Clock ticks to­wards the day a trea­tise pro­vides a timely def­i­ni­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MORE than a decade ago I had a chat with celebrity cos­mol­o­gist Paul Davies about his book About Time: Ein­stein’s Un­fin­ished Revo­lu­tion . It was, and re­mains, a good read, full of, well, time: lin­ear time, cir­cu­lar time, imag­i­nary time, the ar­row of time. But alas, never once did Davies de­fine the topic of his book. What is time any­way?’’ I asked, gen­uinely keen to hear his an­swer. Davies looked star­tled and replied, Only a jour­nal­ist would ask some­thing like that.’’ Uh, OK.

Call me an old- fash­ioned girl, but I find a def­i­ni­tion — weak, strong, rub­bery or con­tentious — a use­ful way to get a han­dle on what an au­thor is on about, es­pe­cially with a sub­ject as slip­pery as time. Defin­ing by ex­am­ple, de­scrip­tion or metaphor just doesn’t cut it.

So it was with much en­thu­si­asm that I opened Ste­fan Klein’s new book The Se­cret Pulse of Time: Mak­ing Sense of Life’s Scarcest Com­mod­ity. Surely a science writer of his cal­i­bre would be­gin at the be­gin­ning and set the in­tel­lec­tual ground­work for the novice. And he does, kind of, al­though not un­til the last 60 pages of his oth­er­wise in­tel­li­gent and thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing book.

Be­fore get­ting down to what I wanted to know

right up- front in the in­tro­duc­tion, Klein set­tles into a leisurely dis­cus­sion about how hu­mans ex­pe­ri­ence that elu­sive com­mod­ity, time. It might be learned; it might be hard­wired, but like the so- called na­ture- nur­ture de­bate, Klein ar­gues for a bit of both. As Bri­tish science writer Matt Ri­d­ley put it, na­ture via nur­ture’’.

Once Klein has us across the no­tion of in­ner time, he be­gins toss­ing out dis­cov­er­ies like sweet treats: why there are morn­ing peo­ple and night peo­ple, why teenagers are night owls and long sleep­ers, when sex is best ( 7am if you’re a lark, later for owls), why now is an il­lu­sion.

Ev­ery chap­ter is stuffed with sci­en­tific odds and sods. Yet Klein teases out a line from the huge body of re­cent find­ings from neu­rol­ogy and psy­chol­ogy and hands it to us in a way that’s rel­e­vant. He uses a nar­ra­tive style well, weav­ing to­gether facts and an­swer­ing plenty of why- is- itso ques­tions.

Frus­trat­ingly, though, Klein asks oth­ers but leaves us wait­ing for the an­swer. How long is the present? What hap­pens when noth­ing hap­pens? Of course, there are no an­swers, but surely Klein could have of­fered his per­sonal take? Af­ter all, he’s happy to of­fer ad­vice.

It comes in the form of oc­ca­sional ex­er­cises to help the time- chal­lenged learn to squeeze more time into their time. For in­stance: Im­merse your­self in idle­ness. A half- hour is plenty.’’ Or,

Ask your­self a quick ques­tion a week be­fore be­gin­ning any ac­tiv­ity: Do I have to do it? And what hap­pens if I don’t?’’ We get tips for stay­ing calm in the face of a loom­ing dead­line and hom­i­lies on the virtue of swap­ping money for, yes, time. It’s harm­less, but why bother?

In the third sec­tion of his book, Dis­man­tling the Clock, Klein fi­nally gets his teeth into the mean­ing of time. He writes el­e­gantly about the philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tific de­bates about time and its prop­er­ties. Is it real? Does time flow? Is it a fun­da­men­tal force, along with grav­i­ta­tion, elec­tro­mag­netism and the weak and strong atomic in­ter­ac­tions?

Per­haps time is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween events, the dif­fer­ence be­tween past, present and fu­ture. Sounds good, but a philoso­pher friend says that def­i­ni­tion doesn’t fly. It’s a re­cur­sive def­i­ni­tion. Past, present and fu­ture can only be de­fined by ref­er­ence to — you got it — time. Oh dear.

Still, Klein gives space, and there­fore time, to the re­al­ist view es­poused by the likes of 17th- cen­tury math­e­ma­ti­cian and physi­cist Isaac New­ton. Here, time is a fun­da­men­tal part of the cos­mos, one in which events oc­cur in se­quence and can, there­fore, be mea­sured.

No, no, no,’’ screech New­ton’s Ger­man off­sider Got­tfried Leib­niz and the 18th- cen­tury philoso­pher Im­manuel Kant. For them, time is a hu­man thing. It’s the way we bipeds se­quence events. With­out us, time doesn’t ex­ist.

While re­count­ing this cos­mic dust- up, Klein writes: For Leib­niz it would be bet­ter to fig­ure out what we ac­tu­ally mean by say­ing time’.’’

Yes! Do it, Ste­fan. Tell me what you mean by say­ing time. I won’t be picky. I’ll settle for work­ing def­i­ni­tions for the as­sorted types of time you dis­cuss: ex­pe­ri­en­tial time, bi­o­log­i­cal time and cos­mo­log­i­cal time. I can wait. I’ve got the time.

Leigh Day­ton is The Aus­tralian’s science writer.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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