A few minutes for musing: Time across topics
Two hands on a clock. A date in a history book. Tiny grains of sand cascading through the waist of an hourglass. Time tends to be malleable. Hours melt across disciplines, years stretch between facts and minutes explode underneath microscopes. Each creates a spectrum of worlds within which research can happen, helping minds grow. In Ann Arbor, these worlds coexist quietly among offices and classrooms across the University. I am highlighting a few of them today.
LSA professor Jatin Dua doesn’t think of time as linear. The past is not directly correlated to the present, and the future is a project to be actively imagined right now. Dua studies anthropology, a discipline he says is interwoven with multidimensional uses of time. A century ago, the specialty worked to create a “rupture in time,” drawing a line between people of the present and people of the past as a way to distinguish us from them.
“It’s tied to creating hierarchy,” Dua said, “where some people live in the present and others — primarily those who are seen as non-Western — lived in different times.” The effects of that mindset linger today, he added. Discussions surrounding development, for example, can “presume disjunctures in time” by making assumptions about the prioritization of modernity.
More recently, though, anthropology works to define how history comes to matter. What do we decide gets attention, and when? “This thing that we call tradition or culture,” Dua noted, “is always shifting.” In this sense, anthropologists work with history as a dynamic tool — it’s the context that shapes our present, rather than a story that remains untouched.
This mindset changes Dua’s perspective on time as a whole, too: “Thinking anthropologically about time makes you constantly think about what kinds of forgetting is (sic) required to imagine that we are different from the past,” he said. It’s easy to create notions of progress that can shape the politics of a future, “but that’s actually premised on forgetting lots of things,” Dua said.
“What happens when we don’t think of time as linear?” he asked. “What are all the things that we choose to forget in order to imagine that timelines are linear?”
Dua asks these questions in his own research — he studies piracy and trade off the coast of Somalia in a community that continues to rely on the timeline of monsoon season, even today. Their cyclical world shapes trading networks that wouldn’t develop elsewhere, yet complications over a linear future still linger in Dua’s studies.
“This idea that in the future ships will be, or can be, automated leads to people thinking about questions around labor regulations on ships very differently,” Dua said. “But then along with this, there’s this idea that in the future climate change will make oceanic storms and other things completely unpredictable, therefore making automation not possible. So there are two kinds of visions of the future.”
Both are simultaneously possible and impossible; the question becomes what kind of future is being imagined, and for whom?
This leaves Dua and his peers in anthropology thinking of the future as a project instead of a destination. His mission lies in complicating the relationship between the past and the present, asking who we place in the past and why. From there, Dua wonders how a person’s imagined future shapes his or her present and past, creating a braid of overlapping definitions, realities and possibilities for time at large.
Physics has its own kind of imagination, too. Like Dua, LSA professor Fred Adams operates under multiple definitions of time, though Adams’s tend to be much, much bigger — in fact, they’re of galactic scale.
In an email interview with The Daily, Adams wrote that, when studying the stars and planets, “there are no temporal surprises.” 60 seconds in a minute. 1000 milliseconds in a second. Things progress at normal, calculable rates. Time thus becomes the backdrop of research — an unchanging provider of normalcy.
In cosmology, the study of the whole universe, “time is more interesting,” Adams wrote. “The universe is observed to be expanding, and we can not only understand its temporal behavior in terms of general relativity but we can also measure time by the current size of the universe,” Adams added. This schism between the current, calculable present and the blurred lines of warped spacetime in general relativity adds to Adams’s list of approaches. He also mentioned quantum mechanics, a field that requires a “probabilistic description of what happens, or when it happens, so that our concept of time changes accordingly.”
Like in anthropology, Adams’s research relies on a proper application of all these definitions. Physics and astrophysics require the use of time on a scale very different from our everyday understanding. To Adams, time shrinks and grows across a radical spectrum of consideration.
Within the Big Bang theory, for example, “we must consider time scales as short as 10^ -43 seconds.” That’s one second divided by a number with 43 zeros. It’s the smallest piece of time possible — a number so miniscule our human brains can barely fathom its existence.
On the other side of things, time grows to millions and billions of years when considering the average life of an everyday star.
“Physics and astrophysics will continue to unfold over time scales that greatly exceed the current cosmic age,” Adams wrote, “and we can consider astrophysical processes for times as long as 10^100 years.” That’s a number followed by 100 zeros; a googol of years.
Beyond that, though, Adams added that people often think of “letting time ‘go to infinity.’” When we try to imagine scales of such length, we might picture Buzz Lightyear’s animatronic arm lifting to the sky as he proclaims “to infinity and beyond!”
But compared to forever, even a number followed by 100 zeros is quite close to zero.
Adams routinely navigates between these extremes — his research stretches across a normally unfathomable range of seconds, minutes, hours and years, a fact he acknowledged leads him to “a broader understanding of time.” More specifically, this understanding comes from his study of variances in actual real time; in other words, while Dua might consider the cultural perception of time by people between past and present, Adams focuses on measurable changes that we can see on the clock.
This difference “should be taken with a grain (or an ocean) of salt,” Adams wrote. Indeed, he is right: From the widest of angles, both professors ground themselves in the same understanding that time is a pliant, ductile tool for research. It morphs based on the question and context at hand, yet remains the steady backdrop for reflecting, analyzing and furthering our understanding of the world before us. It’s a mysteriously flexible reality under which we can all live, think and grow.
LSA professor Cindy Lustig also studies that reality. As a psychologist, she works to explain those processes of living, thinking and growing from within our own brains. As such, Lustig approaches time through both a general environment and a point of focus. “We exist in time and it is constantly affecting us,” she explained in an email interview with The Daily. As we build our existences across seconds, hours, days and years, the passage of those units also changes our very existence. It’s “mind-bending,” Lustig wrote.
As we age, our brains gain the attention that’s necessary to acknowledge that influence. Especially within milliseconds to seconds, “we get better able to focus on time as we move from childhood to young adulthood,” Lustig wrote. As we gain that understanding, time accrues into minutes, then hours, days and years. With age, “the same ‘chunk’ of time in absolute terms begins to seem smaller and smaller,” Lustig wrote, though she added that she’s unsure if that difference has to do with real brain changes or a simple shift in the amount of time we’ve accumulated to compare things to. Either way, the fluid nature of our various perceptions serve to reflect the malleability of time inside and outside our brains.
Lustig’s research confirms this fluidity, pushing us to question our notions of who’s best at tracking time. She studies attention in older adults, which is often assumed to be worse than those of younger adults. In her experiments, she asks participants to focus on time differences displayed across a grid that occur over the course of milliseconds. “Maintaining that type of attention over several minutes is very hard,” Lustig wrote, but “older adults are if anything more motivated and focused on the task.” When faced with distractions like a video playing nearby, though, that same older demographic is hurt the most. “So you might say their ability to stay focused on time is both intense and fragile,” Lustig wrote. It’s an all-or-nothing game of focus, permeated by caveats and subtleties that deepen Lustig’s interpretation of time overall.
This complexity of understanding weaves its way into our creation of memories, too. “When people look back on their lives,” Lustig wrote, “they tend to remember the most events from about ages 18-30.” This might seem connected to preconceived notions about the health of a younger mind, but Lustig added that this so-called “memory bump” is only true for positive memories. When it comes to remembering the negative, we have no age filter. “It turns out this is at least in part because we have cultural scripts for when positive events are supposed to happen,” Lustig wrote. We expect to build friendships, enter marriages, find careers and have children during those years, and our brains are affected by such expectations. “No one has a designated time when they ‘expect’ to get in a car accident,” Lustig wrote. As such, it impacts our memory banks outside of the “memory bump,” complicating our internal timelines and furthering the ocean of interpretations upon which we surf.
In that case, our memories, and with them our ongoing understanding of time, remain influenced by minutes and hours as much as they are by our mind’s expectations of what we are to do with them.
Lustig studies time-related expectations within our heads. Adams considers them outside of our atmosphere and Dua thinks about our society’s processing (of lack thereof) of time. SMTD professor Amy Chavasse’s concept of time manages to embody each of these ideas through physical movement.
“Considerations of time, both in length, and rhythm and speed, shape and influence my dance -making and -viewing activities,” she wrote in an email to The Daily. “Manipulating perceptions of time in a single work is important to me.”
Chavasse has a point. Time manipulation is, in essence, the basis of movement. How quickly or slowly do we pick up our feet and move them across the sidewalk? How fast do we wave our hands in the air and shake our heads no? The timing of our motion speaks volumes about our intentions for and interpretations of the world around us. More than anyone, dancers are acutely aware of this fact.
“As a young and early career dance-maker,” Chavasse wrote, “I recall feeling overly influenced by time as I made a new dance. Now it seems like I go into the process with a wide open, boundless, and borderless sense of time — with a less urgent grasp of temporality.”
This is a recurring theme for Chavasse: letting go of time. Dancers, especially student dancers, often feel restricted by time constraints. She calls this the “dance recital mentality,” — that is, measuring the success of choreography by the minutes it accrues on a program. But that’s harmful to creativity, Chavasse argued.
“Time is not a commodity for under-capitalized communities … Often this becomes evident when we compare mainstream dances made in the U.S. to those made in Europe or outside this country — a product of art being more financially and institutionally supported in other countries,” Chavasse wrote.
In letting go of the need for control over time, “ideas percolate and grow and manifest,” both in the time taken to physically create and the length of those final creations.
Through that percolation, dancers gain the ability to explore manipulations in time through their own bodies’ movements. “When we generate movement material,” Chavasse wrote of her dance composition classes, “we often deliver movement at a comfortable pace.” That is, without the challenge of making something exceptionally fast or slow. “I often find myself asking students to cultivate a more sensitive relationship to time, by noticing the ‘rate of change, or division of time’ — how a movement idea is presented, how it is discarded and how it appears next to a contrasting movement idea,” Chavasse wrote. Consider, for example, a competitive dance from NBC’s World of Dance analyzed alongside a piece by Meredith Monk or Eiko and Koma. The latter two, Chavasse wrote, are “characterized by a glacial evolution and examination of a movement idea.” When juxtaposed with the speed and flash of NBCWoD, we can begin to grasp the range of time under which dance will operate.
“Sometimes I’ve heard that we are influenced by the rhythm of the heartbeat,” Chavasse wrote. Will that rhythm change based on how quickly our chest beats, how quickly we move and how much we choose to breathe? Perhaps.
“Time for a dancer or dance maker is measured in exhaustion,followed by revival and renewal,” Chavasse wrote. “Adding stops and stillnesses shapes the language of movement, even though the measurements are artificial.”
There lies the essence of time in dance: an intersection between practicality and poetry. A study of time, surrounded by time.
I originally wrote this article for The Michigan Daily. It was published on Thursday, March 19th, 2020