Clock ticks towards the day a treatise provides a timely definition
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.