Monday, 19 January 2009

Time takes a cigarette...

The concept of time in science is problematic. It’s everywhere, yet elusive. The one-way flow of time from the ‘past’ (i.e. what we remember), to the ‘future’ (what we cannot yet recall) is the ghost in the machinery of physics. Newton’s laws on motion, quantum mechanics, general relativity; all these theories are symmetrical with respect to time. They don’t invoke or explain its passage. As is well known, the only equation in physics that does directly invoke the passage of time is the second law of thermodynamics, which says that things tend from an ordered state (low entropy) to a disordered state (high entropy). One way of explaining time’s flow from past to future is to say that the universe started off in a very low state of entropy, which is subsequently increasing.
So, does biology fare any better? DNA can work as a natural ‘clock’ in the way that it accumulates mutations. We can compare DNA from different organisms and estimate when these organisms diverged. I suppose this is similar to using the decay of carbon 14 to date organic matter.
This gives the study of DNA a natural rhythm, perhaps.

Time flows naturally in fiction. I can’t think of any novel that is set in one ‘present’ moment. There are novels that are set in the present but that present does move on. Perhaps by their very length, novels preclude the examination of the single moment, in a way that short poetry or short stories can. But novels (or epic poetry such as the Iliad) can play with time, make it double back on itself, even run backwards (e.g. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis), and examine moments in time over and over again from different perspectives. Plays can do this too; Michael Frayn’s play, ‘Copenhagen’ consists of conversations between Bohr, his wife, Margrethe, and Heisenberg[1]. Within each conversation, time flows ordinarily, but the whole play is set in the afterlife, and all three characters are dead. As such they are unable to move or develop, they are curiously static in time, and the play itself does not move forward. It succeeds, brilliantly, because it takes a single point in time (the real-life conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg) and unfolds it to expose all the complexities that exist in that moment, like hidden extra dimensions suggested in string theory.
But what do we mean by the ‘present’? The moment that we exist in is always hemmed in by the past and the future. We walk a knife-edge between what we remember and what we anticipate. Is it just a trick of the consciousness, that we think we ‘are’ at any given point in time?
A novel, poem or short story is a system of words that relies on relationships between them to function. And yet they are always read sequentially. We are taught to read by moving from one word to the next in an ordered way. We can possibly read a short sentence at once by glancing at it, but no more than that. So our ‘present’ corresponds to a short block of text, and poets can explicitly take advantage of this in the way they present their work on the page. Is a line of poetry equivalent to a present moment? And how does this relate to breathing? And music? When we listen to music we hear a phrase, the aural equivalent to a line of poetry. The phrase is there in our head, but it continuously gets superseded. If our perception of the present were any different, e.g. if it were shorter than it is, would poetry or music ‘work’ in the same way?
The sequential nature of literature and music has a nice analogy in the structure of DNA, with its rows of neatly ordered bases. And yet, like literature or music, there is something in the ‘wholeness’ of DNA that is not present in its parts. Different genes may be responsible for different functions in the parent organism, but they affect each other, they don’t work independently of each other. A novel is like that too. Whilst we can only retain in our short term memory a small proportion of what we are reading when we read a novel, we also retain an overall structure. The sentences we read accumulate in our memory to create an impression of the overall work.
[1] I’ve referred to this play before, see my third blog. It’s being performed at the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum this April.


  1. Hi pippa,
    suddenly I can leave a comment, yay! I just included your blog in 4 new blogs to watch over at my blog. Looking forward to more of your musings.