Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Time Will Tell: Julian Barbour's The Janus Point

Julian Barbour is the author of The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time (Basic Books, 2020).

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. But if I wish to explain it to him who asks the question, I do not know.”
– Saint Augustine, ca. 399 CE.

I’ve always been fascinated with time and the concept of time’s passage. Who isn’t? All right, I’ll even admit to being obsessed with time, but not in any detrimental or depressing way, just as on ongoing subject of dreams, contemplation, speculation, wonderment, awe, and as perhaps the most ideal subject for so many kinds of art, music and poetry. It’s at the very beating aesthetic heart of what the French critic Gaston Bachelard called the dialectics of duration. As a kid, I recall being quite certain that time doesn’t really move forward at all, from past to present to future, but rather backwards, filling the present with potential energy and emptying itself out in the past as the expended kinetic energy of history. Every kid knows that time must work backwards until it stops, since otherwise we’d be trapped in an endless loop going nowhere. Most kids, however, tend to grow up, I suppose.

I took this notion a little further, perhaps, as I recall at about the age of ten or so coming up with the rather novel notion that the mind I had then was the same mind I remembered having when I was four or five, simply with more accumulated experience and information, including an early encounter with that striking statement by St. Augustine as a novice altar boy in the Catholic school where I studied theology, among other things. So then, I postulated, why shouldn’t I be able to send ideas and messages from myself as a ten-year-old back to the same younger mind I had used as a five-year-old? I surmised that I understood time perfectly, but found it hard to explain the sheer profundity of my innocent comprehensive powers, especially to adults. 

That’s about the only thing I ever had in common with Augie, as we all called him. Later on, though, at about seventeen, I was more than ready to believe that I should still be able to transmit knowledge (presumably a priceless cargo of rich insights to which only lapsed altar boys who had embraced esoteric Buddhism had access) back to my younger receptive self. So I continued doing the seemingly ridiculous and audacious activity I had inaugurated as a dizzy ten-year-old and sat in what I imagined to be a transfixed state sending coded messages to my younger self. In fact, I continued engaging in such folly (as Erasmus would call it) even into my ensuing decades, convinced that by doing so I was changing the nature of reality which the successively aging versions of myself would be capable of experiencing. 

Basic Books, 2020.

Now, naturally such flights of fancy are both imponderable and impossible to verify, yet there’s one thing of which I am certain: in order to be able to receive such messages sent back through time, a person had to be foolish enough to believe that by continuing to do so, he would become the kind of person he was destined to become. In other words, if I stopped doing it, even later on as a supposedly mature and then even a senior specimen of such silliness, I would never be able to receive said messages . . . since who would they be coming from? And so it goes. Thus, imagine my surprise when I continued stumbling upon a succession of books over the decades, the latest of which is The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time by Julian Barbour, which all seemed to corroborate this youthful folly that time flows backwards and forwards at the same time, at least in our minds, or that it might not even need to exist at all.

The first of such books was one I discovered that was published in 1972: The Discontinuous Universe: Selected Writings in Contemporary Consciousness, a tome edited by Sallie Sears that mixed and matched a remarkable range of writers, artists, poets, and scientists who each speculated that the universe may not proceed along a linear timeline at all. Rather, the end of a story, or a film, let’s say, might just as easily take place at the beginning or the middle of the narrative, as disjointed as that might appear. Indeed, the twentieth century was laden with writers and artists who experimented with disjointed ways and means of perceiving the world in which their characters and narratives unfolded, the most drastic example of whom could be William Burroughs and the most recent David Foster Wallace.

But maybe it’s only disjointed because we’ve all been conditioned to believe that reality (something which quantum physics has since proven to be largely a fiction in the first place) is not only not continuous but actually might flow both forward and backwards along parallel tracks, or even occupy completely separate universes operating according to topsy-turvy rules and regulations, or even none at all. Chief among those deep thinkers was, of course, the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, who often appeared to speculate that the entire physical environment around us is being produced through our interaction with our minds and what appeared to us to be matter. All of which is instantly captured on the convoluted holographic carousel we ride upon, and which is driven by the dialectics of duration.

Before I really knew what hit me, I had begun to accumulate a large library of books about time, which is potentially the fourth or fifth dimension, depending on whom you consult, and the one which makes all the other domains of dwelling we inhabit possible in the first place. Or so it seems. And I never really searched for these successive tomes on time; they just magically appeared in my life, as if by what Jung called synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, at just the right time (pun intended) and in the right place. A Brief History of Time, by the incredible Stephen Hawking in 1988, might be the best-known of such books. But I was just as fascinated by outlandish science-fiction versions of the same subject, such as H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine, so much so that I’ve even watched the 1960 Hollywood movie version starring Rod Taylor, maybe about six or seven times now, with undiminished pleasure.

TarcherPerigee, 1999.

A more recent venture into this esoteric subject was offered in the last year of the last century by Jay Griffiths with the cheeky but quite accurate title of A Sideways Look at Time (1999). In it the author undertakes a provisional exploration of the origins of not so much of time per se as of our conceptions of and assumptions about time as a resource, a raw material, even a burden to be conquered or controlled. Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, summed up the Griffiths approach quite effectively: “In this highly original meditation on time, Griffiths exposes the political nature of the linear, mechanical and global time of industrial culture and contrasts it with the myriad ‘times’ embodied in nature’s processes, well known to indigenous cultures. This is a book that needs to be read slowly.” Her book also has the charm of capturing something implicit or inherent, what many of us may have felt but very few people have been able to put into words.

One of the best illustrations of what she differentiates as wild time versus measured time is encapsulated in her observation about Henri Bergson, one of the co-founders (along with Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty) of the philosophical school known as phenomenology, which seeks to find meaning (as in embodied meaning) solely in lived experience (as in haptic experience). It also indicates how possible it is for science to rhapsodize poetically and keep company with great literature while plumbing the depths (or the heights) of our rational knowledge about the world we inhabit. “The French philosopher Henri Bergson – who greatly influenced Proust – understood the sublime importance of the present moment (time is creation or it is nothing at all) and lived durations are not simply intervals but are the ‘very stuff of reality’. The sense of durée is to him a source of freedom, something to be plunged into, and time was an indivisible flow of experience.”

Griffiths’ work is almost as much about the history of our attempt to control time itself, as if we could eliminate the sheer incomprehensibility of duration by making it conform to numerical structures. “Classical physics wasn’t fond of flux,” she opined while bringing a distinctly feminist perspective to the conundrum, allowing for dissipative systems that maintain themselves in a stable state far from equilibrium. She thus references Coveney and Highfield’s The Arrow of Time (1992): “What has emerged from non-linear dynamics and non-equilibrium thermodynamics (chaos theory) offers a sophisticated reassessment of time, showing us that thermodynamics (loss of energy and order) can account for both linear and cyclic time.”

And it is cyclic time, a recurring and ongoing creation, which moves us closer to the fresh thinking about order to be found at the core of Barbour’s new book. In that respect, both Griffiths and Barbour are also in alignment with the great Sir Roland Penrose’s notion of a universe that keeps constantly dying and being reborn, having passed through multiple Big Bangs, not just one singularity, and that they each impacted both what came before and after their occurrence. The Nobel Prize winner, who is credited with discovering black holes and how stellar objects that become too dense undergo gravitational collapse into singularities, what he called points of infinite mass, also claims that not over but through time the universe will expand until all matter will ultimately decay into one black hole, and then a new Big Bang will bring a whole new universe into existence. He calls this notion conformal cyclic cosmology, and it too aligns with what Barbour identifies as the double-sided Janus point.

W.W. Norton, 2003.

More recently, and as further evidence of the curious alignment of art and science, poetry and physics, the late American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace created a huge challenge for himself: bringing mathematics and the concept of infinity to the masses. Best known, perhaps, for his difficult (and time-consuming) novel Infinite Jest in 1996, he returned to a favourite subject with his 2003 book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, part of the charm of which was not an abstract speculation on time per se but rather an exhaustive glimpse into the representation of the limitless in numbers. Many have found it daunting, myself included. However, in it he shares a profound appreciation for mathematics that seems to have first been founded by a university professor who first mentored him; and later nourished by the huge, albeit esoteric, influence of one Georg Cantor.  Cantor was the creator of set theory whose transfinite number series has been described as one of the most beautiful realizations of human activity in the domain of the purely intelligible.

Even though, as described by the editors of The Guardian Observer, “every page here violates Hawking’s law, the principle derived from editorial advice given during Stephen Hawking’s writing of his popular Brief History of Time that, since every equation used halves potential readership and they should be eliminated or strictly rationed,” Wallace’s blissfully short book still manages to evoke some of the certifiably crazy Cantor’s most obscure notions. Despite the elegant equations, which I passed over in a daze en route to Wallace’s exquisitely intricate prose sculptures, those same editors still critiqued it in rather blunt terms: “For all the difference it makes for the general reader’s understanding of the flinty abstractions of mathematics, he might as well be putting party hats on Easter Island statues.” What they failed to detect, perhaps not being fans of DFW’s noted accomplishments in the realm of novels and essays, was that that is precisely what Wallace was intending to do: he put party hats on Georg Cantor’s obsessions with infinity in a way that still succeeds, against all odds, as fine literature. (For readers interested in exploring Wallace, I wrote a piece in Critics At Large called “Infinite Regress: Writing About Writing and Not Writing.”)

Julian Barbour’s 2001 book, called The End of Time, could perhaps even have been titled either The End of Time As We Know It, or possibly The Beginning of Time As We Might Find It. Such are the puzzling questions that he sets in motion for us to consider, before reconsidering them once again in his latest tome. In The End of Time, which has an alternate edition title, The Next Revolution in Physics, Barbour steps into the puzzling waters explored so deftly (if inexplicably) by Albert Einstein when he remarked, “The distinction between past, present and future is mostly an illusion.” Barbour too maintains throughout that yes, time does actually exist, but only in the same way our other illusions also exist: as illusions.

The next revolution in physics, he suggests, will undermine speaking in terms of time but also that there is no alternative to doing so. If a universe is composed of timeless instants in the sense of configurations of matter that do not endure, one could nonetheless have the impression that time flows, Barbour asserts. The stream of consciousness and the sensation of the present, lasting only for only about a second, is all in our heads, literally. In our brains is information about the recent past, but not as a result of a causal chain leading back to earlier instants. Rather, it is a property of thinking things, perhaps a necessary one to become thinking in the first place, that this information is present. Barbour, much to my delight, even goes so far as to say that our brains are actually "time capsules."

Oxford University Press, 2001.

Barbour’s newest book, The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time, travels yet further into the esoteric realms of cosmology in a manner that is the most captivating and compelling I’ve yet encountered in the acres of paper I’ve explored on the subject. And this is so only in part because his findings seem to be in accord with my own fanciful reveries on the subject. Not from a technical standpoint, of course, but only due to his intriguing notion that there was not necessarily only one Big Bang before which there was nothing and towards which we are hurtling, but rather that that Bang was merely a single unique point on a timeline stretching backwards and forwards simultaneously, with two parallel universes constantly being created and destroyed at every moment. Past and future, he posits, pace Einstein, are really only multiple mirror images of perpetual presents which are all occurring at once.

Remember that cosmology (from Greek κόσμος, kosmos "world" and -λογία, -logia, "study of") is officially designated as a branch of astronomy concerned with the studies of the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future. It is the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe but it is also, strictly speaking, not mystical or even spiritual so much as simply the physical situation that is the context for our human existence. So Barbour’s use of the two-faced Roman god Janus is doubly tantalizing since he is referencing a classical symbol of beginnings, gates, transitions, thresholds, limens, times, duality, doorways, passages, frames and endings as a means of outlining his own remarkable quantum-like suppositions.

His book states this notion not only remarkably clearly but also in a surprisingly poetic manner, often pausing along the way to insert sonnets by Shakespeare, almost as if they were physics equations. And by the time he finishes his journey, the reader, in addition to being highly entertained and learning a great deal, has even become convinced that poetry is physics and physics is poetry. For instance: “Time is perhaps the greatest mystery in physics. Despite the fact that the fundamental laws of physics don’t really distinguish between past and future, we do. And so, for over a century, the greatest minds have sought to understand why time seems to flow in one direction, ever forward. But The Janus Point offers a radically new answer: it doesn’t. Most physicists believe that the increase in disorder described by the second law of thermodynamics forces an irreversible, unidirectional flow of time.”

Julian Barbour shows why that argument fails to hold water, and demonstrates instead that our universe isn’t heading for disorder at all, and that rather that it emerged from it. At the heart of his new vision of the Big Bang is that singularly mysterious moment from which time flows in two directions at once, its currents driven by the expansion of the universe itself and the growth of ever more order and complexity in the galaxies, planets, and all life itself. Therefore, Barbour’s proposal is much more than merely a new theory of time; it’s a more hopeful description of the destiny of the universe, with us along for the ride, since instead of inevitable decay (known as entropy and loss of energy all together) he suggests a future where disorder isn’t even necessary or required. Instead, he seems to be saying, order itself, which we can easily recognize as the phenomenon that makes life possible in the first place, might just continue growing without any bounds at all.

In his concise and even amusing introduction to these ravishing new ideas, called “Time and Its Arrows,” he points out that all discoveries, from Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler, to Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg, invariably involves an abrupt thinking outside the box: “Thus we too can think outside the box while still using what we learning from within it, suitably modified?” Indeed, by the end, I began to wonder if there ever even was a box to think outside of in the first place. Maybe we only imagined a box, which he outlines in his telling of how his ideas emerged: “An idea that came about almost by happenstance is that the Big Bang ceases to be an explosive birth of the universe, and with it, time. Instead it is a special place on the timeline of the universe, on either side of which the universe’s size increases. I call this special point The Janus Point."

And now meanwhile, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go recline on the couch and send a secret message back to my teenaged self in 1968, when I had just dropped the stylus onto the new Bob Dylan album John Wesley Harding, and I was listening to his moving tune “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” It just seems appropriate somehow. Especially since I definitely do seem to recall receiving my own transmission back then. And also because there are two things I know almost certainly to be true: the past has yet to arrive, and the future isn’t what it used to be.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020. 

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