Capturing Time and Space
We continue the Story of how we human beings have progressively separated ourselves from the Cosmos and the Environment by looking this month at the next two chapters of Jo Marchant’s book The Human Cosmos, entitled Time and Ocean.
We have noted that by the beginning of the Middle Ages there were three broad ways in which we human beings related to the Heavens and the Cosmos, at least within the Roman Empire as it began to fall apart.
Institutional Christianity had taken over from the pagan religious traditions and presented a sense of personal relationship with the Creator characterised by covenant and relationship. Unlike the pagan traditions this did not include a sense of personal relationship with ‘the world around us’ which had been created ‘out of nothing’. It has long been recognized that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo adopted by the Church had a significant role in our developing conception of our Selfhood. Our existence as creatures with ‘souls’, that can say ‘I am’, implies a separation from creation that reflects the Creator’s complete separation from the world He had made ‘out of nothing’.
A sense of more personal connection with the Cosmos continued in astrology that flourished one way or another right up until the modern period, when it was trumped by modern science. However it still mediates a particular sense of relationship with the Cosmos for many people to this day. Our fate is written in the stars; people looked to the Cosmos not for its sake but for theirs.
The third way was in the mathematising of science that had begun with the Babylonians in looking at the heavens, and had been adopted in turn by the Greeks. Here human mind was beginning to be projected onto the Cosmos in a language (mathematics) that allowed the rational manipulation of its elements that in turn allowed prediction which could then be validated or not by further observation or experimentation. It is this gradual bringing of the Cosmos and the environment, and our lived experience generally, under the impulses and machinations of the human mind that is the main thread of our Story, with its denouement in our own times in the stand off between Einstein’s Relativity theory and the Quantum mechanics.
Jo Marchant’s chapter ‘Time’
tells the story of why and how the monks of Medieval Europe chased down time, and how in doing so they transformed humanity. Until this point in history, time was a sign of the divine cosmic order, as shown to us through the cycling motions of the sun, moon and stars. The invention of mechanical clocks unleashed a very different kind of time, powerful enough to weaken our bond with both God and the universe, and set the foundations for a new way of life. 83
...what governed the monks’ daily existence, perhaps more than anything else, was an obsession with time. Day and night were divided into strict time slots, filled with rounds of study and manual work punctuated by regular, communal prayers. This ‘temporal discipline’, as Harvard historian David Landes describes it, distinguished western Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. In Judaism and Islam, as well as the eastern Christian churches, daily prayers were conducted according to natural cues such as sunrise, noon and sunset. But in western Christianity, especially monastic Christianity, there was a growing focus on regularity and punctuality. 85
The new interest in time and how to measure it brought forth many inventions, such as water clocks, and clocks run by weights, but
The crucial breakthrough was to add an oscillating device – called an escapement – that alternately blocked and released the moving train of wheels, so that the weight fell in controlled, regular drops. It was, says Landes, ‘among the most ingenious inventions in history’. Instead of trying to measure time as a continuous flow, an escapement divides it into regular beats – the ‘ticks’ of a clock – which can then be counted. (87)
Time was beginning to be digitalised, a process enhanced by Galileo’s pendulum clock on land, and the chronometer at sea.
By the fourteenth century this mechanisation of time linked forces with another projection of mind onto the Cosmos, the building of mechanical models of the Universe as it was then understood. The earliest extant attempt to do this dates to before Christ, found by chance in a ship wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, which gave its name to this extraordinary device.
Originally held in a wooden case roughly 30 centimetres high, the Antikythera mechanism had a large bronze dial on the front which showed the varying movements of the sun, moon and planets in the sky…… In other words, it was a portable cosmos; a universe encapsulated in mechanical form. 88-89
The desire to mechanically represent the Universe did not die with the Antikythera, but particularly surfaced in Western Europe in the 12th Century.
They wanted to make a miniature cosmos that would turn itself. Such a model, said Bacon, would be more valuable than the treasure of a king, for it would hold the secret of the workings of the universe. So when the inventor of the escapement first sliced up time just a few years later, the implications reached far beyond improving the accuracy of prayers. Two great mechanical traditions – timekeepers and astronomical models – were about to collide. 89-90
So began the European tradition of great clocks that also mechanically mimicked the Universe. It began in the institutional Church but soon also appeared in town squares as the whole population began to be think of time mechanically.
The introduction of equal hours reinforced the process of secularisation by cutting ties with the monastic schedule, as well as starting to detach timekeeping from the seasonal patterns of the sun. Hour-striking meant that everyone within earshot became aware of time not just as a series of intermittent bells, but as a regular, cumulative process throughout the day. And as time became more accurate, it was also less negotiable. Life was increasingly ruled not by events or natural cues, but the inexorable march of the clock. 94
With the malleable flow of lived experience now chopped into regular, measurable pieces, people also started thinking in a more mathematical way…. The switch from seasonal to equal hours encouraged the concept of abstract measures – a standardised unit that exists in itself – something that was vital for growing bureaucracy and trade…..Quantity was no longer simply one indication of value but its very definition. From the striking of the hours emerged the economic seeds of our modern way of life….First, from building astronomical clocks that modelled the cosmos, it was a short step to suggesting that the universe was itself like a clock…..The idea of the universe as a kind of machine, governed by predictable rules, dates back to antiquity, but in medieval times the endlessly beating escapement of astronomical clocks made the concept irresistible. 96
But by the seventeenth century, philosophers such as René Descartes had pushed the metaphor to its logical conclusion, arguing that not just stars and planets but animals too are simply automata: mechanisms driven by predetermined rules, like the Strasbourg cock... Only humans were different, because of an added ‘soul’. 97
The driving force of the universe was no longer God’s love but cause and effect; to understand something, it had to be explained by a physical mechanism. According to the philosopher and science historian Stephen Toulmin: ‘Any seventeenth-century scientist who was satisfied with less was reproached by his colleagues, as invoking “miracles” and “occult qualities”.’ This ‘mechanisation’ of the universe was what finally made astrology unacceptable, and laid the foundation for all future scientific thought. Meanwhile, following the general shifts in attitudes to time among wider society, clocks also transformed scientists’ ideas about the nature of time itself. 97
Crucial to Newton’s thinking about motion was the idea of absolute space and time: together forming a mathematical grid, essentially, upon which the actual objects and movements of the cosmos are superimposed. He separated time from the sun’s motions, for example, introducing the notion of ‘true and mathematical time’, which ‘flows equably without relation to anything external’. 98
...the idea of regular, absolute time, existing independently of the sun, became common sense…. The idea of time as an independent, abstract flow is so self-evident, we find it hard to imagine it any other way. 99
In 1967, scientists formally severed the link between time and the heavens when they redefined the fundamental unit of the second. Traditionally determined by the Earth’s rotation as 1/86,400 of a day, the second is now described in terms of a specific number (over 9 billion) of oscillations of the caesium atom. 99-100
The social and philosophical changes inspired by mechanical clocks helped to create the scientific worldview that defines modern western society, as well as driving the breathtaking economic and technological advances that propelled Europe out of the doldrums of the Middle Ages and allowed it to dominate the planet. Meanwhile these self-turning machines caused one more fundamental split with the universe that we inhabit. Time is now embodied not in the cycles of the cosmos, but in our ever-more accurate clocks. 101.
In the next chapter ‘Ocean’, Jo Marchant recounts how Space has also been gradually captured by human mind. She does this by comparing the work of James Cook in his visits to the Pacific, and in particular to Tahiti, to track the passage of the planet Venus across the sun, and the ways and means of the Polynesians that he found there. Cook exemplifies western scientific humanity and our gradual implementing of measuring devices that first imposed latitudes upon our picture of the planet, and subsequently the much harder to determine longitudes, which eventually led to our GPS devices of today, devices that are no longer dependent on the stars and the planets to navigate ourselves but on the satellites which we have ourselves placed in the heavens. The Polynesians on the other hand, whose capacity to navigate the Pacific is legendary, relied only on their sense of real relationship with the world around them and the Cosmos; ‘songlines’ on the Ocean.
We have always relied on the sun and stars to pin down not just time but place; for most of human history, knowing where we are on the planet has been inseparable from knowing where we are in the cosmos. 105
Unlike western navigators, Polynesian sailors had no instruments or charts: no telescopes, sextants or lunar tables. How could they possibly have reached the islands over such great stretches of open sea? 114
Cook was open to the idea that the Polynesians really had voyaged across the Pacific, travelling from island to island, ‘with the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night’. 115
Navigators created complex memory maps using chants, stories and dances, mixed with visual metaphors – such as the diamond-shaped Southern Cross as a ‘great triggerfish’ – as well as religious beliefs. 117
Whereas Cook used accurate astronomical observations to calculate his position from tables and charts, his Polynesian counterpart would have relied instead on assimilating a complex web of sensory cues, memories, stories and beliefs. As French archaeologist Anne Di Piazza puts it, this is navigation not as a sum of knowledge, but as ‘a way of being and of conceiving the world’. 117-118
The first people we know of to impose mathematical features onto maps were, not surprisingly, the Babylonians, who introduced both scale and orientation into sketches of local areas of land. The Greeks, though, were first to chart the entire globe. 118
Although many aspects of Polynesian navigation are still poorly understood, a key concept is that of etak, or ‘moving island’ navigation, in which a sailor thinks of his canoe as being stationary throughout a journey, while the surrounding water and islands flow past. 119
But a voyaging Polynesian remains absolutely at the centre of his cosmos, following the stars as the ocean changes around him. He works out his position not by imagining distance travelled on a map, but by calculating the bearings to relevant islands relative to his current position, even when he can’t see them. 119
Unlike a western map, on which islands ‘hold positions which are defined absolutely’, they argue that the centre of Tupaia’s map is a ‘subjective coordinate’, which depends on the position of the person reading it. 120 (Tupaia was an elderly Polynesian that Cook befriended and took with him when he left Tahiti. He was a master navigator the Polynesian way)
By drawing lines of longitude and latitude around our planet, we changed our relationship with the space that we inhabit. The medieval mappae mundi were crammed with not only places but people, creatures and events, both real and mythical. Time and space were blended; the prominence given to each location depended on its perceived importance; scenes were painted as they would appear to the human eye. With the switch to Ptolemaic maps, this moral and historical framework was replaced by a mathematical one. 120
The new charts – compiled according to astronomical observations – were constructed to represent not a human viewpoint but a geometric projection, and were proportioned not according to myth or whim but a regular scale. In other words, they treated each location equally, as a simple pair of coordinates, regardless of its cultural significance. It’s a change that seems natural and obvious today, but it had fundamental implications. Our subjective experience of the world was no longer the ‘truth’. Reinforced by the discovery that Earth is not at the centre of the cosmos, what these maps ultimately implied was the existence of a deeper, objective reality, a terrain that could only be accurately revealed once personal beliefs and impressions were stripped away. 120-121
In the seventeenth century, Descartes carried this concept to its conclusion when he described how to use numerical coordinates (now known as ‘Cartesian coordinates’) to describe not just locations on a map but geometric shapes and lines – essentially leaving the physical universe behind and creating new realms of purely mathematical space. No longer defined by the physical places and events that fill it, space now stretches out regardless, according to a uniform, mathematical grid. 121
In other words, just as we have abstracted time, and God, we have also abstracted place. This Cartesian view, in which we move between fixed, objective points, underlies modern science and has led to breathtaking technological advances. The charts and instruments used by European explorers allowed their ships to conquer the Earth. We’ve since taken that approach to exquisite heights. We use ever-more sophisticated technology to navigate not just over the ocean but across the solar system, while fleets of artificial satellites (fitted with atomic clocks) have replaced the stars, allowing us to track positions on Earth to within a few feet. With GPS information now routinely beamed to cars and phones, we can find our location without even looking out of the window, let alone up at the sky. 121
The more we rely on computers instead of our physical experience, the more we erode our own awareness and skills. 122
the invention of abstract space was one more step in our journey from a subjective view of the universe to an objective one, from being inextricably entwined with – even creators of – the cosmos, to becoming recorders and observers of an independently existing reality. 122
Yet instead of discarding their experience of the cosmos, Polynesian navigators maximised its potential in order to explore millions of square miles of ocean. A mix of stories and songs, senses and instinct, enabled them to achieve – without technology – feats of navigation that as westerners we can barely imagine. 122
I am writing this on the day the IPCC released its latest report on the climate situation Planet Earth is facing. It has been written by a large body of scientists from around the world and is hoped to help set the stage for the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year. It is likely to be met by every imaginable response, from outright denial to genuine concern.
Some of our best people will say again, ‘if we would all only listen to the science’. Indeed, but one of the things to be gained by studying Jo Marchant’s book, and others like it, is to warn us against thinking science is the answer. We need to ‘know the story’ of the rise of modern science, and how for every triumph of the scientific mind and every great invention that has come from it, we have separated ourselves further from a sense of felt relationship with the Cosmos and the immediate world around us. We have gained much but much more importantly we have lost much also. What we have lost is real relationship with the world around us. We no longer know how to listen to it and allow it to reveal itself to us. We have imposed ourselves upon the planet and are not even very aware of the hubris this entails. We are now seriously out of kilter with the very biosphere that formed us. If we cannot address this issue, all the science in the world will not help us. The crisis we face is a spiritual one, and for this science is no help other than providing the technical means to contain and control us, as is happening now in places like China, something none of us wants.
So the cameo between James Cook and the Polynesians is a good one to reflect on. It parallels our relationship now as modern Australians with Indigenous Australians. Can we find the humility to learn from them, genuine humility that comes from the heart?