Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… – Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

Imagining life outside of time

Dr Carl Sagan

Whenever the topic of multidimensional existence comes up, which is for me surprisingly often, I always remember how Dr Carl Sagan described it in his Cosmos television series. He described in terms of a two-dimensional creature imagining a three-dimensional universe. From what I recall he referred to this as “Flatland” – as you would.

This is a useful analogy and has helped me to visualise many spatial problems I’ve encountered in my professional life.

I’m currently writing a novel length piece of fiction in the alternative history genre. And being a little pedantic about such things I felt the need to theorise about how the entity, who was the catalyst for this version of the universe, lived.  And, to this end, I’m using a similar analogy.

We three-dimensional creatures may be able to move through our universe at will but there are physical limitations. It is not like we can move/jump to any point on our planet in an instant, let alone move about the universe. For me living in Australia to jump to the UK takes time and effort in both physical and monetary terms. Similar limitations should apply to an entity living in three-dimensional + time (3D+t) universe i.e. it can only move so far on a whim. Greater movement would require a corresponding increase in effort and patience.

And also, the faster I choose to travel about this three-dimensional universe there is a corresponding increase in risk to my three-dimensional body. So I expect that a similar increase in risk would apply to a creature jumping about in a 3D+t universe.

Taking this analogy a step further, each time I travel to London I don’t run into myself;  it is a different London – irrespective of how precisely I attempt to position myself in the exact spatial location. Many people have speculated that with each decision we make a new parallel universe springs into existence. I don’t think reality will be… is anything like this. There is not a new London, it is just a different one. So the 3D+t entity can visit a new time/place that it has visited previously but it doesn’t “run into” itself.

A few conundrums to end this post for now:

If a 3D+t entity lives outside time, then can it ever have a first time?

Every moment that ever was is now. Or, when each intersection of a moment in a place occurs, it is gone forever and exists only in our memory e.g. the 3D+t entity could remember being at this time/place but that is as close as it gets to “running into” itself.

How long is now?


Once again I’m drawn to the question of “How long is now?”

Now is a moment, each of them stacked in my memory; their weight affects me either as an anchor – holding me stable, or others with a kinetic energy that keeps me moving towards a goal or destiny.

Each moment of intersection between time and place that passes is gone forever and only exists because we have our memory.

Without memory there is only now.

What about some lesser animals that live predominately by instinct. They would have less put away – just enough to help them survive until the next breeding cycle, or long enough to nurture their offspring to maturity or independence – never looking further forward than their next meal; their next breath; their next heartbeat; their next thought.

Watching simple creatures like this would be f-ing boring so imagine its excitement when it discovers creatures who plan, and learn, and care about their role in the place they inhabit? It would try to help them, let them know it is here, that it exists.

Communicating across time

Ice BarrierThe human mind is strongly rooted to the time of our formative years and communicating clearly with people whose mind is stuck in another time can be fraught with misunderstanding. There is some barrier that separates us and this barrier is further clouded by blind faith and religious doctrine, making the lucid transfer of ideas and concepts sometimes impossible. Even communicating with others from the same time is difficult; some unnatural barrier separates our minds.

Not everyone’s mind suffers this in a constant manner. A person’s training, whether in the martial arts, Zen, philosophy, or theoretical studies, can help to uncover a mind’s latent ability to communicate across this barrier and see more clearly. In some extraordinary individuals this ability is naturally evident and the power of their mind is perceptible through their writing alone, lingering like the low pitched hum of a bass string long after their death. Sometimes when I read I feel this sound, in the back of my head as it oscillates some hidden segment of my consciousness in attempt to release it from its binds.

I often struggle against a feeling of contempt at some people’s limits in this regard and when I find no echo or response to my attempts to communicate a sense of isolation hangs like a lead shot weight in my belly. Othertimes I find myself treating people like this in a condescending manner and avoid topics or discussions their minds cannot handle safely; just like we do with children—protecting their young minds from seeing or hearing things that could scar them. Unfortunately most people’s minds will not grow up and they will remain like Peter Pan; stuck in Neverland…and never able to reach their full potential.