Thinking About Time


Time is very much on my mind these days. What follows is a set of observations about it. It’s a bit of a departure for me from the lecture/how-to format. Think of it as a window into my brain (aka “this is your brain on a rewrite”).

Every day brings me closer to the start of production of the film. Every hour I spend working on other projects is one less that I can apply towards prep. Every minute that passes between my last film and this one my directing wheels get that much rustier. And so on.

Time is also a big theme in the script. Our hero keeps moving forwards and backwards in his experience of time. Much of this idea came out of watching films like Persona and Memento; reading books like Catch-22, Ubik, and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity; and looking at my own experience of time.

On the one hand, I feel I that talking about time is like being a fish trying to describe water. Water has properties, it can be measured, it can be understood chemically, but the very “wateriness” of the water, the experience of it, is impossible to separate from from a fishes’ being. Fish are designed to swim in water; we are designed to exist in time. Whenever you try to get at the essence of time you end up talking about yourself.

The obsession with timekeeping and quantification of time is much-lamented, as is our apparent inability to keep focused on more than one thing for very long. Endless cliches are trotted out about how we’re losing out on the beauty of life by endlessly trying to cram more stuff into the available time; how time-saving devices ultimately don’t translate into more leisure, just more cramming; and how we’ve become slaves to an impersonal, mechanical version of time.

I suspect, however, that our time obsession is nothing new. While hunter-gatherers may appear to be more “relaxed” than us about when things happen, or farmers’ lives a little “slower,” their brains are wired just like ours are. I think they count the seconds just as much as we do. The main difference is in their expectation of what time will yield is probably different.

One day for a hunter-gatherer might mean preparing ones’ tools, eating something; catching one big animal, or collecting a bundle of plantains; bringing the food back to the base camp; and cooking it. Counting is usually done by ratios, rather than absolute numbers; this is also how we tend to think (without training in number theory) and how our bodies themselves work.

This would suggest that time is indeed something akin to a volume or dimension. Physicists treat it as such. Non-physicists graph time along an axis (usually the x axis) of a chart.

But by and large, the equations of physics run equally well whether the flow of time is backwards or forwards, whereas a chart of the S&P 500 does not. So why does time only appear to run in one direction? Here physicists seem to be rather dumbfounded. Some philosophers (and physicists) have argued that time is a solid “block” like a volume of space. We move through it, it doesn’t flow past us. This means that the moments past and future already exist, we just can’t see them. Why not?

If I were to stand still in time, all my momentum would be transferred to space (this is what Einstein says; this is why less time passes for you when you travel at relativistic speeds). Does a photon, which travels at the speed of light, experience time? Would we, if we were to travel that fast? When we have gaps in our consciousness (from epilepsy, blackouts, drugs, etc.) some part of us is still in “record mode.” Another part of us manages to edit our experience of time together so that there’s no gap, no apparent discrepancy between what the different parts of us experienced (though it’s obviously not a flawless system).

Does the universe perform a similar function at the quantum level? Some string and quantum loop gravity theorists feel that there’s an atomic structure to space-time – a Planck-scale “smallest discrete unit” of space and time. If this is true, then events can’t take less than a certain (VERY VERY VERY small) period of time to occur. The appearance of a seamless progression of events could really be the universe’s equivalent of going through a flipbook – or projecting frames of film or video – at a high enough speed.

Perhaps time IS just an artifact, a feature like persistence of vision. Sadly, I don’t find this comforting. I rather feel more as though I’m really just a big hunk of stuff that’s being shuffled through a really, really fine deli slicer.

Perhaps I can show a little bit of this onscreen – by picking the right cut points, moving the story in just the right direction, I can make the audience aware of the water around them, without throwing it in their faces. Here’s hoping.

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