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Posts Tagged ‘time

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler”*…

A New Chart of History. English: A color version of Joseph Priestly’s A New Chart of History. To Benjamin Franklin LLD. FRS. This Chart In Testimony of Esteem & Friendship. Inscribed By his most obliged Humble Serv. Joseph Priestley. . 1769.

Timelines are now a commonplace. But as Emily Thomas explains, Joseph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” revolutionized how we view history…

… Priestley (1733-1804) is best known for his scientific work, especially the co-discovery of oxygen. Yet he was also a teacher and a philosopher. As a teacher, Priestley sought to better communicate history to his students. He was fascinated by chronologies, texts ordering events. Since ancient Greece and Rome, chronologers used ‘time tables’ or grids to depict the order of events in time. An obvious problem with these chronologies, though, is that only so many events can fit on each page.

The mid-18th century saw many experiments in representing history, including Thomas Jefferys’ 1753 A Chart of Universal History. Jefferys was a mapmaker and his chart depicts empires almost as though they are countries on a map, allowing you to scan them all at once. Impressed, Priestley determined to create a chart of his own that readers could scan ‘at one view’. He made several innovations but one proved key: lines, inspired by his philosophy of time.

For this, Priestley drew on a seemingly unconnected topic: John Locke’s 1690 account of abstract ideas. For Locke, abstract ideas include ‘redness’, ‘triangle’, or ‘animal’. They are general ideas, produced when our minds consider particular things. Take a pint of milk, a stick of chalk and a lump of snow. I can consider these things while leaving out their particular features, ‘abstracting’ what is common to them: their whiteness. Many philosophers accepted some version of Locke’s account of abstraction, but puzzled over how to mentally visualise them. Locke writes that our abstract idea of a triangle ‘must be neither Oblique, nor Rectangle, neither Equilateral, Equicrural, nor Scalenon; but all and none of these at once’. Clearly we cannot picture such a thing. Priestley makes an alternative suggestion: represent abstract ideas using a variable particular. A child, he writes, has an idea of ‘what a triangle in general is’, even though all the ideas of triangles he ‘contemplates’ are ‘particular’. In other words, our picture of the abstract idea of a triangle can change: from equilateral to, say, scalene. In the same essay, Priestley argued that time is an abstract idea. And this view feeds into his timeline…

How Joesph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” used the ideas of John Locke to revolutionize our undertstanding of history: “The Invention of Time,” from @emilytwrites in @HistoryToday.

Pair with “Putting Time in Perspective,” from @waitbutwhy.

Henry Glassie


As we ponder the past, we might send evocative birthday greetings to Jules Michelet; he was born on this date in 1798. Considered one of the founders of modern historiography, he is best known for his multivolume work Histoire de France (History of France).

Influenced by Giambattista Vico, Michelet emphasized on the role of people and their customs in shaping history, a major departure from the then-current emphasis on political and military leaders.  He coined the term “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth” in French) as a period in Europe’s cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. (The term “rebirth” and its association with the Renaissance can be traced to a work published in 1550 by the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the term to describe the advent of a new manner of painting that began with the work of Giotto, as the “rebirth (rinascita) of the arts.”)


“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time”*…

Sara Walker and Lee Cronin suggest that time is not a backdrop, nor an illusion, nor an emergent phenomenon; rather, they suggest in an essay from The Santa Fe Institute, it has a physical size that can be measured in laboratories……

A timeless universe is hard to imagine, but not because time is a technically complex or philosophically elusive concept. There is a more structural reason: imagining timelessness requires time to pass. Even when you try to imagine its absence, you sense it moving as your thoughts shift, your heart pumps blood to your brain, and images, sounds and smells move around you. The thing that is time never seems to stop. You may even feel woven into its ever-moving fabric as you experience the Universe coming together and apart. But is that how time really works?

According to Albert Einstein, our experience of the past, present and future is nothing more than ‘a stubbornly persistent illusion’. According to Isaac Newton, time is nothing more than backdrop, outside of life. And according to the laws of thermodynamics, time is nothing more than entropy and heat. In the history of modern physics, there has never been a widely accepted theory in which a moving, directional sense of time is fundamental. Many of our most basic descriptions of nature – from the laws of movement to the properties of molecules and matter – seem to exist in a universe where time doesn’t really pass. However, recent research across a variety of fields suggests that the movement of time might be more important than most physicists had once assumed.

A new form of physics called assembly theory suggests that a moving, directional sense of time is real and fundamental. It suggests that the complex objects in our Universe that have been made by life, including microbes, computers and cities, do not exist outside of time: they are impossible without the movement of time. From this perspective, the passing of time is not only intrinsic to the evolution of life or our experience of the Universe. It is also the ever-moving material fabric of the Universe itself. Time is an object. It has a physical size, like space. And it can be measured at a molecular level in laboratories.

The unification of time and space radically changed the trajectory of physics in the 20th century. It opened new possibilities for how we think about reality. What could the unification of time and matter do in our century? What happens when time is an object?…

Find out at: “Time is an object,” by @Sara_Imari and @leecronin, from @sfiscience in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The New Thermodynamic Understanding of Clocks.”

* Steven Wright


As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1947 that the Doomsday Clock appeared for the first time (as the fourth quadrant of a clock face with its hands at 7 minutes to midnight) as the background image on the cover of the June issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. From then to the present, the Doomsday Clock image has been on the cover of the Bulletin, though the hands over the years have been shown moving forward or back to convey how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction (midnight).

The clock currently stands at 90 seconds to midnight.


[HBD, GC(S)]

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 1, 2023 at 1:00 am

“No one ever explained the octopuses”*…

We humans are forward-facing, gravity-bound plodders. David Borkenhagen wonders if the liquid motion of the octopus can radicalize our ideas about time…

… The octopus may navigate its ocean home with ease, but it can seem like a creature from another planet. It populates our popular visions of cosmic beings and extraterrestrial life, with its eight arms, three hearts, and a malleable body without bones. What’s more, its ability to camouflage itself, coupled with a propensity to hide in tight holes, make it a master of disguise. If seen, a water siphon that expels inhaled water can instantly propel the creature away from danger in any direction in three-dimensional aquatic space. Its web of radially symmetrical arms allow it to crawl in any direction with equal competence, regardless of how its head is oriented. Its soft and malleable body can move through any crevasse larger than its beak. And with its two eyes positioned on opposite sides of its head, it has a near-total field of vision with almost nothing hidden ‘behind’. These abilities give the octopus a radically different relationship to its surroundings compared with other species, human or otherwise. It is a relationship free of constraints.

And what about our bodies? Compared with the octopus, human beings appear corporeally constrained. We lack the fluid mobility and wide field of vision of our (very, very) distant cephalopod cousins. Instead, we have two eyes stuck in the front of our heads. We have a paltry two legs, hardwired for forward movement. And we are bound to our terrestrial ecological niche, where our bodies must continually counteract the downward pull of gravity.

It’s not only that our experiences of space are different. Our experiences of time are likely different, too. We think about the passage of time through our terrestrial experience of unidirectional motion through space – our metaphors of time are almost all grounded in the way our bodies move forward through the environment. Given this fact, how would an octopus, who can easily see and move in all directions, conceptualise time? Current research methods may be able to take us only part of the way toward an answer, but it’s far enough to consider a radical possibility: if we became more like an octopus, could we free time, metaphorically speaking, from its constraints? Could we experience it as multidimensional, fluid and free?…

[Borkenhagen reviews the research on octopuses and what it tells us about how their relationships with time and death]

… In many ways, the octopus represents a challenge, or a profound limit, to our conventional ways of thinking about time and death. But it’s more than a challenge. It’s also an invitation. With its unconstrained movements and semelparous lifecycle, the octopus offers a radically different perspective on the fluidity and flexibility of existence. Could we learn to move through time as an octopus moves through space? With equal access to the past, present and future – viewed wide or with sharp focus – we might better navigate the challenges of living and dying on Earth. The octopus invites us to think in a way that dissolves the boundaries between the present and the future, understanding our ‘ending’ less as a fixed point and more as a fluid process stretching across generations. As the boundary between life and death dissolves and becomes more porous, so do the boundaries between ourselves and others. The metaphors we used to inhabit our time here may seem impoverished, but there’s another way. It’s in the unconstrained movements of an octopus traveling through space – fluid, flexible and free…

Octopus Time,” from @posts_modern in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

Pair with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler and/or “Stories of Your Life” in the short story collection of the same title, by Ted Chiang

Gail Garriger (@gailcarriger)


As we re-understand unfolding, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that the American Museum of Natural History opened to the public in New York City. Organized into a series of exhibits, the Museum’s collection–which had been gathered from the time of the Museum’s founding in 1869– went on view for the first time in the Central Park Arsenal, the Museum’s original home, on the eastern side of Central Park. The cornerstone of the Museum’s first building was laid in Manhattan Square (79th Street and Central Park West), the Museum’s current location, in 1874; but it is obscured from view by the many Museum buildings in the complex that today occupy most of the Square.


“You are the music while the music lasts”*…

Composer (and Stanford professor) Jonathan Berger explains how music works its magic on our brains…

One evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.

It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes. Although I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I still stand in awe of Schubert’s unparalleled power. Nearly two centuries ago, the composer anticipated the neurological underpinnings of time perception that science has underscored in the past few decades.

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives. “For the time element in music is single,” wrote Thomas Mann in his novel, The Magic Mountain. “Into a section of mortal time music pours itself, thereby inexpressibly enhancing and ennobling what it fills.”

We conceive of time as a continuum, but we perceive it in discretized units—or, rather, as discretized units. It has long been held that, just as objective time is dictated by clocks, subjective time (barring external influences) aligns to physiological metronomes. Music creates discrete temporal units but ones that do not typically align with the discrete temporal units in which we measure time. Rather, music embodies (or, rather, is embodied within) a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate “clock-time.” This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.

In recent years, numerous studies have shown how music hijacks our relationship with everyday time…

The fascinating story of “How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time,” in @NautilusMag.

* T. S. Eliot


As we tangle with tempo, we might spare a thought for Charles Sumner Tainter; he died on this date in 1940. A scientific instrument maker, engineer, and inventor, he is best known for his collaborations with Alexander Graham Bell, and for his significant improvements to Thomas Edison’s phonograph, resulting in the Graphophone— which, beyond bringing music to living rooms around the world by making Edison’s idea commercially feasible, also spawned the Dictaphone.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 20, 2023 at 1:00 am

“It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.”*…

L. M. Sacasas on time and temporality…

… I’m tempted, as I often am, by the grand generalization, and I will yield. Pre-industrial culture was synchronized by the rhythms of nature, rhythms which were often imbued with sacral significance (a unity suggested by the shared root of cult, culture, and cultivate). Industrial culture was, as Lewis Mumford observed, driven not by the steam-engine but by the clock. Industrial time overthrew pre-industrial time—agricultural time, if you like—but yielded a new set of rhythms and patterns, with the 9-5 workday perhaps at its heart. Mass media, which is to say industrialized media, supplied its own public temporalities to the industrial age, a new quasi-sacral calendar with daily, seasonal, and yearly rituals, some of which were artificial simulations of the old pre-industrial rituals.

What we have now is a new temporal order. It is not a negation of industrial time, but a further development built upon the precision of mechanical time. Industrial time enabled the mass synchronizations industrial culture required. But now digital technology enables a new desynchronized society through even more refined timekeeping coupled with the computational capacity to mobilize and organize society along more fluid, just-in-time, and, yes, from a human perspective, stochastic patterns.

To put this another way, a culture ordered in its patterns, language, ethics, and imagination by the rhythms of the natural world gave way to a culture ordered in its patterns, language, ethics, and imagination by the rhythms of industrialized labor and mass media. While we might disagree as to the timing of the transition, it seems safe to say that we now inhabit yet another cultural configuration. To put it this way may seem like a banal restatement of the well-worn and contested pre-modern/modern/post-modern sequence. But I think it is useful to draw out the temporal dimension of these social dynamics. If we press into each of these four categories—patterns, language, ethics, and imagination—we will find surprising and profound links to the temporal heart beating out the dominant cultural rhythms, whether it be nature or the machine.

Inhabiting the order of measured, quantified time, as most of us do, already inhibits our capacity to imagine another way of being in time. Our enclosure within the human-built world, in both its analog and digital dimensions, obscures the markers of alternative temporal orders. It is possible, of course, to frame this as a liberation from the limits of time just as it is possible to frame our uprootedness as a liberation from the constraints of place. And, indeed, it sometimes is just that. But it is also possible that our liberation from older cultural forms, forms which were more directly informed by a place and its time, has been used against us. To be disembedded and desynchronized is also to become subject to the stochastic order of the digital economy.

The computer, after all, is, among other things, an agent of social organization and an instrument of control. But what forms of social organization does it enable and what forms of control does it make possible?

The most tempting thing is to go back to the kind of empirically verifiable harms which I mentioned in passing at the outset. That’s the surest way to make the case for a different set of practices, but, of course, that is itself part of the problem. Yes, there’s a case to be made on the grounds of basic health and well-being, ours and our fellow creatures, for seeking another way of ordering our material environment.

But I find myself reaching beyond such concerns to something more ambivalent and amorphous, toward not just the healthy but the good, toward a deep recalibration of our being in the world according to a different order of time. And perhaps in thinking again about the meaning of our experience of light and dark and, perhaps especially, the transitions between the two, we can discern a different set of rhythms. “We are not only creatures of the light,” Kohák reminds us. “We are creatures of the rhythm of day and night, and the night, too, is our dwelling place.”…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Whose Time? Which Temporality?” from @LMSacasas.

* Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead


As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1918 that the U.S. Congress “standardized” time: the Standard Time Act (AKA, the Calder Act) became effective. Passed earlier in the year, it implemented across the U.S. both Standard Time (the creation of time zones anchored in UTC, the successor to GMT) and Daylight Saving Time.

U.S. Time Zones (somewhat revised from the original division)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 19, 2023 at 1:00 am

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