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The Discovery of Time
An obvious question demands to be answered from the outset: Can anyone have a definition of time? Time is invisible and indescribable, endlessly fascinating and universally compelling. Time is everywhere; thus nowhere. It animates the world, yet nothing survives it. We can only guess how it started, or when it will end. It is our intimate assassin. One thing it lacks, however, except in Greek myth, is a compelling narrative.
Natural time—the time of the gods, the sun and the moon—starts in a savage, glorious myth and ends on an Irish railway platform in 1876, when Sandford Fleming missed his train. Originally, Time was embodied in a god, Uranus. He ruled over an immutable world. His children were the seven visible planets. Acting on a prophecy that his life was in danger from one of them, Uranus did the natural thing and slaughtered them all. Their mother, his sister Gaia, was able to hide one son, Kronos. Kronos, upon maturity, did the natural thing—castrated and killed his father. He married his sister, Rhea. When he learned of a plot against him, he cannibalized his children, but for Zeus, whose sleeping body Rhea had replaced with a stone. Zeus, of course, would castrate and kill his father.
Time is a bloodthirsty savage. None of us gets out alive, regardless of piety, decency, beauty, or innocence. But Zeus, at least, made it tolerable by setting the clock of mortality and mutability. We die, but we are replaced. Our children do supplant us; and they bury us. They can't admit it, but they want their parents dead. And parents can't admit it, but they want their children forever helpless and dependent. So long as they remain babies, we stay in our virile prime. Their maturing is our death. Mutability saves us from unthinkable violence, at the cost of our own life. I can't imagine a more ethically charged dilemma.
The powers of Time were scattered. Different gods attended to prophecy, history, fate, and dreams. Priestly castes learned the natural periodicities of the days, months, and years and determined rituals and sacrifices required for harvests, protection from floods, and return of the rains. Natural time is cyclical, a closed system, not admitting to change. Gods of the natural world are mysterious, unknowable, and violent. Any variation in worship might—or might not—bring instant death.
The collapse of "natural" thinking was most sudden, and most dramatic, in England. It was in England that the Romantic embrace of nature reached doctrinal intensity, where rambles in the Lake District inspired poetry, where the great and permanent forms of nature were invoked as guides in time of crisis and despair. One thinks of nature’s power not only to soothe but to inspire reveries of timelessness, as in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1818). But England soon embraced the Industrial Revolution with even deeper fervor, so that within little more than a generation, the nation had been transformed into a virtual laboratory for creative destruction. Thirty years after Keats's ode, in The Communist Manifesto, time became cheaper than sand, not dearer than gold, a servant, not a master. It could be leased back to an employer at a fair rate and for a set duration, or even confiscated by the proposed new state on the behalf of labor. The social structure and the political order were transformed, but not by Marx and Engels. The revolutionary agent was speed, the new velocity introduced by trains and the telegraph. If industrialism and rationality teach anything, it is that nothing is permanent, especially nothing found in nature. There is no "natural" law. Displaying gratitude for the gods' gift of time became less important than showing up punctually for a day's work and collecting a guaranteed wage at the end of the week. Standard time, which also arrived in Britain in 1848, is the ultimate expression of human control over the apparently random forces of nature.
writers who find themselves fascinated by some aspect of time usually confess their inadequacy, or their confusion, by invoking St. Augustine's famous admission in his Confessions. It reads in essence: "I know what time is, but when I try to describe it, I cannot." That leaves quite an opening for anyone who would rise to the challenge. The English historian Simon Schama, in the opening of Landscape and Memory, speaks directly to the issue:
For a small boy with his head in the past, Kipling's fantasy [Puck of Pook's Hill] was potent magic. Apparently, there were some places in England where, if you were a child (in this case Dan or Una), people who had stood on the same spot centuries before would suddenly and inexplicably materialize. With Puck's help you could time-travel by standing still. On Pook's Hill, lucky Dan and Una got to chat with Viking warriors, Roman centurions, Norman knights, and then went home for tea.
The American physicist George Smoot, combining astrophysics with autobiography, begins his Wrinkles in Time on a simpler note: "There is something about looking at the night sky that makes a person wonder." A few sentences later, he brings that childhood wonder up to date:
I could discover not only new things, like ponds and tadpoles, but I could also find out what caused things to happen, how they happened, and how things fit together. For me it was like walking into a dark museum and turning on a light. There were incredible treasures to behold.
Fiction writers attracted to time can only envy historians and astronomers. Time, after all, is their raw material. Novelists are no less wonder-struck, no less time-besotted, and no less driven to fit things together, but their tool is the story, the actors and plot. Their approach lies closer to the way of sociology and psychiatry (or perhaps forensic science), stopping time, fragmenting it, backing it up, moving it forward, examining the pieces. Time lacks that narrative base, it is so nebulous that it might evade definition all together, by anyone. "Time is like Oakland," the sociologist Murray Davis once said, echoing Gertrude Stein, "there's no then there."
First of all, time comes in two distinct varieties: the untamed, mysterious Time, born with the big bang itself, and civil, obedient standard time, as in "What time is it?" or "How long has this been going on?" It's not clear that the same word even applies to both, or what the nature of their relationship, if any, might be. Perhaps time should have two names, like "horse" and "equus," the one to stand for hardworking, domesticated time, that which we control and can describe—the calendars, clocks, minutes and hours of the civil day—and the other for the untamed and unnamable, that which nature has not yet released.
The cesium-ion atomic clock is so accurate that it "loses" only one second every ten thousand years, and even that exact standard is open to further precision. It divides each second into more than twenty billion pulses. But what exactly is it dividing, what is it measuring, what is a second, what is a minute? And if we "lose" it, where does it go? When basketball games are won or lost in the final seconds, or when downhill ski races and Olympic dashes are decided by tenths, hundredths, thousandths, or ten-thousandths of a second, are we honoring accuracy or exposing the arbitrary nature of measurement, the meta-measuring of measurement itself? It seems apparent that some contests are not won or lost in head-to-head competition, but in the anachronism of relying on a starter's pistol, our inability to mark a true beginning—or, in terms of this book, our failure to fix a proper prime meridian. A smart lawyer could argue that a runner lined up in an outer lane, twenty yards away from the starter's pistol, hears it a significant thousandth of a second later than a runner five or six lanes closer.
The irony is inescapable. Ever-finer precision creates ever-widening ambiguity. The nineteenth century's faith in rationality led supremely confident rationalists in anthropology, sociology, and psychology to study the presumptions behind civilization, or reason itself. Only confident rationalists could explore the irrational, but once they got there, what they discovered undermined the confidence that had got them there in the first place. Enthusiastic evolutionists, as most late-Victorian scientists were, believed they’d been given a key to understanding far more than the origin of species. They saw evolution as applying to history, society, economics, to God, the cosmos, language and logic and the mind itself. Thomas Henry Huxley, the great apostle of Victorian science, believed, in 1887, that applied evolutionary theory would deliver a unified explanation of everything—biology, physics, chemistry, and religion. In 1879, Leslie Stephen, introducing the essays and lectures of his polymathic classmate William Clifford, who had died tragically young of tuberculosis that year, recalled their undergraduate enthusiasm for rationalism in all fields:
Clifford was not content with merely giving his assent to the doctrine of evolution; he seized on it as a living spring of action, a principle to be worked out, practised upon, used to win victories over nature, and to put new vigour into speculation. Natural Selection was to be the master key of the universe; we expected it to solve all riddles and reconcile all contradictions. Among other things it was to give us a new system of ethics, combining the exactness of the utilitarian with the poetical ideals of the transcendentalist.
Two years after writing this, a formidable presence appeared in Leslie Stephen's life, his daughter Virginia. She would grow up just as High Victorian certainties were yielding to doubt. Her generation would devote their creative lives to the refutation of nearly all the comforting, steady-state theories of consciousness they'd ingested in their privileged, progressive childhoods. The scientific and material advances that gave leaders of the Victorian establishment, like Leslie Stephen, their faith in reason became a pompous culture of confidence to Edwardian progressives like H. G. Wells, and a target of ridicule for Oscar Wilde. A generation later, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, and Leslie Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf saw their complacency as a pathology of posturing.
The thing we call time, in other words, is very difficult to disentwine from the ways we measure it, from language, social convention, or the internal clock of our DNA. It cannot be described in terms outside of itself. It is, as St. Augustine discovered, a tautology. Many things are like time, but time is only like itself. What can be described, however, is the history of standard time, clock-and-calendar time, the man-made system of time-reckoning. The great achievement of standardization in the nineteenth century, culminating with the Prime Meridian Conference in 1884, was to rationalize “real time” over thousand-mile (or fifteen-degree) zones, and to give it a starting line, Greenwich, agreed to by all. Thanks to standardization, we had the man-made tools to calculate that New York’s four o’clock was simultaneously Chicago’s three o’clock, London’s nine o’clock or Sydney’s . . . whatever. (At least, we know how to figure it out.)
It is useful, of course, to know what the "real" time is in other parts of the world when we make telephone calls and run the risk of waking up real people from real sleep, though it hardly matters to e-mailers or stock-traders. Standard time as we’ve inherited it is the final great achievement of Victorian rationality; unreformed, it is vulnerable to the same forces that swept away other golden keys to understanding. (I can't imagine that twenty or thirty years from now we will still be computing time on a foundation that we’ve inherited, unchanged, from the age of steam.) Adjusting to new time will be like learning a new language, perhaps very much like learning a new language, if we're hard-wired with space-time coordinates, as Immanuel Kant originally proposed, or as some modern followers of Noam Chomsky might endorse.
time has only one visible analogue, and that is space. For Fleming, leader of the standard-time movement in the late nineteenth century and a trained surveyor, time and longitude were interchangeable. He even devised elaborate new watch-faces to prove his point. A glance at the outer wheel of longitudinal letters would give the time, and the inner wheel of clock numbers would disclose the longitude.
In 1860, when he was then a thirty-three-year-old surveyor and civil engineer, the University of Toronto selected him as external examiner for the first-year course in Surveying and Geodesy. John Sang would have been proud. The test he set bears a close resemblance to his own apprenticeship as a teenager in Scotland:
1. Give a general description of a theodolite, its construction, and the uses of its essential parts.
2. What is understood by the line of collimation, and how is the error of collimation detected and corrected?
3. Describe the construction and uses of an optical square.
4. Describe generally one or more methods of conducting a trigonometrical survey and protracting the same, also the instruments employed in the field and office.
5. Explain the principle of the vernier.
6. State how the latitude of a place is ascertained.
7. What is understood by magnetic variation, as well as by the changes in the variation?
8. Give a description of one or more methods by which a true meridian may be determined, pointing out the comparative advantages of each method in practice.
9. Point out how the longitude is formed.
10. From the following bearings and distances, protract the figure, prove the accuracy of the bearings, correct the error, if any, and find the approximate area: [a six-sided figure was given].
11. A solid has two parallel ends 128 feet apart; the area of one end is 450 square feet; that of the other 270 square feet; find the number of cubic yards it contains by the prismoidal formula, and by any other method.
In many ways, Fleming's surveying test of 1860, conceived to judge ability in the measurement of space, applies equally well to time. A vernier (named for its French inventor), incidentally, is a kind of gauge, analogous to the second hand on a watch, that can be attached to a larger measuring instrument in order to provide an instant readout of more precise divisions of distance. The theodolite, then as now, is the basic instrument of surveying and civil engineering. Mounted on a tripod and precisely leveled, it measures vertical and horizontal angles. When the "lines of collimation" are connected, uneven surfaces are converted into a precisely rendered grid. In 1860, determining one's precise geographical location was a thoroughly rational profession. Temporal positioning, by contrast, was still arrived at by solar approximation. Before the decade had ended, in 1869, the first tentative proposal for linking time and longitude—that is, for rationalizing the dimensions of time and space—would be launched.
The surveyors' instruments have their great and small applications, from establishing the earth's longitudes and building railways, to determining property lines. They have analogies to timekeeping. Verniers and theodolites date from the sixteenth century, and both were in Fleming’s trunk carried from Scotland. When John Sang and his sons were forced to sell their instruments in a bankruptcy proceeding, they were giving up the tools of their identity.