Tag Archives: novel

How Time Dilates…

How Time Dilates…

atomic clock
Atomic Clock USNO

I just read that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was shown to apply to altitude differences as small as 33 centimeters. Scientists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, using the latest and most accurate atomic clocks, found that the higher you are above sea level, the faster time runs for you.

In addition, as Einstein had also suggested, the scientists found that travel through space influences clock speed. A stationary clock ticks slower than a moving one. So, if your clock is moving rather than stationary and, in addition, you live high up, then you might start thinking about botox, moving to sea-level, or buying a bungalow!

The time differences at these small distances are minuscule, but now measurable.

This demonstration of time dilation leads me on to another, though I believe related, track. Einstein conceived of his Relativity Theory more than one hundred years ago, and yet we are only now able to confirm its predictions on our, human level! Atomic theory, stating that matter is composed of discrete units called atoms, according to Wikipedia, “began as a philosophical concept in ancient Greece and India” and only entered scientific thinking in the early nineteenth century. Thus, “time” is also relative, depending on the prevailing culture, socio-political conditions, etc., when it comes to the interval between ideas being born and their progressing to proof and acceptance. Just think of the effect of certain periods of the Middle Ages on the progression of ideas!

Moving on to a more experiential level: In my forthcoming novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, a little girl is obsessed with time. She fears changes of plan, the adults changing their mind, things happening unexpectedly – “Can you do that?” she wants to know. If you change your plans, then time becomes unpredictable. She keeps comparing the time on her watch with that of other family members, to reassure herself of the stability of her world. Like most of us, she confuses the subjective timeline of our lives, and its curves, ambits, u-turns and roundabouts, with the instrument of its measurement, her watch.

On the other hand, shrinking or speeding up time, for instance through time-lapse photography, can provide us with a new, marvelous perspective on the world. The BBC has a great video on this, “Timelapse: Speeding up life” Watch it; I added it to my previous post.

For musings and poetry on Time, read Asian Cha’s Random musings on Time: “Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?” They claim their clock does not tick. Not even tock?

Perhaps this, the dilation of time, the arrhythmia of time, where the interval between “tick” and “tock” is unpredictable, or different to what our current understanding would lead us to expect, is a major, crucial point where the arts and the sciences intersect – where the subjective and objective meet. Let us stay with this thought for a minute. Stop all the clocks!

(The) Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh

The Wise Silence before and alongside Words: The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Wise Silence

In The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh explores the different and overlapping worlds of (scientific, written-down) language, and intuitive, oral folk tradition, and silence. This exploration takes the reader through an experiential process in which the customary way of reading a novel is challenged.

The novel begins at an unspecified time in the near future, when Antar, an employee of LifeWatch, a public health consultancy, is asked to find out what happened to another employee, L. Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. The plot is complicated (reviewers described it as “mind boggling” and “Rubik’s Cube of a novel”), and demands a special sort of concentration, as it shifts between different time periods and perspectives. The major plotline being that Murugan had asked to be transferred to Calcutta to investigate the life of Sir Ronald Ross – Nobel Prize winner for his work on how malaria enters the organism – but had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I shall not attempt to summarize the novel here, as this has been done already quite competently.

Ghosh explores a complex web of themes: science, myth, language, silence, society and the individual. It is a web skilfully span, as he pairs the most unexpected themes, only suddenly to juxtapose them in the most astonishing patterns. For instance, silence is presented in various relationships to language, including scientific language. A character says about silence: “I see signs of her presence everywhere I go, in images, words, glances, but only signs, nothing more…”

Perhaps wisely, Ghosh does not attempt to describe in words this kind of silence. The implication being that by using language, we enter into a relationship with the background of silence similar to that we have as train travellers through a landscape, though infinitely more complex. For to say something is to change it. In a manner reminding me of the observer effect (in Quantum Mechanics) – the observer and the act of observation affecting the system being observed, regardless of the specific method used – the novel presents scientific knowledge as altering the landscape of the silence it tries to describe. Ghosh rather provides allusions, hints, pointers to it.

Language introduces other drawbacks. A scientist investigating a topic is burdened by scientific language, with particular ways of seeing and describing the world in the scientific community. A lay person, on the other hand, free from the restraints that scientific community and its language impose on him/her is well placed to make new discoveries, Ghosh is saying. It is as if, if you don’t know where to look, you may be in a better position to find what you don’t know you are looking for. Except in the novel, the natives know what they are looking for, and they are using the scientists’ results, and the results’ by-products, to gather the information they are seeking.

Taking the two major ways of knowing, scientific effort and language on the one hand and intuition, wisdom and silence on the other, Ghosh skilfully explores the opposition and mistrust that exist between the followers of the two. The setting being India, he also takes the reader on a reflective journey between the British colonial attitude of knowing best scientifically, and the native Indian one, of also knowing best, intuitively! There is more opposition and antagonism between the two ways of knowing in this book than there is in The Hungry Tide.

It may well be the case, as John Thieme wrote in The Literary Encyclopaedia, that in The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh explores “the possibility of an alternative subaltern history, which exists in parallel with colonial history as an equally – or possibly more – potent epistemological system, albeit one which has traditionally operated through silence.”

One of my own associations is to W. R. Bion, the British psychoanalyst born in India, who also wrote about knowledge and the processes of transformation that it has to go through in the mind before it reaches the potential of being knowable. Describing this process, Bion wrote about the shared human preconceptions and their journey to become concepts in the mind of the individual.

Bion valued the state of reverie, in which the mind sits quietly and allows things to unfold “without memory or desire,” or without expectation and aim-directed behavior. In this state, he believed, what had been obscured by the glare of expectation, wishful thinking, knowledge and assumptions would be allowed to show its true color, to shine through its own presence. In such a state of mind, one does not identify with, but rather becomes the thing thought about.

Bion wrote in a style which – although described as “not reader-friendly” – invites the reader to work with the text, to associate, feel and think for herself, i.e., to make or become its meaning. It seems to me that Ghosh too, in this novel, through his weaving of text and plot, knowledge, not-knowing, and guessing, attempts such a feat – risking, however, leaving the reader in a state of bafflement rather than becoming. Ultimately, the reader of the novel has to go through the process of experiencing it and form her/his own idea about it.