Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Work of Time

Who hasn't run into old Shelley's "Ozymandias" in an English Lit class, the ruined claim of eternity disintegrating back into sand. We think we are free of the pride of our permanence—the mortality of ourselves and our endeavors gets drilled into us over and over: hubris and vanity and the problem of seeking immortality (cf. Voldemort).

I just finished rereading John Crowley's Great Work of Time, a compact, melancholy and thorough dismantling of the idea of an eternal empire. It's a time travel story in baldest terms—one where the attempt to make the British Empire truly eternal, the protector of world peace and preventer of the horrors of the twentieth century, turns out to make the world go horribly wrong: the future fills with monsters and angels, a strange and unnatural stasis that in the end is imagined as a silent forest underwater, forever still and unchanging. The angels and the wise magi that the messing with time produces, do not want to have been created. They long for death.

We mapmakers make some claim of permanence—more modest than eternity, but what I take away from Crowley's book is the false seductiveness of the idea that what lasts beyond our lives lasts forever. We don't know what happens after "The End," and so we imagine a universe that never ends, an empire on which the sun never sets. An immortal soul. Streets that are somehow permanent. But someday the streets in my neighborhood will become meaningless. It might be a very very long time (in doing research this week I realized I will likely live to see the basic streeet pattern of Harvard Square celebrate its 500th anniversary), but there is no such thing as "forever", only "over the horizon." I don't think there is anything, anyway.

Maps only act as a way of contrasting relatively transient with relatively permanent phenomena: the states shapes remain the same as votes move from bloe to red and back again. Streets remain the same as taxi routes wiggle back and forth across them. Continents retain their rough outlines as glaciers push forward and retreat.

We need ground to stand on—a stage as I've said before, here—in order to make our performances and arguments. People who have attempted to eliminate that stage in the name of acknowledgining our impermanence have unleashed a peculiar kind of madness we see in some kinds of modern art and philosophy. Eliminate permanence, and there's no "there" there, as Ms Stein said. Perhaps the answer is to sadly acknowledge that our stage, our permanence, is itself impermanent, and find a platform that fits our lives, and the terms of permanence we can find— the land that stays more-or-less the same between glaciations, the nation that for a while retains the same basic shape, the family and friendship we have for the span we are lucky enough to have it.

Happy New Year, all. Here's to what permanence we can muster in the coming year, and what good we can perform upon that permanence.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The International Date Line

My son asked a random back-of-the-car question the other day, about whether there was a place where the day changed too, not just the time. There is, of course, and it's the International Date Line, more-or-less located at 180° longitude, opposite the globe from the Greenwich meridian. (the picture attached is from Wikipedia)

What I found interesting about the question, though, was how the idea of such a line requires a leap of how we think about time. For most of us, time is local: our makers are sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight. Like the Archimedean, Earth-centered model of the universe, and like earth-navel cosmologies, it makes "us and ours" the center of all things, both in space and time.

20 years ago, I took a course at Carleton College from the late Mike Casper, "Revolutions in Physics," that was mocked by some as "Physics for Poets." Which isn't really fair, although I can see the case that it really was as much a history of science course as anything. The course was divided into three sections: the Archimedean, earth-centered universe, the Newtonian universe, and the Einsteinian universe. The goal of each was to immerse the students in what historically were comprehensive worldviews. And it worked. It was fascinating how useful the oldest model, the one we've mocked as "wrong" since grade school, really is.

It's of course incorrect that the sun goes around the earth, but there's a lot to learn about seasons and the sun's movement in the sky if you think that way. And I became aware that I simply had not paid that much attention to how the sun moves in the sky over the years. For example, that it is always due east or west at 6 o'clock (either one) local time. Or that the angle of the sun's path is constant in the same location, but that the constant-angled path moves up and down vertically with the seasons in relation to the horizon. I dunno, maybe everyone else got that from day one, but it was new to this college student and it was cool, and it depended on thinking locally.

The Copernican/Newtonian model of the universe that shifts this around. Suddenly, we're on a planet, and really there is only one day, and it keeps rotating around the globe—or rather, the globe keeps turning and the day is the glow from the star at the center of our solar system. Instead of the sun as a clock that keeps our time, we are fixed points on a moving sphere, which keeps its time in turning us and everything else in the world.

And it's in this world that International Date Lines become necessary.

Interestingly, it wasn't scientists who first proposed such a line. It was an 11th-century Jewish scholar, who was concerned that all the Jews in the diaspora should observe the same Sabbath, and so proposed a system which kept the same day-observance for all of Asia, and made a break somewhere in the Pacific. The "Circumnavigator's Paradox" was in fact a real paradox, discussed in the late middle ages (see the excellent History of the International Date Line for much of the source material in this post): Apparently it surfaced when Magellan arrived at the Spanish outpost in the Philippines, having come from the east by way of Cape Horn, and disgareed with the Spanish officers there, who had come from the west, via the Cape of Good Hope. Their dates, of course, were off by one.

In a world where one set of grandparents is an hour earlier and another is an hour later, and where we can fly to Europe where it's six hours later, it's commonplace to think about time zones. But it was not always so. It was not until railroads needed to keep precise time in their east-west journeys that the need for standard time became apparent. Before the railroads, punctuality was enforced within local communities. A parishioner coming to church on time, or a worker arriving at the mill, or any citizen keeping any of the other appointment-keeping arrangements we make, either had to judge by the sun, or by the bells of the church tower, or later by the local-time clock or sundial, how close they were going to cut it. And travel, by foot or horse, essentially re-set the clock.

By instituting standard time, we essentially said, railroad time is more important than where the sun stands in our sky.

And much the same thing, on a global level, happens with the International Date Line: we are forced to recognize that this is a round, whole planet, which moves in one time, simultaneously. And for better or worse, this means we depend less on what we see—here and now over our heads—to regulate our lives by.