‘Time Tries All Things’: magical physics and the nature of chronology

Grace Weir’s new film just might explain the nature of life, the universe and everything

“Treating time specially is a human construct and we’re using the wrong language,” says Prof David Berman.

“Treating time specially is a human construct and we’re using the wrong language,” says Prof David Berman.

 

In the basement of a former plumbing supplies store, down the road from King’s Cross station in London, two eminent physicists are discussing the nature of time. Time, for those uninitiated in the ways of physics, isn’t a straightforward thing, but trying to get to grips with what it really is, and does, just might help to solve some fundamental mysteries of the universe.

The physicists are Profs David Berman and Fay Dowker. Together they appear in Time Tries All Things, a new film by Irish artist Grace Weir. The film was commissioned to celebrate the opening of a new headquarters and gallery for the Institute of Physics (IOP). Previously an artist in residence at the School of Physics at Trinity in Dublin, Leitrim-based Weir explores different, frequently beautiful and always illuminating perspectives on science.

What is an artist doing investigating such mind-wrenching concepts as relativity, quantum and string theory, and why do they matter beyond the rarefied walls of the university or art gallery? I go to London to investigate on an Arctic day and, en route to the lower ground floor, where Weir’s film is playing on a pair of screens, I discover a cloud chamber.

Invented in 1911, the cloud chamber is a particle detector, a precursor of the Large Hadron Collider. It’s also a mesmerising and meditative object, in which tiny puffs of white coalesce and then disperse across the small black box’s dark surface. Elsewhere, etched on a window is a graphic involving arrows, circles and the occasional number or letter. “It’s the PP chain,” says the IOP’s Toby Shannon. “It’s what happens in the heart of stars, it’s why they shine.” Physics may be tricky, but it’s also starting to feel magical.

In the public area, Shannon points out a new system that replaces broadband internet with light. Available wavelengths, according to Shannon, are filling up. Oscillating pulses of light are the new frontier. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Or maybe it isn’t. Time, it turns out, isn’t a linear thing. Past, present and future are all around us. The problem is us: we are only able to understand time as we experience it: one thing after another.

In Time Tries All Things, Berman and Dowker’s ruminations include the idea of the block universe, in which past, present and future coexist. This means that either there’s no such thing as time, or (comfortingly, or worryingly, depending on your perspective) that everything has already happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Opinion among physicists falls into two camps: those who believe in the block universe, and those who espouse an idea of “becoming”, and the chance of shaping our futures. You can imagine the arguments when they all get together at parties.

Block of marble

As Berman and Dowker speak on their separate screens, a stonemason chips away at a block of marble. Berman draws diagrams to explain the concept of space-time, and Dowker looks out of a window, while musing on general relativity. I begin to marvel at the human brain and its abilities to explore, explain, attempt to understand.

Why does this matter? Well, and with apologies to those who really know what they’re talking about, it’s all about the difference between perception and reality, and the impossibility of ever actually accurately describing anything at all. The issue is to do with the tools at our disposal. On one side there is our ability to measure, and on the other, our capacity to comprehend and describe.

Grace Weir: “Half the problem is that our intuition is based on description.”
Grace Weir: “Half the problem is that our intuition is based on description.”

Go back in time (if such a thing exists), and you can see how the evolution of scientific thought is shown through narratives that explain what can be seen. In Ancient Greece, myths, such as Persephone spending half the year in the underworld, made sense of the seasons. Until telescopes and calculus caught up, there was no reason not to believe the world was flat, or that the sun revolved around our planet.

These days, scientists can see at subatomic level, and are starting to realise that things there are seriously strange. Things don’t behave as you might have thought. But start to try to wrap your head around the block universe, spacetime, quantum and string theories, and you run into a problem. First your head starts to hurt, and pretty soon your brain begins to feel as if its frying. That’s because the next problem is language.

“Nature is more complex than our description of it,” says Berman. “This is always the thing that one has to distinguish. The description that you have of something and what the thing is.” As he speaks, Weir’s camera pans around the library where he sits. Marble busts of intellectual heroes including Pindar, Dryden and Milton, gaze blankly down. It’s tempting to think of the weight of historical thought, building to this modern moment of ultimate knowledge. But what if it has all been leading us astray?

“Treating time specially is a human construct and we’re using the wrong language,” continues Berman. “There’s something deeper here that’s not manifest in the descriptions that we’ve got, that shows that those descriptions are not adequate.”

Intuition vs description

That’s the fascinating thing for Weir. She hopes that by coalescing ideas of art and physics, and expanding the conversation, “it might help to get us out of this linear way of thinking. Half the problem,” she says, “is that our intuition is based on description.”

The implications of this extend beyond the world of science, to such fundamental human qualities as feelings and emotions. We understand the world through language, but language is frequently inadequate to fully encompass what we are experiencing. The trouble is, once we have captured, say, a nebulous, fleeting feeling, with words, those words then define and limit it.

As Dowker says, “The act of representing is a limiting factor. It introduces something which is not there physically. Even articulating it creates a record, because it’s in your memory.” Describing something, she concludes, “by the very depiction, causes some aspect of it to slip away, to be lost.”

This limitation even extends to that most precise tool: mathematics. I remember feeling secretly thrilled to discover that a number that doesn’t actually exist – the square root of minus one – was vital to make many sums add up. It felt deliciously abstract.

Grace Weir hopes that by coalescing ideas of art and physics, and expanding the conversation, “it might help to get us out of this linear way of thinking”.
Grace Weir hopes that by coalescing ideas of art and physics, and expanding the conversation, “it might help to get us out of this linear way of thinking”.

Looked at this way, bringing the arts back into scientific conversations seems an obvious step. I say “back”, because it was only relatively recently (in terms of the epic history of the universe) that the two were inextricably linked in the work of such figures of Leonardo da Vinci. Art, whether visual art, film, literature or poetry, has the advantage of metaphor and allusion. Art can create space around language, where intuition and imagination can grasp at the previously unthought, and make leaps to the new.

Wild imaginings

Weir tells me about the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, writing at the time of Einstein. “He said that relativity involved a conception of time that it, in itself, does not bring out. It’s up to philosophy to construct, he said.” Speaking with Weir, after spending half an hour immersed in the world of her film, my mind fills with possibility and wild imaginings.

Berman seems to agree. “Our notion of time and space seems to be more and more distant from our human experience of it. But to be human is not to be limited by ‘common sense’, but to embrace different perspectives of the universe and appreciate the gift of being able to see and, through our imaginations, experience the world in a new way.”

Exploring further, I come across Hillary Diane Andales, an 18-year-old student from the Philippines, who, last year, won a $400,000 prize for a video, in which, in just under three minutes, she explains the theory of relativity. Leaping between ideas of measuring space, time, colour, light and sound, she says that “the really mind-blowing idea here is that observers in different frames experience different versions of the same reality. And every observer’s frame is equally valid. So,” she concludes, “before you start making any observational arguments with others, first imagine yourself observing through their reference frames.”

If thinking about physics can also help us come to broader, and more inclusive, social, philosophical and political conversations, it could be even more important than “simply” explaining the universe as we know it, or inventing alternatives to broadband. “They’re shared problems,” says Shannon. “Physics has a role in your life, whether you understand it or not.”

Time Tries All Things is at the Institute of Physics, London, until March 29th, iop.org / graceweir.com

Physics: Say What?

(With apologies to physicists everywhere)

Relativity: This one is Einstein’s famous baby, and at its core is the observation that everything is relative. Throw a ball to a friend on a plane, and it moves at “normal” ball speed. Observed from the ground, the ball is travelling at that speed, plus the speed of the plane. Add in the movement of the Earth, and the sums get really tricky. It’s all relative to the speed of light, said Einstein, which he helpfully set at 671 million mph. Reach for a gin when you get to the bit about measuring speed, relative to the speed of light, and discovering that time slows down the faster you go. They have actually proved this by putting clocks on planes. It’s only fractions of a second though, so you don’t have too much to worry about.

Spacetime: You exist in time, and you also occupy a specific location. Spacetime maps one on to the other. As they say in the Meercat advert: Simples.

Quantum entanglement: Einstein didn’t believe in this Schrödinger theory. He disparaged it as “spooky action at a distance”, but – shock horror – he was wrong. Separate some particles, and you’ll find them still affecting each other, even over vast distances. With Valentine’s Day in the air, that’s kinda romantic.

Schrödinger’s Cat: And on the subject of Schrödinger, what about his cat? It was a thought experiment (no cats were harmed . . .) in which the physicist wanted to demonstrate a flaw in the theory that, until something is observed, it exists in all possible states. Until you open the box, you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead, and so, according to some theorists, it is simultaneously both. More recent experiments (the double slit experiment, if you want to look it up) have shown that observation actually does change outcomes – something anyone trying to park in front of an audience could have told you already.

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