I have just finished reading Carlo Rovelli’s ‘The Order of Time’ which, as well as being a fantastic read, has helped me think about my own thoughts on time and in particular, the idea of trying to see the past as if it were the present.
Rovelli takes the reader on a journey from what might be termed a ‘common perception of time,’ to one that is much more strange. He describes how time moves at different rates depending on where you are. Time moves more quickly at the top of a mountain than it does on the ground – although you would need an extraordinarily accurate and precise timepiece to measure it. There is the question of what is ‘now’ – the present. The present is local (in terms of the universe) and that locality can be measured by taking the minimal length of perceived time (e.g. 1/10 of a second) and multiplying it by the speed of light. In our case, that is still a very big space, but in terms of the universe it of course very small. He then talks about entropy; that it is entropy which truly distinguishes the past from the future; the difference between order and disorder. For example, if you have a box of 12 red and 12 green balls and the red balls are on one side and the green on the other, then the contents of the box can be termed ‘ordered’ – there is low entropy. If you stick your hand in the box and move the balls around then the balls become disordered and entropy is greater. Of course, what constitutes ‘order’ depends on the variable we use to describe the system – the contents of the box. If the red and green balls are also numbered 1-24, then it might be that the balls are disordered in terms of their colour but that their numbers are running in sequence and therefore ordered.
Anyway, what has all this got to do with me and my work?
The past is perceived as more ordered whereas in the present, entropy is greater – things are more disordered. One of the words I’ve often used to describe my thinking is ‘presentness’ or ‘nowness’ – that is, how can we see an event in the past as if it were the present and thereby establish empathy with those who are now anonymous and who lived through such an event? Having read Rovelli’s book and watched him on YouTube, I realised that our idea of the past – history – is an ordered view of time; a place of low entropy. We see the past as a succession of ordered events with beginning and ends. Henry VIII was born on 28th June 1491 and died 28th January 1547. We know about key events in his life which we can read about in countless books and the same is true for many others. For others the facts are less well known, but even with my own family history, I know, for example, that Samuel Borton, my 6th Great Grandfather was born in Oxford in 1706 and died in 1768. There is an order to his life but of course there was much more to his existence than his birth and his death; there were all the bits in between. I know that he ran the Dolphin Inn which stood in St. Giles from which he ran a coach service to London. I know he 9 children and that his parents were Richard and Mary. But that, along with a few other details are all I know. It is a very ordered (and, of course, limited) view of his life.
What I’m interested in are the people who came into his tavern; the faces he knew well along with the strangers. I like to think about the conversations he had, the weather outside the window. I like to imagine what the inn looked like, the smells and the sounds. In effect, what I’m doing is taking my ordered view of his life and shaking it up – disordering it; introducing a higher degree of entropy.
Thinking back to the fact that our view of a system depends on the variable we are using to describe it (the green and red balls, the numbered balls), does reimagining the past as if it were the present require a different variable?