Monday, 3 June 2013

California Dreaming

I once saw a cartoon, with two caterpillars on a leaf,  looking up at a butterfly flying overhead.  "Yikes," one caterpillar is saying to the other, "You'd never get me up in one of those things!"

Well, the young do tend to see the old as a separate, rather unappealing species.  They don't realise they are living on a spectrum that, if they are lucky, includes old age.  The old, with more justification, also see the young as a new, alien species; call it evolution anxiety.

That ageing happens to us all is indisputable, though it does seem to happen at different rates and intensities.  But people do talk nonsense about the importance of remaining "young at heart", as if getting old were a lifestyle choice, or a failure of imagination or diet. Once past your breed-by date, my friends, the fact is that evolution has no use for you: the cards left in the hand dealt by your genetic inheritance will trump any amount of hours in the gym or positivity of outlook.  That's my excuse, anyway.

More philosophically,  there might seem to be a get-out clause in that good old mystical standby, "living in the now".  There is no past, no future, only the present moment!  Yeah, right.  You might be living in the moment, driving on a busy motorway, but the interest on your car loan is still inexorably mounting up.  No amount of mindfulness will stop the onset of arthritis, or prevent California from falling into the sea.

No, not that California, I mean the one about five miles north of Great Yarmouth, about 200 metres of which have already fallen into the sea since I spent a memorable week there with a friend in the summer of 1970. Those vanished 200 metres include the clifftop campsite where we pitched our tent.

Now that was a summer!  Our "O" level exams were over, and we were in that pleasant limbo that lies like a sun-baked beach between life's phases.  I had recently started what would be a year-long relationship with one of the prettiest, most vivacious girls in town.  Life was good, open-ended, and turned up to maximum volume.  The juke-box and radio hits of the time instantly bring the feeling back:  "All Right Now", "Big Yellow Taxi", "Lola", "Tears of a Clown" -- all brand new yet "always already" classics.

With our parents 120 miles away, we savoured that first, heady thrill of simple freedom.  We marauded up and down the coast between California and Great Yarmouth, drinking, hanging out in amusement arcades and the bars and discos of holiday camps and caravan sites.  Well, yes, the imagination of youth is limited in scope, but intense in application....
Last night I was reckless --
didn't brush my teeth
and went to bed tasting
my dinner all night.

And it tasted good.

Pete Brown
One evening, separate adventures caused us to stagger off on different paths.  Later, tired of the slog back up the beach, I fell asleep in the sand dunes amongst the marram grass and cigarette ends.  I awoke, hung-over, damp and covered in wind-blown sand, as the sun cleared the bleary eastern horizon far out to sea.  I found my hand was clutching a palm-sized pebble, which on closer inspection turned out to be the worn heart-and-star fossil of a sea-urchin.

Briefly alive in the Cretaceous period, between 65-140 million years ago, the creature had died, been buried in the sediments sifting down through the waters of a tropical sea, and then gradually been transformed from something as hollow and as light as a bird's skull into a solid flinty lump.  It sat out the next 100 million years or so -- while flowering plants, birds, mammals and some particularly meddlesome monkeys evolved -- locked in the chalk and slowly journeying up from the tropics to northern latitudes. Exposed by weathering, it fell out of the bedrock, and was then rolled around in the North Sea -- for, what, hundreds of years? -- then finally dumped on a Norfolk beach by a storm, to find its way into the living hand of a sixteen-year old monkey-boy. For whom it became a personal talisman, obviously.

Of course, compared to the journey in deep time and space of the elements both it and I are made of, this had been a mere excursion.  And there are still billions of years to go.  Whatever, and wherever, next?


"The past is never dead.  It's not even past" (William Shatner Faulkner).  The quote sounds good, doesn't it? It has a sort of emotional truth, but it's utter nonsense.  We are time-bound, and we're on a one-way journey.  Even the physicists are starting to think that the "laws" of physics are themselves evolving in time.  In a recently-published book, Time Reborn, self-confessed theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says:
I used to believe in the essential unreality of time. Indeed, I went into physics because as an adolescent I yearned to exchange the time-bound, human world, which I saw as ugly and inhospitable, for a world of pure, timeless truth…

I no longer believe that time is unreal. In fact I have swung to the opposite view: Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.
Well, you don't say, professor.  Sometimes, speculative science can seem like a rerun of mediaeval theology, except that this time the secret spells are written in maths, rather than in Latin.  It puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations:
Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
Denis Diderot
Which is as much as to say, not for a while.  Our species seems not to have outgrown kings and priests quite yet.


Andy Sharp said...

The cutest teleological explanation for time (i.e. what it's for) must be that "it stops everything happening all at once". Though even this slightly glib comment carries with it a conventional notion of time in the phrase "all at once". Essentially, the elimination of the conventional sense of the passage of time is just an extreme example of the application of Occam's razor. The fewer assumptions you can get away with the better.

Mike C. said...

I see there's a review of Lee Smolin's book in this weekend's Guardian. Looked at from outside (i.e. from the perspective of one who does not speak maths) I think there's a lot of truth in the idea that maths-led theoretical Physics has floated free of the real world it is intended to explain.

Time is the ultimate reality-check that says, "Just a minute, guys..." (or maybe "Just a femtosecond, guys")...