The month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus, the guardian of thresholds – and by extension, the guardian of transitions and new beginnings. He is traditionally represented with two faces: one looking backwards to the past, the other looking forward into the future.
As a global culture, we are time fetishists: if there is one obsession that defines our modern global culture, time is it. But it is a slippery concept to represent in an image!
Perhaps you have been watching the countdown for the new year circle around the tv stations of the planet, to mark the rather fluffy moment when the earth has completed yet another circle round the sun (who defines where it started, anyway?). Missed your toast in your own timezone? In New Zealand we’re lucky, we got 23 more chances. Well, that is, if we haven’t succumbed to alcohol poisoning by then.
The most frequently asked question in internet chatrooms and on social networking sites has got to be “What time is it where you are?” — To sit down just before bedtime and chat with someone who is just having breakfast – not to mention, roasting on the beach while you are watching the snowflakes outside – or to spot someone’s insomnia when realizing that where they are, it is something like four in the morning – hasn’t yet lost its fascination.
Did you know that standard time only came about in the second half of the 19th century – as a direct result of long distance railroad travel, and the need to coordinate timetables? Before that, it used to be that by the time you had reached the next town, you needed to reset your watch. Due to the slowness of travel by foot or ship or horse, that didn’t really seem to bother anyone. The establishment of uniform global timezones, and especially the definition of the Greenwich meridian, were a much fought over politicum.
The latest in popular cult phenomena? A time traveller in a blue police call box. But it isn’t just the Doctor: time travel seems to be a feature in quite a lot of stories and movies these days. It even made it into Harry Potter! The Prisoner of Azkaban is actually one of the cleverest treatments of the idea, and the paradoxes it involves, which I have read.
Now that we have managed to travel to the furthest regions of our own planet, and even as far as the moon, I suppose travelling in time really is the next frontier. After all, relativity theory teaches us that we won’t be going anywhere much, apart from maybe Mars, unless we master that.
One of the basic concepts of Relativity Theory is that the only thing in the universe that is always constant, is the speed of light. Space, time, distance, everything is in flux–- and I mean, physically, not just as we experience it. There is no such thing as a center, or an outer border, or indeed any fixed point of reference – perhaps not even a Beginning and an End (this is still very much under debate). Except for the speed at which light moves, which is always the same, regardless of the distortions of the space-time continuum around it. If that is not a profoundly spiritual concept, then I don’t know what is!
As to the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the one that says that disorder always increases, unless energy is expended – apparently that is directly linked to the setup of our brains. According to Stephen Hawking, in “A Brief History of Time”, the fact that we can only remember the past and not the future, just means that we experience the increase in the amount of information stored in our brains as the arrow of time. Which makes me wonder, what about people who suffer from Alzheimer? Are they already living backwards in time?
Relativity theory also teaches us that time is just another dimension in what we now refer to as the space-time continuum. It seems a fairly logical leap to assume that if that is so, there is no good physical reason why it would not be possible to move in this dimension in both directions. If we can rewind a video tape, perhaps one day we can rewind and replay our own lives. An appealing idea? I suppose it would be an incentive to try to live our lives well.
Happy New Year 2014!
All images are copyright the respective artists, and may not be reproduced without permission.
Text sources, reference and further reading:
James Gleick: Faster – The Acceleration of Just About Everything – fast essays about modern time fetishism
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time – the generally accepted physics
John Gribbin: In Search of the Edge of Time: Black Holes, White Holes, Wormholes the somewhat more debatable physics
Clark Blaise: Time Lord – Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time – time zones, history and politics
J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – time turning at its best
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine – the Science Fiction classic that started it all
Based on an essay first published in December 2010 on www.asni.net