by Leanne Ogasawara
Time in space
The race was on: for whoever discovered a way to accurately measure longitude aboard a ship would be able to control the seas –and thereby control the riches of the world!
The search for longitude at sea was one of the great quests starting in the late Renaissance. And, it was how it came to be that a 17th century nobleman named Roberto della Griva found himself aboard a ship sailing southward toward Australia in search of the Prime Meridian, in Umberto Eco’s novel Island of the Day Before.
Being obsessed by longitude, the characters in the book are also obsessed by notions of time. For to calculate longitude is, of course, to calculate time.
But to do this at sea is no easy feat, because while one only requires to know the local time at the ship's current meridian as well as what the current time is would be back at the meridian of departure (or at some fixed meridian, like, say at the Solomon Islands), this remained very difficult to accurately determine aboard ship. And inaccuracies in time would result in inaccuracies of place–as is well known.
You can see where this is going…
In the novel, as the characters are plying the waters of the southern oceans, Roberto's alter ego, the dastardly villain extraordinaire Ferrante, encounters Judas Iscariot, who is chained to a rock in the sea. After inquiring as to the nature of his punishment, Judas offers this explanation:
Why, because God has willed that my punishment consist in living always on Good Friday, to celebrate always and every day the Passion of the man I betrayed. The first day of my suffering, when for other human beings sunset approached, and then night, and then the dawn of Saturday, for me only an atom of an atom of a minute of the ninth hour of that Friday had gone by. As the course of my sun began to move even more slowly, for the rest of you Christ was rising from the dead, but I was still barely a step from that hour. And now, when centuries and centuries have passed for you, I am still only a crumb of time from that instant…
Killing Judas, Ferrante decides to try and go back in time to intercede so to ensure that Christ is not killed on the cross and the Passion never takes place. But then again, if the Passion never takes place humankind will never be redeemed, will it, now? And so the two men –one wishing to ensure Christ is not killed and one wishing to make sure things go as they should so to bring about the redemption of humankind- set about to destroy each other.
On this Christian theme of time travel, Boris Akunin's fantastic mystery, which I also just finished, Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel is similarly taken up with the characters' desires to time travel back to the moment when the Christ is made to carry the cross to Golgotha. It is a fabulous mystery! And time becomes crucial, since as Evelyn Waugh was to assert in his book about Saint Helena:
Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion, that Jesus died at a particular time and at a particular place. And there alone lies hope.
As Waugh insisted, to have God break into time generates great hope and perhaps instills a special interest for Christians in time travel and figuring out the speed of light. For the Christian version of history is deeply teleological. And, this is tiresome–for as Umberto Eco would write about his characters, they were “sentenced to the travail of time.”
Being in time
I was just reading an incredibly gloomy piece by Robert Harrison on the NYRB blog site which discusses the psychology of Silicon Valley Time. As I read the piece which describes a culture that values making changes in the “now” –changes which are more or less virtual and are evoked to make waves at share holder meetings?– I thought, is it any wonder conversations have become so utterly boring nowadays? In fact, not only have conversations become tiresome but time itself seems to be speeding up –so that sometimes it seems that all that really matters anymore is the time span based on very short term performance. A US business model based on quarterly earnings, it has become a real bottom line in absolutely everything, I think.
We are beings who are thrown in time. And being in times like these right now, who wouldn't dream of time travel?
This all reminds me of another wonderful blog post I read last month right here, by Charlie Huenemann, called Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner, and a clock for the next 10,000 years.
It's a wonderful piece about Leibnitz's notions of “God as the divine coder.” Working like a computer programmer with two basic concepts: that of unity and that of nothing; Leibnitz found great beauty, wonder and awe in numbers. Science, indeed, has always had a profound hold on the human imagination and sense of wonder. And perhaps in no place more than in astronomy and mathematics– and yes, perhaps in notions concerning time and time travel too.
In thinking about these projects, the designers had to work themselves backwards from all of the wonders of modern computing technology to the very basics: ones and zeros, expressed with pins pointed up or down and ratchet wheels that have either locked in or haven't. These devices are the first firm embodiments of computational math, at least in our own history of technology. There are surely other kinds of devices that might also be designed to function for 10,000 years – perhaps some with electronic components and incredible recharging batteries. But my bet is that the designers felt that sort of machine just wasn't as wonderful – at least to us, as we are now. Along with encouraging us to think in larger scales of time, the Long Nowers may also be encouraging us to think in deeper scales of time: that is to say, of the very basic “unity and privation” that underwrites all mechanization.
I love the 10,000 Year Clock–it reminds me so much of the Prague Astronomical Clock–a wondrous Medieval device that still functions. Telling time in multiple manners (babylonian, Italian, German and bohemian), it also reminds people of the bigger picture- the zodiac, the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, as well as recalling death and the four evils.
My time travelers fieldguide informs me that nearly every influential time scientist, starting with Einstein, has forged some kind of special relationship to an oversized clock!
Jeff Bezos apparently, wanting to encourage thinking outside the box, is having one of these 10,000 Year Clocks installed in his Texas ranch…. it kind of boggles the mind since one wonders what his long term thinking really is? (I think of him more of a quarterly performance kind of guy…?) My astronomer (who often has time on the mind) laments that young people would rather be shocked than be alone with their thoughts–and that time is frenzied and something to be “filled.” And he tells me:
We are thrown into a vast physical universe in which the laws of time and space are simple and inexorable. The earth will continue to spin and revolve around the Sun, causing seasons to rotate in and out at the appointed time. Astronomical and long-range clocks connect us to forces and times-scales larger than us that drive the world. We are part of a larger arc of time, in which our role is difficult to grasp, and perhaps even seems to diminish into insignificance. But we must travel into that long future one day per day, aware that each breath we take and choice we make could have no effect, or a profound one, on a tomorrow we can only dimly imagine.
I love this and agree with him. Indeed, my time travel field guide says that its a reckless abandon and the disregard for mistakes that is the stuff time travelers are made of…Dividing time travelers between those who prefer the past to those who prefer the future for their destinations, I stand with the former. But either way, in the same way one must take a stand on being, one also must come to term with their own personal notion of time. And speaking for myself, temporarl relocation is for me. That is, to step back and reject the frantic pace in which every minute has to be productive–not to mention the relentless need to constantly control and consume things is ultimately the only way to go.
Thus spoke a time-traveling flaneur.