Our understanding of the Universe is radically changing through a new generation of temporal and spatial visualization tools. The images of the cosmos brought back from NASA’s Hubble telescope, the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe (WMAP) and the Planck multi-frequency microwave all-sky survey help us visualize space and time in ways we never thought possible. At the same time, tools such as x-ray tomography and x-ray fluorescence imaging allow researchers to to decode ancient artifacts such as the Antikythera Mechanism and the Archimedes Palimpsest manuscript. Through this research we can now identify important details that have been lost to history for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. New details gleaned from these technology enhanced micro views redefine the way we understand ancient thought.
Throughout countless generations, the way we visualized natural information about the universe around us has shaped our conceptions of time. Now it is becoming ever more important to pull back the veil to discover ways in which humans have visualized time rather than simply reviewing the text-based historical record to understand their world views.
Exploring history through visual artifacts (i.e., the designs of pottery, textiles, architectures, manuscripts, instruments and their ornamental faces) can offer something valuable - a condensed, almost alternative view of history. This visual record surprisingly reveals perspectives that humanity has lost or thrown away – some that are not adequately represented by the “official” histories we have passed down from century to century.
By applying a Shape of Thought approach (an approach that focuses on the patterns and meanings that link ancient artifacts, emergent technologies, Nature’s geometry, and human cognition) to explore the nature of time, we will find a vastly different story than that we have told ourselves thus far. This new story of time is driven by visual language - thirteen carefully selected images of artifacts from specific periods in history. Each image is emblematic of specific ways in which humanity has understood the nature of time. We can re-vision history as we return to them once again with a set of new questions.
The word SynchroSentience captures the spirit of the “intersection” of time cycles. Each image in SynchroSentience I & II above unveils a story that crosses vast areas of the world and different periods in history. With this touchstone, we can think about time as a pulsing, overlapping, nested phenomenon. Imaging the dynamic moment where cycles intersect in longer scales of time can almost be called an art form. It allows us to see the intersections that create moments of potency.
Some images in SynchroSentience convey the underside of the history of time – stories that we have not listened to enough. These stories convey how folk arts and women contributed some of the most important pieces of knowledge that led to similar discoveries using our scientific instruments. They demonstrate the ways in which indigenous cultures experience time with a larger sensibility – how they still have much to teach us if only we would listen.
Walking through these images, we may broaden our conceptual vista of time. Perhaps we can begin to intentionally use our new visual languages to more effectively experience humanity’s place in the tree of life, our role on the planet and our understanding of the dynamics of the Universe in which we live. Let’s begin with the dance of Kairos and Chronos…
The Dance of Kairos and Chronos
Kairos and Chronos, both ancient concepts, characterize two vastly different ways of experiencing time. The ancient Greeks recognized two kinds of time - one is linear, quantitative - the other, a special temporal threshold that carries with it a profound experience. The Bible refers to Kairos time as “God time” – on a threshold. In classical and medieval periods, Kairos was linked to Lady Fortuna (the Wheel of Fortune), the goddess whose wheels turn in a random fashion, sometimes bringing fortune, sometimes grief. In the quantum world, two different times, very resonant with these ancient concepts of Kairos and Chronos are used: synchronic and diachronic time. These two types of time scales are both needed to understand that time is a spatial construction.
The diachronic trajectory is the path an object takes over a period of time – an interval, a duration, where change or evolution is experienced. Unlike diachronic time, synchronic time (like Kairos), is elusive – it’s a much more symbolic animal… a poignant overlap of two things at once, a potent time, a recurring cycle, like the date of Christmas, the month of Ramadan. Or for the Hindu Balinese, Kairos is expressed in their ritual calendar when the one-year, 10-year and 100-year cycles intersect and overlap, the Eka Dasa Rudra – when their most important pilgrimage to Mt. Besakih temple takes place – once every hundred years when the last generation has fully passed away the island spirit is reborn anew. When balance is restored.
Balinese “Mother Temple” Besakih at the foot of Gunung
Agung, Central Bali
Balinese “Mother Temple” Besakih at the foot of Gunung Agung, Central Bali
We mustn’t mess with synchronic time – it is the province of Gods, the sacred. It is luminous, diaphanous. It fleets. It never ends. It is spontaneous, enduring. It is inside moments of ultimate paradox – both embraced and revered, and mostly unexpected. One never plans for Kairos time, yet the context for its emergence can be carefully cultivated through the ritual process or in the act of poeisis. Kairos sings in the overtones of the pentatonic hues of the gamelan, holds the first light of sunrise in the vernal equinox, imbues the rapture of your first kiss, the brilliant visage in your newborn’s gaze, carries the endless weight of one last good-bye. Kairos is the infinite moment your life would never be the same.
Kronos… well, Chronos is the punch card, the alarm bells, the daily march – chronos belongs to computus, reckons the calendar, unwinds the cycles and lays them out in neat rows or gridlines, straightening them with a clean edged knife. Chronos is the alpha and omega, our religions’ linear path to end time scenarios, our scientists’ endless search to pinpoint the beginning of the universe, the first shudder of the Big Bang.
How can we once again return to Kairos time, write with a “kairos hand,” speak with a “kairos voice” – can we once again view time as a cosmic reenchantment? Visualizing time on grander scales is one way. But to get there we need to return and remember the importance of what ancient civilizations already knew. One threshold between the very ancient and classical worlds was the philosopher Plato, who codified the first Western geometric cosmology in Timaeus, a philosophy of time in The Republic, and a doctrine of recollection in Meno and Phaedo. As a diffusionist of ideas coming down from the Orphics and Pythagoreans, Plato was passing down a much more ancient understanding of Kairos time.
Anamnesis, a word first coined by Plato, is to remember “that which lies deep in the soul.” Plato’s philosophy was grounded in “metempsychosis” - the transmigration of the soul. He assumed we had many more memories deep beneath our everyday consciousness, that the soul carried with it these innate memories. Recalling Hesiod and Pythagoreans, Plato emphasized how the soul memory was washed out and forgotten in the rivers of Lethe before we enter a new life.
This concept of anamnesis could also be considered a great remembering of a generational soul, which allows us to retain our genetic memory: what generations before us have lived, learned and recorded. We have gained and lost huge chunks of history through wars, religious fanatacism and the systematic destruction of our hard-won knowledge. Through this, we built an edifice of chronos time and reckoned our calendars to fit the needs of the powers that be. The dogmatic adherence to chronos ushered in the amnesia of much that came before.
In an article titled “Mythologies of Memory and Forgetting,” the late Mircea Eliade takes us through the ancient art of memory to a new form of anamnesis – remembering and documenting our myriad histories. Eliade provocatively points out that our contemporary globalized world is beginning to open up to a new way of looking at the past - “historiography” - where we now have a new type of access to all cultures, across all time periods. He suggests we are immersed in a new project of anamnesis – that is, trying to piece together a much larger human mosaic of sorts, to “revive the entire past of humanity.”
Eliade’s assertion was made in the early 1960s before the singularity curve defined the way we use our communication technologies. However, Eliade sensed where we have come to, now that anybody can have access to any perspective of time. An average 10-year old has immediate access to the margins of history through the emerging linked data web.
From X-ray tomography to microblogs to Wikipedia, our indigenous histories, ancient scripts and reports from the leading edge of science are now laid out side by side, illuminated by our computer screens, handhelds, touch tables, IPads and augmented environments. A new lens widens the scope of our more expansive present moment. Hyperlinked and mashed up, new movies and image montages capture vintage futurism juxtaposed with our newest histories of the past.
Eliade described anamnesis as a tool for today. He encouraged us to return to ancient understandings in order to link them to the most our pressing contemporary problems. How can we effectively recover this lost history? We can do this by re-visioning humanity’s confluent histories. With SynchroSentience the stories behind these artifacts can be introduced in order to intuitively grasp the patterned memories within. In retelling time, let’s visually link our latest technologies and scientific understandings with a seamless thread, spinning this story from future to the past and back again to remember what we already know that has been forgotten.
I. Scaling Time
Today our scientists explore deep, cosmic time - the birth of stars, the geologic record and paleoclimate cycles. Our current nanoscale resonances are captured in the vibrations and microwave signals of today’s atomic clocks. But these clocks must still be continuously balanced for the lack of infinite precision that is the essential nature of universal time.
The fleeting incommensurability of time woos us, yet precision remains elusive. We remain confounded by the fact that time’s perfect measure cannot be captured by our instruments, however precise. Like the dichotomies of motion in Zeno’s paradox, even the next generation of quantum and optical clocks will not capture the paradoxical quality of perfect time without adding leap seconds and making adjustments on a regular basis. Such is the way of time.
Time, it seems, still has a greater story to tell. This story can now be told in the language of light and sound. As we look for beginnings, even our quantum physicists cannot agree on whether time is truly asymmetrical or whether there is symmetry to be found. Fotini Markopoulou Kalamara from the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics suggests that we need to get rid of space to have time. The arrow of time leads us to find that even our views of the Universe are too limited.
With the huge challenges faced by the planet, we as stewards need to conceptually expand our notion of time at this critical juncture in our history. We can do this with a confluence of new calendars, clocks and timelines such as NASA’s updated version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar and Cesare Emiliani’s proposed 10,000 year “Holocene Calendar”. But how quickly can we adopt these new tools and take the approach of the Long Now Foundation’s “Clock of the Long Now”? These represent a few ways we can quickly reframe our understanding of humanity’s tiny slice of time in a larger, cosmic framework.
Expanding our clocks, calendars and timelines in this way allows us to expand our contemporary dialogues around climate change, biodiversity, cultural exchange and globalization as we rapidly become planetary humans.
Visualizing longer historical arcs encourage us to create broader global narratives. Professor David Christian of the University of California, San Diego has developed a course called “Big History.” Christian’s Big History presents perhaps one of best frameworks that apply this thinking to the way we teach history. After over 20 years honing his interdisciplinary course at UCSD with physists, biologists, astronomers and ecologists, his Big History course has now been adopted in numerous universities throughout America and is available as a packaged video course.
Christian’s premise in Big History is to look at these larger timescales to understand the history of civilization in a more realistic landscape of time and space. The driving evolutionary forces that link humanity with the cosmos are complexity and emergence – both important dynamics behind the birth of a star to the birth of a cell. He identifies Eight Thresholds from the Big Bang to the modern revolution.
New visualizations of the geologic spiral (released in 2006) and the Geologic timescale “clock” (released in 2010) help us look at stratigraphic “deep time” in the history of Earth. Geologist James Hutton pioneered the scientific concept of deep time in the 18th century. Hutton observed a more expansive history in the layering of geologic strata and was the first offer proof that humans needed to think in geologic scales. Yet prior to Hutton, geologic time was recognized and discussed in the works of Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century and even earlier by 11th century, Arab polymath Avicenna and Chinese Naturalist Shen Kuo.
Now we have new visualizations of deep time that show scales in which the 2-million year quaternary period, the era where recognizable humans appear, is almost too small to be visible. In turn, these “maps” of deep time allow us to see humanity as a much smaller part of a larger evolutionary force. They engender a self-reflexive dose of humility as we step off our pedestal to accept a role of stewardship as part of a larger superorganism - Earth in a galactic community.
To see these larger arcs of time requires more dynamic visual media environments such as planetariums and immersive dome theatres. Some of the newest collaborations between artists, visualization technologists and scientists have enabled us to have new views of time as a matter of scale, moving from the astro to the quantum scale with seamless ease.
This has unleashed a new generation of animated visualizations of time: the newest version of the Digital Universe Atlas by Carter Emmart, AMNH and the Hayden Planetarium is the best example and the most updated version can now be experienced in planetaria all over the world.
Media artist David McConville, whose easily deployed inflatable GeoDomes by ELumenati dot the Earth, employs a unique approach in his rendition of the Digital Universe. Inside of his immersive media environments David’s artful narrative brings contemporary cosmologies together with ancient and indigenous understandings of space and time. Called “The Transcalar Imaginary” David’s ancient stories are immersed in powerful Universe imagery using the most recent Hubble data. Through this unique blend of immersive artistry, technology and narrative, David weaves his story of the birth and evolution of the cosmos with the birth of human cosmologies.
Another emergent visualization environment animates Earth, the solar system and the galaxy in long time spans. Infinitaas™ newly launched by Kevin Kelley, Rachel Bagby and the Metanoiaa Foundation evokes the music of the spheres in a luminous journey through time and space. It is new kind of “universal clock” – as Earth spins through space and time a new sensibility of a cyclic, nested system emerges. Viewers watch the calendar days and years tick away on spinning Earth as the moon’s orbit is speeded up. Infinitaas™ allows us to envision our planet’s path in space as luminous tendrils leave spiral trails, much like the unraveling of threads from a cosmic spindle.
With Infinitaas™ we are also able to envision the wobble of the Milankovitch cycles – precession, obliquity, and eccentricity, as they influence paleoclimate cycles through thousands of years. We watch the glacial advance and retreat near the poles of Earth in deep geological time. As Earth spirals outward, we see the tree of life grow and expand - branches of the tree bifurcate with new species, and shrivel as extinctions occur.
The evolutionary process is synchronized with Earth’s movement through space. The pulsing life of Earth begins to look like the Superorganism that we are soon to embrace - a larger spherical lifeforce within a series of nested ecosystems. Time is speeded up, then slowed according to the viewer’s desire, as nested time frames are made as easy to scale through as flying down to one’s local home in Google Earth, yet beyond what can be experienced in Google Sky.
Infinitaas™ evokes a brand new kind of experience of the cosmos in a dynamical framework, a new kind of Powers of Ten. The reference point of Earth in Infinitaas™ moves viewers into a larger galactic vision as the sun’s path in the spinning Milky Way is shown. Time frames widen and a new perspective is revealed. Kevin and Rachel describe the animated design conventions of Infinitaas™ as nothing less than a transformational tool - a way to:
… utilize the best contemporary science, poetic intelligence and interactive multi-sensory immersive technologies to create highly compelling art, products, services and experiences that will fundamentally transform human understanding of our place within the flow of existence and change our behavior on earth.
All of the animations and visualization tools described above tell us a different, larger story about time. Will these new visualizations of the past help us adopt a mindset that we have lost along the way? They may offer us a beautiful opportunity to show how different cultures throughout different time periods understood time, space the Universe and our place in it, without compromising the exactitude made possible by our latest scientific technologies.
Through the art of weaving science and myth, ancient cosmologies can be braided into an emergent multi-scaled story of life on Earth. These new forms of media will inspire us to become stewards within a much larger whole system of living systems. They will allow us to reach deeply back in history to go forward into a new perception of our place in the cosmos.
The second visual story of The Way of Time will be on the cyclic nature of ancient time.