Time – A new look at an age old past

“Somehow I had to send myself back in time, to open out the memories and see what they had to offer”

Time is a complex concept, which is most rigorously analysed by philosophers, physicists and astronomers. History is the systematic study of the past, and at its heart is time.

We describe time as the difference between the past and the future, but where does the difference come from? The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future, yet there is a big difference between the past and the future in our ordinary lives….

This increase in disorder or entropy is what distinguishes between the past and the future, giving us as humans a direction to time . Entropy is the only quantity that picks a particular direction of time, sometimes called an arrow of time, hence from our prospective entropy measurement is thought of as a kind of clock.

As entropy increases, objects appear to age, giving us a sense of time passing, as the objects break down, wood rotting, iron rusting, and paint peeling, the rarity value of the objects increases, as time and the elements reclaim them. What is important here is that entropy may not be terminal; shifts of category from undervalued to priceless, or from worthless to valuable for example, are achieved through the passage of time.

The Victorian engineers were always seeking ways to improve the efficiency of steam engines; at the time, the main source of motive power. They asked about how hot the fire should be, what substance should they boil in a steam engine, should it be water or something else….these were profound questions.

Out of these questions arose the science of thermo dynamics, where the concepts like heat, temperature and energy entered the scientific vocabulary for the first time.

Along with this deeper understanding, emerged what is probably the most important law of physics for understanding the evolution of universe and the passage of time; Its called the second law of thermo dynamics.

The reason the second law of thermo dynamics is so profound is that at its heart it contains a radical new concept, something scientists call entropy.

Entropy explains why mortar crumbles, glass shatters and building collapse; it gives us as humans a direction of time.

Time is important to us in that history is the systematic study of our past that is a field of research which uses past narrative to examine and scrutinize events, and at its heart is time.

Using time is a method of ordering the sequence of events, and place a perspective upon them: time also gives people convenient pegs to hang the past on.

A fine example of this engineering can be seen in use here at Sandfields Pumping Station

There are a number of other criteria according to which the past can be divided up, not just to produce manageable chunks, but also to organise our thoughts about it. As a historian, I would like to take a practical viewpoint; I am interested in the effects of passing of time on human memory, and how we chunk our past up into manageable chunks, based on time, relationships and places.

In examining the ‘historical self’ in the context of our perception of time and sense of place, for instance, the necessity for the enlargement of our terms of reference becomes apparent.

Time can be experienced by humans in a number of modes, some involving a powerful sense that the emptiness often equated with linear time can be transcended in a deeply meaningful higher time. This time I will call my ‘eclectic’ time, since it allows me, as an individual to stand outside our everyday time.

In eclectic time, my time is governed by the seasons, daylight hours and when I want to take the dog out for a walk. I am not rushed or pushed. I live outside of our culturally constructed time; there is no 8:37 train to catch, or a 9:15 meeting, I am the master of my own time.

I am in a very fortunate position, I still have my pre-school memories, which divide my life quite cleanly and bring into it a concept of time of which I had no awareness. Life as far as I was concerned, ran along only under the direction of my mother. She knew better than I did when it was time for an afternoon nap, food or bedtime. She also knew better than I did, when I was hungry or thirsty, but that was about it, the rest of the time, I did as I pleased, I did not have a concept of culturally constructed time.

As I grew older, other concepts of time has now started to loom, and govern my life in a number of unwelcome ways. Mother would get us up out of bed with her “time for school” routine; I gaining a concept of time, but also a concept of vocal distress. I quickly learned that the first “time for school” call was the nice, relaxed, no hurry, in your own time call. Subsequent “time for school” calls had a more urgent note, expressing my mother discomfort with time, or her lack of it.

I knew that I could push and stretch time a little further, pushing mother into an uncomfortable culturally constructed time zone; she had to catch a 9:57 am bus; the final “time for school” call signalled a no negotiation position

The concept of time that creeps into our lives is the mechanical measurement of time; a school’s operation revolves around culturally constructed time, bells are rang at the start of school, assembly, playtime, milk time, dinnertime and home time: whistles blown at the end of playtime, games and dinnertime, dividing the day into smaller and smaller time chunks.

Each classroom has a clock; each teacher had a watch, each class had a timetable; mechanical time taking hold, strengthening its grasp, governing our daily activities. Time introduces a new conception called ‘late’; thus bringing us into conflict with time.

Late brings with it a new set of conventions; the awareness of the consequence of culturally constructed time. To help deal with this, children have to learn to tell the time mechanically, with our little cardboard clock faces, with movable clock hands.

Our memories can be collected up and gathered into periods by historical events, for instance a lot of people remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated, or where they were at the time of the 9/11 events. These time associations make strong memory mnemonics, just as historical events can be something of international significance, or something very personal, like a decision; I call this time my ecstatic time.

Ecstatic time is a boundary created by a significant event, a new relationship, an illness or other significant event can mark the start or the end of a very important sub time frame or boundary. Within time periods or time chunks, there are sub periods that lie within the main body of a time or episode, memory and associations figure in this time frame too.

These time frames can, and in fact do overlap, so we can see is how we divide our life’s up into chunks, and how these chunks are like transparent overlays of chronological time; pre-school, a time of no conflict, followed by a culturally constructed westernised time and the concept of ‘late’.

We then have relationship time, and the changes to our social and intellectual groups, brought about by transcending these two time frames; what is interesting here is how these time frames affect memory, and how to recall memories, we have to place ourself into the correct time frame. One explanation for this is the way we remember through association, the time frame acting as a volume with an index mark .

The future is nothing, but the past is myself, my own history, the seed of my present thoughts, the mould of my present disposition’.

Time can be experienced by humans in a number of modes, it provides a convenient set of pegs to hand past events on; bringing order to our past, and a sense of who we are.

As we travel through time and grow older, we telescope past events, as our memories builds and grow, while entropy untimely wastes away our fragile body’s; unknowing, we are all a part of time itself….

The Clocktower from Cara Khan on Vimeo.

Sources;
Bradbury Ray. Dandelion Wine. Earthlight. 1987
Hawkins Stephen. A Brief History of Time. 1992
Stevenson.R.L. The works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Temple Scott. 1912
Samuel Raphael. Theatres of Memory, Volume 1, Past and present in Contemporary Culture. Verso. 1999
Jordanova L. History in Practice, second addition. Hodder Arnold. 2006
H Kean, P Martin, S J Morgan. Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now, Francis Boutle. London. 2000
Clocktower – Aniboom Animation by Arenyth

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One Response to Time – A new look at an age old past

  1. morturn says:

    Reblogged this on Morturn – Sandfields Pumping Station and commented:

    The Victorian engineers, when trying to find ways of making steam engines more efficient developed the principals of the second law of thermo dynamics, and the study of entropy.

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