26 April 2007

Chocolate Time

(First published in ANZAPA)

April is the cruelest month.”1 April is the month that brings me three good excuses to visit the local chocolate factory outlet. They sell very nice chocolate there so an excuse to go there is not to be turned down. The first excuse is my bookgroup's meeting is held at my house, so I might as well give the other members an excuse to indulge, too. This is followed, a week or two later, by Easter. We go to interstate to see my family, then, and as long as we're going to be eating chocolate we may as well have the good stuff and I like to take them plenty. Then, at the end, it's my saner half's birthday, and he likes to have a party and invite people around.

Three of my best annual excuses for chocolate all crammed into the one month.

What makes it worse is that April also heralds the cooler months. It is much easier to consume chocolate in the
cooler months after summer.

Ah, the cycle of the seasons. Our internal rhythms. The passage of time.

At our local coffee shop a small, mint chocolate is served with the coffee. Looking about for something else to think about, I consider one of the Dali prints which graces the walls there. The print is of a floppy watch exploding apart. The numbers are flying off the face and the springs are springing out. Stirring my coffee, I get the feeling I could understand something really important if I looked at the picture long enough, that I almost know what time is. Not what time it is on my watch, or the clock hidden away on one of the walls, but what this time that is being measured actually is. Maybe Dali knew what it was in his subconscious when he painted the painting. Maybe he didn't know, but thought it might come to him if he painted the picture. Maybe he had no idea at all but thought that someone else might be able to pull the idea out of the picture and take it a step further if he could only put this part of it before them.

One of my favourite things about Science Fiction is the interplay between the arts that makes the weird and incomprehensible slowly appreciable, in bite-size pieces, to such puny Human brains as mine. A writer tries to write about things beyond our senses or our ken, an illustrator tries to make a picture of it, another writer tries again with words. If it isn't already in the language of maths or physics, it soon will be, and sooner or later one of the artists is going to create the bridge that makes it possible for people like me to be aware of its existence. True understanding might be another matter, but sometimes it's wonderful enough just to know that there are people out there who can think things like that.

Master Three is, meanwhile, delighting in recognising the numbers in the picture.

It's a pizza,” one of the coffee shop ladies says of the clock in the picture, and laughs. She loves to laugh. “We say its a pizza.” She likes to get all her customers, especially Master Three, laughing too. While she chats to him, I reflect that finding the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is probably not the wisest thing to do while sitting in a small coffee shop. In The Hitchhiker's Guide..., it's an activity that brings an end to the Earth.

In a shop window across the road there is a shop that currently sells clothes. In its window is a dress that's my colour but not my size. I decide to save the mint chocolate for my saner half.

Faith that art can bring the fantastic on home to us aside, I decide to search through my saner half's, books at home. It is unfortunate that most of them are still in boxes out in the shed and will be until I finish painting the room in which we are going to put the bookshelves when we get them. The problem with that is that the existing paint is old and flaking and has to be removed before anything else can be done. This is a slow and discouraging process and it is also the reason I went down the street with Master Three for some respite at the coffee shop in the first place. Somewhere out in the shed, among the dust and spiders, is a copy of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which I bought years ago because I liked the title but never read.

However, a fairly recent copy of Scientific American2 has a special segment on time, the measurement of time and the nature of time. There is plenty of information on the measurement of time, but not so much on what time is. It's comforting to know that even the experts don't know. Saint Augustine is reported to have said that he knew perfectly well what time was, until someone asked him, upon which he found he could not explain it at all.

I like Saint Augustine. He's the one who prayed, “Lord, grant me moderation in all things – but not yet.” Paul Davies thinks St Augustine's sense of knowing what time is comes from an innate awareness we are all supposed to have of time's flow3, but with the impact of Dali's painting still on me, I am not so sure. St Augustine might have meant exactly what he said. Lost in my reading, I have no idea how much time has passed and, on looking up, I have to study the look of the day and the time on the clocks because I have lost any sense of time I might have had.

Nevertheless, some scientists think that Humans do have a time organ4, but all it does is sense the passage of time, or possibly regulate our body clocks in which case it might hold the key to immortality or maybe just make us feel like things are lasting forever.

The evolution of Humans has taken a number of twists and turns pursuing the somewhat limited goal of surviving long enough to reproduce. Maybe, once upon a time, there were a number of different kinds of intelligent apes co-existing, and these might have had different kinds of intelligence. For one kind, the survival strategy might have been to recognise patterns in the world and across time; following certain tracks leading to a source of meat, avoiding others that would lead to becoming meat. Way back in the mists of time someone, let's call her Eve, got fascinated by a fruit tree. There had been, let's say apples, on it, and she was pretty sure there had been apples on it before and that if she came back to it after the hot season again, apples would be there again. Maybe she went there every day to see if she could catch it happening. Maybe she was really a scientist.

What's with the apples?” Adam wanted to know. She tried to explain. He knew, she told him, about the sun going up and down, he knew about the seasons coming round and round, and look, this tree had apples on it, and never grew any fruit but apples. In the end, she showed him, and it was a great revelation to him. He looked at that apple and saw the whole world in its shiny, red skin. He saw that because things went round in circles you could come back to them. Or you could decide not to. You could even decide to make them work better by keeping the birds away. With so many choices suddenly before him he forgot, for the moment, about the worms.

Meanwhile the kids, Cain and Abel, were getting up to mischief. Abel had given up on going out hunting and decided to keep the animals nearby instead, which required a bit of patience but nowhere near the hard work and danger of hunting because he only kept the safe herd-type of animal. Everyone thought this was really clever and they gave him a Nobel prize for increasing their life expectancy. Cain tried to put his mother's research to practical use and invented farming, but since the gathering of fruit and grains was, in those days, women's work, the hairy hunters around him failed to be impressed. Fed up, Cain realised that clubs could be used for killing people as well as animals. Unfortunately, although the sun rises and sets, and the seasons come round and round, and although crops die and grow again, not so brothers. Abel stayed dead.

It only took a moment for Abel to die. The consequence was out of all proportion to it, lasting forever.

Still, the idea of herding and farming caught on and many people did both, although some were a bit confused and thought that killing someone was what made it all work5.

Memory plays an important part in the growth of civilisation, the remembrance of past events that making it possible to extrapolate to the future. Consider the predicament of the goldfish who, having a memory span of only three seconds, can't remember why it is swimming so fast but, when it decides to slow down, gets swallowed. On the other hand, a memory span of only three seconds is probably both a mercy and an advantage in a life confined to a goldfish bowl.

It is possible that Humans have some sort of time organ, but we don't see the future. We don't even see the past, we just remember bits of it, the bits that caused enough interest or adrenalin in our brains to become imprinted there. But we don't see time.

Nevertheless, an ability to see the future should have been a considerable advantage in the survival stakes. It would have been handy, back in the cave-dwelling days, if someone had been able to say, “I see a landslide coming, we'd better get out of here before we get smothered.” Then everyone could have got out and survived. Of course, this would only work if everyone had been a seer and could agree that a landslide was coming:

Yes, that's a landslide coming all right. Out we go everyone.”

However, evolution works in such higgledy piggledy ways that the members of any one tribe might have had different abilities of seeing the future. Thus, other responses to the landslide vision might have been:

That landslide won't be here for years, mate.”


That landslide's not going to kill us. That's the quake that opened this cave up for us in the first place.”


I'm still not forgetting the time your grandmother said she saw a landslide coming, and nothing happened. It was all on account of us kids kicking in a rabbit burrow. She was looking at the future of rabbits.”

To which the seer might have answered, “Don't knock the rabbits. There will come a time of famine when people will only survive because there are rabbits around to eat.”

Obsessed with rabbits, your grandmother was. If it was down to her, we'd have wound up speaking rabbit instead of the good, plain, Future English as we do.”

Stop shouting or you'll cause the landslide and all that'll be left of our modern, sophisticated lifestyle will be Pablo's paintings.”

Ah! So there's not going to be a landslide unless I shout, which I'm only doing because you said there was going to be a landslide. Paradox! That's what it bloody is!”

Sure enough, all the shouting caused a landslide that lead to the cave-in, the argument caused not so much by the paradox as by the Humans being social as well as independent animals and needing to have everyone's agreement on what they were seeing before they could act.

All this is supposing that people with precognition were seeing the future in snapshots much as our remembrance of the past, and were not being driven mad by it. They were not confused as to what they were seeing and they were not looking at some Lovecraftian indescribable indescribableness that their minds could not absorb.

It would be horrible to have a kind of precognition that the mind could support. Indeed, it might be more like a degenerative disease, leaving an old woman like the Delphi Oracle hobbling around in her cave, blind, because she could no longer see the difference between the past, the future and the present. She kept to the dark in the hope that the visions wouldn't trouble her eyes so much. It is ironic that her gift came from Apollo, the god of the sun, for she was forced underground to live with the snakes. For a while, before the gift, or the disease, completely took hold, she could communicate with others and make them understand what she saw. Then came a terrible conflict and an agony in her mind, for there cannot be both a fate that her clients are driven towards, and absolute and fixed future, and a divergence from that future brought about by choices they can make. Often she spoke to them in riddles. Often they met the fate they were hoping to avoid. Sometimes, taking her advice, they got the desired result. Not so for her. Whether their fates were fixed or mutable, she saw her own doom in the dark. In time, she wouldn't know the present from the past or the future, whether she was, for instance, hungry, or feeling an echo of past or future hunger. Her handmaidens have to care for her. When she dies, there is someone else to take her place, a handmaiden who has already seen how the god's gift goes.

The whole idea of precognition is presupposing that time is a block with a future to see as well as a past to remember. Maybe it is not.

When we visit the libraries I seek out some information on time. Children's reference books are good, that is to say, they are not too technical, which means that I can marvel at the kinds of knowledge out there without having to assimilate it all. Some of the books explain the different existing theories about time, such as the block theory, and the old paradox stories we're all so familiar with, and that Stephen Hawking thinks history is quite safe. Chaos and entropy get into it somewhere.

Some scientists are even taking the view that time is an illusion, that it does not really exist. That would certainly explain why we keep running out of it.

I haven't caught the train for a long time, but one day, when I do, I find that time still runs differently at the train stations. Nowadays it even runs differently on the one platform. The information screen above us gives the time that the train should arrive and the number of minutes left to wait. It says we have to wait four minutes, which is not a lot except that those minutes have already elapsed according to the station clock. The train is late. Then there is an announcement that the train is going to be late. Not that it is late, but that it is going to be late. The number of minutes it is going to be late is hardly a matter for stress, but I have always found it curious the way time runs differently at train stations.

The kids are getting edgy, though, each wanting to be the first to spot the train when it comes and jostling about too much. Searching my handbag for something to distract them, I find a collection of small, mint chocolates and give one each to them.