January 7, 2004


It?s always a scary thing when an artist discusses philosophy or physics, buuuut....
I read an article in the NYTimes recently that provoked a few thoughts:

The Time We Thought We Knew

Published: January 1, 2004

?Relativity also upends the way we traditionally organize reality. Most of us imagine that reality consists of everything that exists right now ? everything that would be found, say, on a hypothetical freeze-frame image of the universe at this moment. The history of reality could thus be depicted by stacking one such freeze-frame image on top of the one that came before it, creating a cosmic version of an old-time flip-book. But this intuitive conception assumes a universal now, another stubborn remnant of Newton's absolutist thinking...

Today's scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval, one that will pinpoint the more elemental concepts from which time and space emerge. Many believe this will involve a radically new formulation of natural law in which scientists will be compelled to trade the space-time matrix within which they have worked for centuries for a more basic "realm" that is itself devoid of time and space.

This is such a perplexing idea that grasping it poses a substantial challenge, even for leading researchers. Broadly speaking, scientists envision that there will be no mention of time and space in the basic equations of the sought-for framework. And yet ? just as clear, liquid water emerges from particular combinations of an enormous number of H20 molecules ? time and space as we know them would emerge from particular combinations of some more basic, though still unidentified, entities. Time and space themselves, though, would be rendered secondary, derivative features, that emerge only in suitable conditions (in the aftermath of the Big Bang, for example). As outrageous as it sounds, to many researchers, including me, such a departure of time and space from the ultimate laws of the universe seems inevitable.

A hundred years ago today, the discovery of special relativity was still 18 months away, and science still embraced the Newtonian description of time. Now, however, modern physics' notion of time is clearly at odds with the one most of us have internalized. Einstein greeted the failure of science to confirm the familiar experience of time with "painful but inevitable resignation." The developments since his era have only widened the disparity between common experience and scientific knowledge. Most physicists cope with this disparity by compartmentalizing: there's time as understood scientifically, and then there's time as experienced intuitively. For decades, I've struggled to bring my experience closer to my understanding. In my everyday routines, I delight in what I know is the individual's power, however imperceptible, to affect time's passage. In my mind's eye, I often conjure a kaleidoscopic image of time in which, with every step, I further fracture Newton's pristine and uniform conception. And in moments of loss I've taken comfort from the knowledge that all events exist eternally in the expanse of space and time, with the partition into past, present and future being a useful but subjective organization.

First of all, as for the article:

I love the future. I thrill to our optimism and lean into tomorrow. But sometimes I read articles like this and think of the George Jetson dreams that led Southern California to scrap the red car trains and build the freeways. Movies like ?Who framed Roger Rabbit?? got it wrong. Sure, there might well have been the Simon Legreedy types to have formed a conspiracy to accelerate consumerism and oil industry dominance. But it is true too, that the rail system was decrepit and over burdened by an exploding population (which it had ushered in the first place). The train was busted and LA didn't want to fix it. And it is true that we had swooned to dreams of the future that was innovation?s promise.

Here is Brian Greene, swooning, trying to bend the quotidian into the quantum. As hard it is to wrap our heads around the notions of a dissolving kaleidoscopic space/time... it?s tough to watch someone writhe, forcing an avant guarde idea where it might not fit. In other words, he?s trying too hard. He?s trying to apply the paradigm shift of the flat-to-round earth to Newtonian-to-Einstienian earthlings. Leave it alone! Maybe it?s ok to have each his own. Thinking out of the box is great, but wht is less than great is thinking like the last time we thought out of the box.

And what happened to both-and? Great circle curves are goemetric tools that you plot when you are a sailor crossing the ocean, but the line can still be straight when you are building a house. We live in a time when we are trying to build houses with great circle curves. Nutty. We, who like to swoon.

Surely, the most he can do is to imagine it in his everyday routines, and maybe this is where quantum mechanics has already made the inroad into modern life. Already, we enjoy magical realism, Kurt Vonnegut, Tarantino, and countless prime time tv shows traffic in this conceptual shift. On that level, the quantum is already quotidian. What else? I?m sure I could load several paragraphs of examples, but let?s move on....

I was reading this and thinking about this exchange with a painter friend, ( which I?ll abbreviate as p.f., let me clear it with her first before I divulge her name):

D:The close ups are knock outs! The question is how to get that impact in the overall distant read. I think my work needs help in this regard, I think my stuff reads better close than far. The issue is to make them pop in both modes. The first thought I came to was to think about increasing the scale and volume of my instruments and paint. But I think there is for my work, an issue of the hand and the scale associated with it. It's like the anatomy of lizards versus dinosaurs. One might be able to walk on water and the other might have trouble getting blood to the brain.

p.f.:Since you were last in my studio, I've been re-thinking?the "far versus close" issue. I've come to the conclusion that I don't want to reconcile that duality. The issue for me is very much about looking (the quick, superficial glance)?vs. seeing (the conscious act of taking time?to discover). On one hand, I want my paintings to be indecipherable from a distance, the gaze sliding off the dense,?textile-like surface.

And then I read the Greene article.

If you click on the slide show in that NYTimes webpage, you?ll find this:

"...since space breaks down over extremely short intervals, time breaks down over extremely short intervals..."

So too space, even pictorial space. And I thought, maybe she?s right about this. Kinda funny, how I got all quantum-like in a quotidian look at painting.

I was thinking all quantum-like about our move to Spain. As one individual moves away from another, as in the thought experiment of the astronaut blasting from earth at high speed, the return trip would reveal that the astronaut had effectively traveled forward in time, the people he left behind would be much older, if even still alive at all. And here we were plotting our move abroad, forecasting when we might be able to return (I say anywhere from one to three... to nine years max. Why nine? A family secret, too much info for publication here. But definitely and eventually nine years max.) And when we return, all our pals will be older... and since I will avoid all mirrors, I will feel younger in my quantum arrogance.

A funny thought. ;-)
(an emoticon is needed to reassure jest)

Posted by Dennis at January 7, 2004 11:07 AM

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