“We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What you are about to read derails somewhat from ideas purely sound related, but rather consists of thoughts and ideas on concepts which I find highly inspiring. These concepts have inspired many others before me, as they have been present in art and philosophy for longer than anyone can remember.
The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali, 1931
The concepts I wish to explore and share in this post are those of time, space, and no less than the universe itself, which have fostered in me some questioning and pondering, and are slowly making their way into my creative practice.
With the help of facts established by science as well as some additional personal insight, I will deconstruct the concepts of time and its passing as we perceive them, I will show how order and chaos are the true determining factors in the arrow of time, and I will question the idea that ‘now’ even exists. I am doing so in order to reveal how fragile and biased our perception of the universe can be, as well as to demonstrate how deeply our entire beings are interlaced with Time. I believe that taking a moment to simply consider this topic and its repercussion is an enlightening and fascinating process, which I hope will leave you with some degree of curiosity and inspiration, as it did for me.
Let’s start with taking a deeper look at the idea of the passing of time.
Time as perception
Did you know that time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level? And by time passing faster in the mountains, that means that there is actually less time at sea level. To illustrate this, I will quote Rovelli’s example, which I believe paints a good picture :
Two friends are separated, one is going to settle at sea level, and the other up in the mountains. When they are reunited years later, the person who has stayed at sea level has actually lived less time of their life than the one in the mountain. The person in the mountain may look older because they have aged more, but they haven’t aged faster. At least not from their perspective. The person at sea level hasn’t had more youth time than the one in the mountain, that time just hasn’t passed yet for that person. When the person at sea level is the same age as the person in the mountains, then the same amount of time will have actually passed for both of them. As in both will have spent equally as much time of their lives, even though it takes longer for the person at sea level to do so.
That’s because time is relative, affected by the laws of physics, such as gravity. There is no one absolute timeline that would dictate who of these two friends has had the longest life, or spent more time in the world. Time isn’t one constant and continuous flow across the universe. Quite the opposite, every single point in space has its own time, because every single point in space lives in relation to every other point in space surrounding it.
Practically, and put simply, time is affected by mass – the greater the mass, the slower the time passes around it. Perceptually, the constant passing and flow of time such as we know and perceive it, is an illusion.
“We still don’t know how time actually works. The nature of time is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
Starting from this notion, that time is all about perception, one can wonder what are the consequences of this for us as individuals, and what the passing of time actually is and means? Is it the same for me and the person sitting next to me? Is it the same for now me and past me? What about future me? If something that appears to us to be so uniform and imperturbable such as the passing of time is revealed to be malleable and fluctuating, what else might we be perceptually biased about?
“Why do we remember the past, and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us? What does it really mean to say that time ‘passes’? What ties time to our nature as persons, to our subjectivity?”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What about time travel? If the passing of time is based on our perception of it, can one travel through time faster or slower by merely changing their perception of its passing? What if right now I recall a memory of something that happened yesterday, or a week ago, and in the space of a fraction of a second, I bring my attention right back to this moment, hasn’t time from that moment until right now just passed really really quickly? Isn’t that time travel?
At least Orson Wells seemed to agree with me in “The Time Machine” :
“You are wrong to say that we cannot move about in Time. For instance, if I am recalling an incident very vividly I go back to the instant of its occurrence : I become absent-minded, as you say. I jump back for a moment.”
The Time Machine, Orson Wells
Time as Entropy
Did you know that, of all basic laws of physics, there exists only one that distinguishes the past from the future? The only elementary equation that allows for a sequence of actions to run only forwards in time and not backwards, is where there is heat.
Heat comes in many forms. An energy transfer causes heat. Friction causes heat. Generating thoughts in our brain causes heat. Hence our flow of thoughts only ever running forwards in time, not backwards. This irreversible process of heat in only one direction has a name : entropy.
Entropy is a fascinating topic. Based on an actual law of physics, its notion branches out to creative, artistic, conceptual and romantic ideas that could seduce any mind. It’s the quality (or more accurately the measure) of chaos and disorder, it’s the natural decay and transformation of things surrounding us, it’s the appreciation of uncertainty and finality, and the recognition of a tendency for all things to degrade towards nothingness.
You can read more about Entropy and sound in a creative sense in a previous blog post : Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology: an approach to environmental sound art. For now, let’s stick to what this means about our perception of time.
Indicated by the letter S in mathematical representations, “entropy is a measurable and calculable quantity that increases or remains the same, but never decreases, in an isolated process.”(Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time). It is the second principle of thermodynamics. Put simply, it means that “heat passes only from hot bodies to cold, never the other way around”. (Carlo Rovelli). It reads as follows :
ΔS ≥ 0
Of all equations of fundamental physics, the above is the only one that knows any difference between past and future. Who knew it would look so simple.
In short, time is basically the most evident manifestation of entropy in our daily lives. And if entropy quantifies the natural increase of disorder – what does that say about time?
Time, which seemed to be the one thing from our limited observation of the universe that we commonly, perhaps naively acknowledge as the one and only constant. The unshaken, unwavering continuous flow of time and its inexorable, intransigent and steady passing. The undeniable observation of the passing of time, compelling us to order our lives around it, to use it to make sense of the world around us, providing both a cruel meaning to the beginning and end of life itself, and a salvific direction to our short existences. Time, all of a sudden, under the lens of entropy, becomes the very embodiment of chaos, and disorder itself. Poetic, I think.
To explain this in other words, this arrow of time, the idea that entropy always increases, never decreases, means that ‘things’ in the universe were always more ordered in the past, and will always be less ordered in the future. We can ask ourselves why this is the case, just as well as we can ask why the observable phenomena of the universe began in a state of lower entropy (with more order) in the first place?
What determines the order? Who says that a minute from now things in the universe will be less ordered than they were a minute ago? According to what criteria does that become a truth?
There are two things to consider to explain this. First, this is true only when considered from a world view biased by perspective. In order to determine which criteria defines an ordered versus a disordered world, one has to first see criteria. So one could say that we observe the passing of time only through changes in the arrangement of things, rather than in the things themselves. In other words, only if one sees patterns in how things are arranged and configured, and if one determines from those patterns some criteria to describe order and disorder, does one see the increase in entropy, and thus the passing of time. Imagine if all you would see were atoms, then all possible configurations of atoms will only ever be a whole bunch of atoms (or quarks, if we really want to get into the smallest of things), and every configuration would be unique, and present no relation to any other configuration. But if you see patterns from those atom (or quark) configurations, then those configurations begin to exist in relation to each other. And only then the future can exist in relation to the past. So once again, time seems to be about perspective.
The second thing to consider is probability. This is where we come back to the multitude of points in space, and the multitude of times existing in relation to each other, for each of these points in space. Starting from the principle that we do see patterns in how things are arranged in the universe, the idea that things are less ordered now than they were a minute ago, exists simply because statistically, the chances of all things arranging themselves in exactly the same way as they were a minute ago, as opposed to an immeasurable, infinite amount of other possible configurations is so improbable, that it is considered that things will always arrange themselves differently. Hence the arrow of time, where time can only flow in one direction.
If you are curious about this idea that time can only flow in one direction due to probability of things arranging themselves in more or less ordered ways, I recommend you watch this short BBC video where Brian Cox explains Entropy in simple words:
Now we start to understand how we, as human beings, have constructed a view of the universe that only makes sense for us, as human beings, and how we are wired to perceive it through its patterns as we observe and understand them. One may then wonder what does that mean about absolutes? Can absolutes exist in a world built on perspective?
Time as the present
If the actual passing of time is relative and a perceptual illusion, what does that mean about now? According to physics, across time and space, now means nothing. Just as the passing of time, now is defined by relative criteria, which themselves are determined by our perception. There can be no now that extends to places in the universe where time flows at a different rate. To be very specific, there can be no now that extends to any two different points in space.
But let’s say for the sake of simplicity that we, on this planet, perceive now to be a close enough approximation of the same time. We can look up to the night sky and think that we are looking at a distant star, right now, yet what we see is light that has taken many years to travel from this point in space to our eyes. Let’s say for example that we are looking at the next closest star to the Earth, after the sun of course, Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away from us, which means it takes light 4.22 years to travel from there to here. This means that when we look at Proxima Centauri now, we see a version of the star that existed four years ago.
Now imagine we are looking at the most distant observable star from the Earth, Icarus. Icarus is located nine billion light years from Earth. That means when we look at Icarus now, we are looking at evidence of a star that existed nine billion years ago. For reference, that is about twice as long as the time that has passed since the Earth was formed. In fact, that is so long ago, that Icarus no longer exists. Icarus was a blue giant and blue giants don’t have a life cycle of nine billion years.
But even this is a simplistic explanation of how relative now can be. It goes much further.
Did you know that, on top of passing slower in proximity to mass, time also runs slower with motion? Indeed, in the same way that time runs slower at sea level than in the mountains, time runs slower when moving, than when standing still. Effectively, time is slowed down by speed. In other words, for a moving object, time contracts.
“Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place. A duration can be associated only with the movement of something, with a given trajectory.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
Considering this, the idea of a now that extends from here all the way to Proxima Centauri, is completely deconstructed. In addition, you would be mistaken to believe that, since we are witnessing a ‘now’ on Proxima Centauri that is 4 years delayed, then the equivalent of now between Earth and there is 4 years into Proxima Centauri’s future. Four years into Proxima Centauri’s future may in fact be ten years on Earth, so now.. would be in the future.
If you were to travel from Earth to Proxima Centauri, and track the time that has passed, and return after 10 of your years, it may be that twenty years have in fact passed on Earth. So now, cannot exist across space and time. So as Carlo Rovelli puts it, “The notion of ‘the present’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away”. But how close to us? This depends on the precision with which we determine time. In other words, perspective.
“The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What is now?
So what do we define as now and how do we define it? This is where physics are left behind and art and philosophy come in.
Did you know there exists a giant clock (hundreds of feet tall), buried under a mountain in Texas, that is designed to keep track of the time for 10 000 years? This clock is called The Clock of the Long Now, or the 10,000-Year Clock.
“The 10,000-Year Clock keeps track of five different types of time: Pendulum Time, Uncorrected Solar Time, Corrected Solar Time, Displayed Solar Time and Orrery Time”.
If nothing else, this says something about how complex it can be to track time.
Brian Eno wrote an essay about an idea of The Big Here and Long Now.
“”Now” is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.”
Brian Eno, The Big Here and Long Now
Put simply, Brian Eno confronts the ideas of a short now and a long now, exposing paradoxes that exist in the way we process and act on those ideas, how our needs and interests in the short now and the long now can be ironically conflicting. His essay is a very interesting read and I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend listening to his lecture given at the University of Edinburgh in 2017.
More resources to explore about the Clock of the Long Now :
So when and how does sound as an artistic medium come into all of this? Sound, of course, needs space and matter to travel through, otherwise it cannot exist. But sound is also bound to time, as the amount of time passing between the start and finish of a sound wave cycle determines its frequency. Sound can only exist in time. Without time, just as without matter, sound cannot be heard. Which makes it, in my opinion, a beautiful medium to express ideas about time. In a way, the sound of anything is the sound of time passing, the sound of entropy.
And finally how does this information inspire us to think about time and our surroundings? What does it mean for our lives and the way we live them? If a concept that seemed so immutable such as time has been deconstructed to the point where its perceived rules don’t make sense anymore, what else makes sense? What else doesn’t? What else can be deconstructed? What else may we consider absolutes which in fact aren’t? What do we want to do about it?
Questions become infinite in the face of such mystery. But as Carlo Rovelli puts it, “curiosity is the seed of knowledge”. Below are some examples of creators who have explored this topic through their work, in various degrees. Yet the scale of the concepts of time, perception and their ramifications is so huge, that creators and philosophers have really only scratched the surface of the questions they raise all that they can mean for us.
Artworks exploring Perception
Esther Stocker’s work about the perception of Space
Artworks exploring Illusion
Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Mirrored Room
Artworks exploring Time
Davide D’Elia‘s ‘Antivegetativa‘
Sequences – An Icelandic festival dedicated to time-based art
(Below : Performance by David Horwitz with Jófríður Ákadóttir. Camera: Ólöf Kristín Helgadóttir)
Arthur Ganson, “Machine with Concrete,”
And so so many more… Please use the comments below if you have any time based art projects you would like to share.
Hopefully this has inspired you as it has me. Time, Entropy & Perception will forever fascinate me and there is vastly much more to explore and be said about them. Some related topics may include memory, patterns, order & chaos, life cycle, subjectivity, and so much more.
Thank you for reading.