Now, now and now again... time, narrative, cosmology and other obsessions: by Rosalie Warren

'Now' is where it's at (or rather when it's at). 'Now' is the moving blade that chops our lives, over and over again, into past, future and that infinitesimal but overwhelmingly significant instant we call 'now'.

Prague Astronomical Clock

OK, so I was lying in bed musing on what to blog about this month, trying to force myself to think about e-books. Nothing wrong with e-books, of course, but my brain sometimes refuses to think about them to order. Now if I was the kind of organised person who posts my blogs up here months in advance (respect, to those of you who do), I might find it easier to 'focus', as my English teacher used to say.

But I don't, and instead of being organised, I sense one of Douglas Adams's infamous deadlines about to whoosh up behind me, whirl me round in a storm of panic and then hurl me onto the jagged rocks of midnight on the 25/26th, with no time left to write this month's post (see below for a discussion of temporal metaphors).

What's more, I was using up valuable thinking time (another temporal metaphor there - 'time as a consumable resource'), reading a wonderful new book by the physicist Lee Smolin, who argues that modern physics and cosmology have lost sight of 'now' and it's about time (!) that 'now' in particular and time in general were restored to the central position they deserve*.

Let me come clean and admit that I am obsessed by time, and have been for as long as I can remember. Most of my academic career was coloured by trying to understand it, in one way or another (I didn't succeed, in case you are hoping for answers). But I was delighted to learn, a few years ago, that I had something in common with Albert Einstein. No, not the genius, sadly. Nor the moustache, though I'm working on it. But I discovered that we shared a worry. No doubt his was on a much more profound level than mine, but who cares? We were both worried about 'now'.

'Now' has been a mystery to me for most of my life. I was the kind of child (lonely, only) who mused about such things but soon learned that you didn't share your deeper thoughts with your school mates or you'd be mocked and ostracised and all the rest. I kept thinking silently and secretly, however. I studied science at university in the hope of wrestling with these mysteries, but found myself embroiled in chemical formulae instead. (My maths, sadly, was never up to the demands of theoretical physics, which is what I would really have liked to do.) Years later, I became a student again, this time in computing/AI, but soon drifted over into linguistics, where my obsession with time pushed me into a study of tense, aspect, time adverbials, narrative - and, in particular, a detailed study (for my PhD) of the word 'then'. I may have mentioned this before. People usually give me a 'so what?' look. ''Then' means 'next' or 'afterwards', doesn't it?' they say, if they're bold enough. 'Is there any more to it than that?' Well yes, there is, but you'll have to take my word for it as I've no intention of reproducing my thesis here. Believe me, a little word like 'then' is bl**dy complicated when you look into it, as it interacts in all kinds of intriguing ways with the various tenses and aspects of language.

Later in my career, I moved on to the study of temporal metaphor, which is another fascinating subject. Consider, for example, the two statements: 'We are heading for the summer' and 'Summer is racing towards us'. The first, if you think about it, views time as something stationary: a landscape perhaps, through which we are travelling. The second, by contrast, views time as the thing that's moving, while we stand on the station platform watching it roll towards us. It turns out we have a multitude of different ways of conceptualising time. One of the most prominent is 'time as space', which we use constantly (I'll leave you to think of a metaphor that does this.)

Physics conceptualises time as space, too - as a coordinate measured along an axis, sometimes regarded as the fourth dimension. (OK, in relativity theory, it's spacetime, which is different, but there's still something kind of unchanging and rather landscapey about it. See Smolin for a much better discussion.)

Physics, as Einstein pointed out, has nothing to say about 'now' - about that mysterious little moving light that slides along the bottom of our internal video screens, telling us where we (and the rest of the universe) has got up to. What does it mean to say: 'It's now 10:43am BST on 24/4/13?' (Of course, by the time I've said or typed it, time has moved on, but let's leave that complication aside.)  It means, surely, that a few seconds ago, from my current perspective... it was 10:43 BST. Or, at 10:43 BST on 24/4/13, it was 10:43 BST on 24/4/13... See the problem? It's kind of circular. What makes now 'now'? Why 'this' now, now? (A related question is 'Why this me?' but I won't get onto the mystery of self.) And please, any philosophers reading this, forgive me. I am not one - you'll have noticed - or only in the very loosest sense.

Professor Smolin suggests that one of the problems of modern physics is that time has been reduced to a kind of space and we have left out 'now'. I haven't finished the book yet so I don't know what kind of answers he'll come up with. But Smolin thinks that if we can get time (or rather moving/developing time) back into physics, it may help us with some of the knottier problems of interpreting quantum theory and merging it with a theory of gravity. It may also shake our views of who, what, where (and of course when) we are. Might it help explain free will? He seems to think so, though I'll believe that when I see it, if my molecules fall that way.

Now (!), I suppose, I must try to make this little temporal digression relate at least peripherally to the topic of the blog. So let me say that one of the things that drives me to create stories is my sense of the wonder of 'now' - the unfolding sense of this moment becoming real - the one instant where we act upon our world. There's the ultimate challenge of trying to capture that sense of now in prose while also getting beyond it, in the same way, perhaps, that a writer tries out different ways of being 'me'.

As we know, narrative is one of the main ways we try to understand our lives. 'What next?' is the question we live by. Novels and stories of all kinds pander to this. Authors, especially those in the SF genre, have posed some brilliant questions about the nature of time, asking what kind of temporal journeys it might be possible to make. (Here's one answer to my invitation to find a metphor that views time as space. The notion of 'time travel' is one of the clearest examples. And if 'time as space' is no more than an analogy, then maybe the whole notion of time travel is misguided?)

'Now' matters. It's where I hurt, where the chocolate tastes good, coloured though these sensations often are by the remembered past and the anticipated future.

Can some novelist today pick away a bit further at the mystery of 'now' and maybe even give the physicists a few new ideas to play with?

Happy moments,

*Title: Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe 
Author: Lee Smolin
Publisher: Allen Lane (23 April 2013)
ISBN-10: 1846142997
ISBN-13: 978-1846142994


CallyPhillips said…
Very interesting (even if my brain wasn't totally in gear for it this early) 'Now' is a fascinating thing. I've worked on it in a number of ways - most especially in Triptych (just released as ebook) These are three different plays which look at 'time' and the concept of 'now' (I am keen on the expression 'all moments are one moment' ) in a range of settings. And were all performed 'at one time' 10 years ago.
Also the 'storied' life - I'm currently wrestling with the relationship of author/narrator/character for the ebook festival - the ways of 'being me' part of your blog struck home here.
So you see, you did have plenty to say that was pertinent to ebooks! and thanks for giving me some extra angles to think about.
BTW I think that THE BEST theoretical physics could be carried out by THE WORST mathematicians by the way... they don't get tied up in the 'rules' or the 'right' way but are able to find OTHER ways to see things.
(Oh, and do you think Higgs Boson is really just a description of multi dimensional gravity? Discuss.)
Anonymous said…
Now I'm confused...or at least I was a nano-second ago!!!!

Seriously, I enjoyed this, Rosalie - a very interesting piece. :)

Jan Needle said…
you haven't finished the book 'yet'. how do you know?
Debbie Bennett said…
Gosh, Rosalie - we are so alike! I wanted so much to do that sort of stuff at uni but my maths simply wasn't good enough, so I ended up playing with time, space and alternate realities through writing instead.
Dan Holloway said…
I love this. My concerns with "now" came from Derrida. It's a question we could endlessly tie ourselves in knots about and yet it is just about the most important question there is so we have to keep trying
Lee said…
Dan, 'now' and 'self' - and how they interrelate.
Lydia Bennet said…
Speaking as a physicist/mathematician, any theory of time or physics generally has to be expressible in true, beautiful mathematics, so I wouldn't agree that physicists can be rubbish at maths, which is the language of physics, unless they have a tame mathematician in a cupboard somewhere to prove their blue sky thinking! Even quantum physics has to be expressed in equations. 'Now' I suppose is something we can approximate to, but can't be pinned down, as soon as it's identified it's already gone, but that too is quantum theory - the uncertainty principle. Plenty of that in the writing world!

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