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Thinking about time

November 3, 2017
hands holding a tiny alarm clock.Rochester Review invited scholars to talk about time from the perspectives of their various fields. (Unsplash photo)

Spring forward. Fall back. On two Sundays each year, the move to or from Daylight Saving Time offers a briefly different sense of what time is. The clock’s relentless rule falters, and time itself suddenly starts to seem a little arbitrary.

Academic conceptions of time are no simple matter, either. Ask physicists what comes to mind when they think about time, and you’re likely to get an answer that’s worlds away from the answer you’d get from historians. Or musicians. Or philosophers.

Every discipline in the University has its own way of constructing and thinking about time.

The art and the science of time was the subject of the inaugural Ferrari Humanities Symposia—established by trustee Bernard ’70, ’74M (MD) and Linda Gaddis Ferrari—in 2012, and Rochester Review invited scholars to talk about time from the perspectives of their various fields.


Medieval Studies: ‘Technological Measurement of Time’

Richard Kaeuper, Department of History

That a historical period called the Middle Ages—say 500 to 1500—existed is a product of our dividing up continuous historical time. Though created by negative value judgments of later humanists and Protestant historians, it actually holds together and can be given a completely different valence.

Far from a static or uniform “dark age,” it created fundamental aspects of European civilization, especially from roughly the “renaissance of the 12th century.” If the later medieval centuries endured the Plague and destabilizing warfare, many of the achievements continued into more modern times.

A noted scholar, Jacques le Goff, argues that the great growth of Europe required the secularization of time in order to allow “usury”—the selling of time through interest on loans and mercantile endeavor in general, mistrusted formally by clerics. Early commercial capitalism, far from representing popular set will, generated fears and uncertainties within the population at large. In practice, elite clerics enthusiastically employed merchant-bankers.

Timely thoughts

Physicist Adam Frank says farewell to a tick-tock world.

Poet Jennifer Grotz considers the sundial.

The technological measurement of time in this era is equally interesting. Moving beyond ancient water clocks and sundials, medieval fabricators created a wealth of mechanical clocks, especially from the utilization of a suitable escapement mechanism by late decades of the 13th century. The age was technologically innovative. Richard of Wallingford is just one example of that inventive spirit: the orphaned son of a blacksmith and an Oxford-trained abbot, Wallingford in the 1330s wrote astronomical and mathematical treatises (one on spherical trigonometry) despite the lack of good numerical notation, thus requiring him to explain all ideas in Latin prose. He built a machina mundi, a mechanical cosmographical “clock” that not only rang hours, but also showed planetary motion.

Over the next century clocks appeared prominently around Europe and helped to regulate life, even as they demonstrated medieval inventiveness.


Religion: ‘In and Out of Time’

Emil Homerin, Department of Religion and Classics

Time may be a fundamental dimension of the universe or an innate structure of the mind. But, in terms of religion, time is relative to something much, much bigger: eternity.

Religions have often sought to understand the connection between this timeless infinity and our finite temporal lives. Worship, prayer, revelation, and enlightenment are religious activities and states of mind that often aim to transcend the duality of space and time in order to approach and, perhaps, merge with an eternal reality. Though eternity may be forever timeless, finite creation exists in time, though time’s direction may vary depending on religious traditions. Time may be linear or circular, progressive, static, or degenerative, and time’s direction may profoundly shape a believer’s view of the world. Many ancient and tribal religions have often viewed time as cyclical and bound up with the rhythms of the natural world, with the alternation of day and night, the changing seasons, and the phases of the moon. Other religions, especially the monotheistic traditions, generally conceive of time as linear, with a sequence of moments composing a meaningful history in which God is often depicted as acting purposefully.

Yet, no matter if a religion conceives of time as linear, circular, or both, the limited temporal world can still assist the believer in transcending time for eternity. With such a view, believers may spend their lifetimes living in a spiritually meaningful way.

For all religions, one’s time in the world, then, has a direct effect on one’s contact with eternity, and various religious traditions have designed rites and rituals to assist their followers in leading a proper life marked by sacred times. These occasions are often part of annual communal rites and rituals that revolve around holy days and other sacred times that serve to spiritually renew or re-create the world. Further, mystical traditions in many religions urge us to step out of time in moments of selflessness, receptivity, and union not in order to see new worlds, but to see our old world anew.


Optics: ‘A Snapshot of Now’

Carlos Stroud, The Institute of Optics

We generally think of the present, or “now,” as a moving boundary between the past and the future. As a boundary it would seem not to have any duration of its own. However, the limitations of human perception only allow one to determine which of two events came first if they are separated by more than about 1/20th of a second. Thus, one might reasonably argue that “now” lasts about that long.

Technological advances in the past 150 years have allowed us to artificially expand the boundaries of “now” from the age of the universe, 10^+17 seconds (about 14 billion years) to the duration of the shortest laser pulse produced to date, 10^-17 seconds. Our perception of reality changes completely depending on the duration of our “now.”

The argument is illustrated by a simple experiment using a picture of highway traffic, shown with exposure times ranging from 4 seconds to 1/4000th second. On long exposures, the cars vanish; on short exposures, we see a grainy picture due to the arrival of individual quanta of light, photons. With an exposure time of a few centuries, the highway vanishes, and at an exposure of a few tens of thousands of years, the river alongside it vanishes. Eventually even the solar system will vanish from our imagined picture.

Such ideas prompt a series of questions: Has our increasingly precise ability to define “now” changed our fundamental perception of reality? Do individual humans vanish on the time scale of eternity? Could intelligent creatures exist on time scales much different from ours? What are the time scales of nations and those of individual people generally? The speed with which information is communicated has increased from walking speed to the speed of light. How does this affect the relation between time and distance?


Media Studies: ‘Televisual Time’

Joel Burges, Department of English, Film and Media Studies

As a critic whose work is obsessed with temporality in the present, I am interested in exploring the narrative structures that give rhythm and tempo to the experience of television.

For me, TV is all about time. I devote a big chunk of my free time to it. And I am only one among many. As writer Clay Shirky has pointed out, Americans spend billions of hours annually in front of the “boob tube.” This is a debt of time that in a decade rivals the national debt that politicians have bemoaned so much these past couple of years.

The series I most love often require a temporal commitment not only to a season, but also to a series. The TV industry also thinks about TV in terms of time. Almost every episode we watch is constructed around a series of “beats”—industry-speak for scenes—typically no longer that 2.5 minutes that give a rhythm to the 30- and 60-minute shows we watch in huge numbers every day. All of this is to say that TV is defined by a medium-specific temporal magnitude: the broadcast signal is—or was—ongoing across many channels 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

How does an episode of Modern Family that can be watched independently of any other episode of the series organize televisual time for us? How does a series such as The Affair play with our temporal expectations about the way televisual narration should work? How are Modern Family and The Affair temporally distinct due to the different business models of network and cable television respectively, one depending on commercials, the other on subscriptions? Are there types of time on television that are neither commercial nor narrative? In investigating these questions, I hope to get students to reflect on the centrality of watching TV to not just millions and millions of spectators’ sense of time in the past 70 years, but also to their own temporal sense now.

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Category: Society & Culture