Time, as a symptom of love

September 5, 2017

How do we deal with the passage of time? I'm not sure that anyone has yet come up with the perfect method. The seeds for this story were planted long ago, when I read Guy Deutcher's amazing book, The Unfolding of Language, and I'll admit that I cribbed a lot of the ideas directly from the source. In one of his chapters, Deutcher points out that Einstein wasn't the first person to notice the connection between time and space; that actually every single language utilizes spatial metaphors to account for time. With my physics background, I knew that Deutcher could have taken things one step further: Einstein specifically defined our concept of time using the movement of objects in space. 

 

Time, according to physicists, is what you measure on a clock. And clocks are physical objects, always requiring the passage of some thing over a distance. To me, this suggested that even Einstein's definition of time was nothing more than another metaphor, a way of analogizing time using space. I had to check with a few physicists that this was correct (and let me tell you, it's a really hard question to pose and have physicists understand; more than one didn't get what the hell I was trying to ask) but I eventually got some sort of confirmation from Thomas O'Brian of NIST, who provides the article's only direct quote. 

 

Around the time I was conceiving of and writing this piece, my maternal grandmother died. My brothers and I had to fly to Israel to help my mother take care of the funeral arrangements and I was left to think about what precisely I was trying to say with this article about physics and metaphor and language. I was also listening heavily to Joanna Newsom's newest album, Divers, in which she talks about time and love and loss. In one song, a time-traveling war hero protagonist comes to see that time is taller than space is wide. In another song, Newsome declares: love is not a symptom of time/time is just a symptom of love. And so one night, there in my ancestral homeland, I realized that the theme of this piece is that nobody quite understands time. All of us, physicists, poets, and laypeople alike, are merely grasping at something slightly above our comprehension. As to what time really is, we cannot yet say. 

 

The Strange Connection Between Einstein, Time, and Linguistics

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