirely subjective that we project onto the world around us. That is, it’s the outcome of brain function and consciousness.”

I may be misreading Lyndes’ argument slightly, but it sounds similar to Bergson’s critique of Zeno–and by extension–the cinema for attempting to re-create movement from static instants. Zeno’s paradox transforms the movement of the arrow into its trajectory, the line that it follows through its course, which as Doane points out in her discussion of Bergson’s critique of Zeno, is infinitely divisible. In short, “movement cannot be reconstituted from immobilities” (174).

Lynds does extend this logic to suggest that there is no necessary progression of time, that time is essentially directionless, which is a much different conclusion than the one Bergson (who is highly invested in duration) makes, but I’m not sure this is an entirely new position either. I’m just not ready to tackle it right now.

The article touting Lynds’ discoveries has the language of a press release, which only adds to my incredulity, and part of the “fantasy” embedded in the tone of the article emphasizes Lynds’ status as an “untutored” genius, the next Einstein, whose ideas were not acceptable within the mainstream academic and scientific establishments. A copy of Lyndes’ paper, “Zeno’s Paradoxes: A Timely Solution,” is available online in PDF format.

I realize I’m coming across as a little harsh here, and I don’t mean to be. I still feel more like a dabbler when it comes to theories of time, and my main interest in cinematic constructions of time focuses more on the ideological implications of these temporalities. In fact, I’m not sure that I disagree with Lynds’ reading of Zeno; I’m just not sure these ideas are entirely new (lively discussion available at Slashdot).

Comments (9)