In 1877, the strangely-named photographer Eadweard Muybridge was asked to settle a bet. One person wagered that when a horse runs, there are moments when it has all four legs in the air at the same time. A rival asserted that the horse has at least one leg on the ground at all times.
But how to prove this in the days before moving pictures?
Muybridge set up a series of twenty-four cameras along a measured track. The camera shutters were triggered by strings broken by the horse’s motion. The result was conclusive: when horses run, there are indeed times when none of their four legs touch the ground.
Photographs are essentially slices of time. They allow us to retain a visual memory of people and events. In previous centuries it was commonly lamented how difficult it was to remember precisely what someone looked like after they died. Now of course with vivid, time-stamped photographic records, no one need be forgotten.
Phones regularly remind us that ‘You have a new memory’.
There are different kinds of time, of course – personal, historical, geological, and cosmic. We know how to measure time pretty accurately, even across vast stretches of space. But it’s one thing to measure time, and a very different thing to experience it. Think of the sensation of jet lag, for example, or of having to wait for someone who is late.
It is a commonplace that time flies (tempus fugit). This is never truer than when we are enjoying ourselves; by the same token, it seems to drag slowly when we are bored, or waiting in a queue.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson has written of the concept of ‘durée’ – or the duration a moment seems to possess when we experience it, as opposed to the span it occupies in terms of measured time. Bergson explored, in effect, how we ‘feel’ time.
In today’s world, there are some who consider that we rush around too quickly instead of savouring the moment. To encourage people to slow down, a group of prominent Americans recently bought a small Nevada mountain on which they plan to erect a huge time piece.
This Clock of the Long Now will tick once a year, chime once a century, and the plan is that, once every 10,000 years, a cuckoo will come out.
But you don’t have to understand Einstein’s theories or the concept of deep time to recognise that time is relative. Below you can see a table showing the life expectancies of various animals in relation to human years. It’s fascinating to equate the venerable age of a turtle with the ephemeral existence of a moth.
No author has explored the idea of time, and the way we experience it more than the French novelist Marcel Proust. In his great novel, Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Proust distinguished between two types of memory: voluntary and involuntary memory.
Voluntary memories involve consciously trying to think of and recall something. Involuntary memories come unbidden and might be triggered by a piece of music, a photograph, a particular smell, or taste.
In the first volume of Proust’s novel, it is the taste of a ‘petite madeleine’ dipped in a cup of tea that transports the narrator back in time to when he used to eat these little cakes as a child. It brings boyhood memories flooding back. It is one of the greatest passages in world literature.
Many books and films have played with the idea of time. H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine takes the narrator backwards and forwards in time, and inevitably poses the question, if you could choose to go back in time, what moment would you choose to return to?
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse 5, the hero Billy Pilgrim is ‘spastic in time’ and jumps randomly from one moment to another across his life.
In one memorable scene he describes a bombing raid backwards, so that the bombs are sucked back up into a plane, then returned safely to a factory where they are dismantled. To reverse time is also therefore to reverse morality, Vonnegut implies.
Vonnegut goes on to talk about an alien species called the Tralfamadorians who can see the universe in four dimensions, and so can visualise time. For them, all moments - past, present and future - co-exist simultaneously, and they can see all the different moments at once, just as we might see a range of mountains stretching into the distance.
It’s an interesting idea that time exists as a dimension. As such, perhaps the truth is that time does not pass at all; instead, time simply exists and we pass through it, with all the implications for the concepts of fate and free will that this notion contains.
The last year seems to have been a very long one. It’s hard to believe that it’s only just over a year since Covid first had its impact on the world.
For many of us since then, life has been in a state of paralysis, making it almost impossible to plan anything either personally or professionally.
In their short lives to date, our students must feel proportionately that this last year of global pandemic has consumed a large part of their lives.
Nevertheless, at school, students confront the idea of time in many different ways – from our youngest pupils learning to tell the time from a clock, to our IB Higher Level historians and physicists thinking of time in thematic patterns and in abstract theoretical ways involving cycles, simultaneity, and complex notions of space-time.
Childhood should be a time of joy. We hope this is soon more true, both at school and in the world, and that some of the memories our students hold of this last year will soon prove remote, even dream-like - the records of a time stored on their phones like images from a distant world.
Principal & CEO