Representations: of Time

In Fall 2012, I’ll teach a course on “Representations” (ASHA 321) for the University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Arts and Science Honours Academy. The course description gives me the freedom to provoke thoughts about “issues, inconsistencies and flaws arising from the concept of representation.” Because the students are in both science and arts programs, I’m interested in texts that speak to a range of fields.

I’ve begun, then, by thinking about representations of time — and more specifically, about the convergence of multiple timelines on a present moment and observer. Here’s an example:

Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys

I’m a humanist, not an astronomer (as the eminent Leonard McCoy might say), but what I see here is the light from galaxies and stars that has travelled for varying millions and billions of years, converging on the Hubble telescope. The night sky is a sort of time machine, to borrow a familiar metaphor: we’re not looking at stars, we’re looking at light that started travelling toward us — and everywhere else — a really, really long time ago.

Aristotle taught us that light moved through space at infinite speed, that we see things exactly as they are right now. We now know, after Galileo, that it takes time. Even our own sun is eight light-minutes away; so if it disappeared suddenly, we’d all enjoy a last few minutes of ignorant bliss.

Here’s an interesting parallel representation:


Thanks to Darwin, a flock of birds isn’t just a flock of birds. On the Origin of Species teaches us that different species of finch, or turtle, or ant result from millions of years of evolution, of adaptation to different environments. The animal kingdom is the convergence of innumerable past events and timelines and causes, just like the night sky.

So how does this idea of fractured, causal timelines inform a reading list for a course? That’s the problem ahead of me, and my motive for writing this post. Clearly Darwin’s theory of evolution is central to the list, along with good science writing on the nature of time and observation, of light and dark matter. Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything is tempting because it’s so readable. I’m also looking through Metafilter‘s compilations of science writing. But I’d welcome any recommendations.

I also need recommendations of novels, particularly those from the past century or so that deal with the convergence of different pasts on the present, and perhaps with the indifference of those origins to present observers. I’d like something with characters who try to make sense of these pasts through inference and conjecture.

My graduate students yesterday recommended Julian Barnes‘s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I’ve ordered. Surely there are others. I’ll be very grateful for ideas.

One Response to “Representations: of Time”

  1. Roger Kuin

    Michael, I don’t know many, but there is a magnificent book by Paul Ricoeur called \Time and Narrative\ (Temps et Récit in French), which is by far the best thing I’ve read on the subject.


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