Saturday, May 13, 2006

time and space

no-one owns a watch with a digital readout anymore, do they?

there are a few places where the 14:50 format is deemed appropriate - railway stations and computer menu bars, for example, as well as those obviously science- or sports-related situations where microsecond precision matters - but, by and large, we have resisted the displacement of the earlier technology, and our wrist-watches - from the most basic and utilitarian to the ones that are supposed to reveal our personality (ie as a dipstick platinum-plated saddo with more money than brain cells) - are still a 3 - 4cm disk with a big hand and a little hand and twelve evenly-spaced divisions around the circumference.

this isn't a manifestation of some sort of universal technophobia lurking beneath the floating-windows-based phase 3 technoworld - more a reminder that, at the deepest layers of our consciousness, we are aware of time as something more than a set of incremental numbers. digits describe only the points, the units of which, by universal consensus, time supposedly consists. it's clear, though, that our individual experiences of time encompass far more than the passing of units, that our acquaintance with time encompasses its relationship with space also, and that this indivisibility is better represented by the traditional form of the clock face than by the digital readout.

if I am due to meet someone at two o'clock, and glance at my wrist to see the big hand on the 10 and the little hand next to the two, I am comparing that wedge of space between the ten and the 12 with my own relationship with promptness. I know that that wedge is decreasing in a very measured and gradual way, as if it were a door closing, and that its positive characteristics ('early') will become negative ones ('late') once that wedge has decreased to a slice, then a sliver, then passes through the zero point of transition before starting to increase again, incrementally, in its negative form. for most of us, it's much easier, more immediate, to visualise time passing in this way than to hear or see it as a countdown.

interestingly, prerequisite to the maths underpinning the more arcane cosmological theories about the Big Bang is the fundamental understanding that that original event was responsible for starting the clock running - that not only matter, but time as well originates from that point. perhaps, at some core level of consciousness, we're aware of that.

depending on their routine, everyone has their own way of visualising time beyond their wrist-watch. whether annual, seasonal, calendrical, or diurnal, our progress through time is something most of us see as some form of journey - a path that began at our birth and whose vanishing point, somewhere beyond the horizon, will coincide with our death. we're simultaneously aware that there were events before we were born - history - and that there will be a continuation of events after our death - the future - despite our continuing inability to experience it. our cyclic experiences of time - the days, weeks, months and years - are now more detached than formerly from their associated natural markers - the seasons - and few of us are even aware of the larger cyclic occurrences - the macro-temporal events such as the lunar or the other planetary cycles, and least of all of such enormously slow cycles as the circulation of our galaxy. that entropy rules and that, in the wake of the rule, everything gradually gets slower, is something so enormous as to be inconsiderable, but it nevertheless has a human-scale analogue that has wide-ranging implications.

the journey from cradle to grave is one of slow but sure deceleration.

the human heart, for example, has already begun its work at around the 5th week of gestation, and is beating, at birth, at around 220 pulses per minute. this rate diminishes rapidly in the first few months, the months of maximum growth rate, when the blood supply is correspondingly maximised, and by the end of its first year, the infant's heart is pumping at around 150 beats per minute. this rate continues to diminish by one beat per year until, at 25, it will normally be pumping in a range (between at-rest and maximum activity) of around 117 - 176 beats per minute, and at 75, between 87 and 131.

the infant's and the old person's conception of time itself is equally different. the twenty-four hours of a day represent about a twentieth of a five-year-old's life, but only about a three-hundredth of a seventy-five-year-old's. by the same slightly dubious logic that we use to maintain those strange comparisons of animals' lifespans with our own (you know the kind of thing - a three-year-old dog is a teenager because dogs only live to ten or so) we could say this means that a five-year-old's day is - or is perceived to be - fifteen times longer than a seventy-five-year-old's, and that if days were regularly-spaced telegraph poles beside a railway track, they would appear to be passing at walking pace to the child, whereas to the old person in the seat next to him or her they would seem to be flicking past almost faster than the eye could catch them.

whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on whether we consider time as a tyrant or as a friend. aside from the fact that it's going to kill you in the end, I think it's better thought of as a particularly annoying authority figure - something like a cross between Carol Vorderman and Simon Cowell - someone whose power over us we have no choice but to acknowledge, but whose actual presence is accepted on sufferance as a means to an end. that end, of course, being to cut through all this crap about dying to the chase about the sometime adventure, sometime burden of living - which manifests, simply, in different ways appropriate to the particular set of markers we've reached at the time.

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