Continuing Unscientific Postscript on Time – Theresa Smith

All the while, time was caroming around, looking for its ends, and damaged by loss and panic, swung wide, screamed west and eventually flung its heels over its own head, gaining momentum in the terror of inertia. It gritted its teeth and pulled its legs in and began to whirl faster, eventually becoming a centrifuge, and this is how the pendulum, incidentally, became a rotary mechanism.

I feel strange about things, which is why I’ve gone to the considerable effort of locating you for the purpose of explaining what I see as the facts of the matter. Our brief contact – for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it an “accident” – was so unnerving to me that I have to explain things.

First, please agree with me that time is a massive differential equation in which the variables are the speeds, positions, masses, orientations and proclivities, predictable or otherwise, of every object in the universe. The sound of time is the sound of these holding patterns coming into contact with one another, abandoning their plans for a fraction of a second, and moving on. The interactions of individuals with one another are large-scale contracts that involve the momentary coordination of many different subjective timekeeping mechanisms.

Please don’t imagine that I bear you any ill will. This could be no further from the truth. It is my belief that this misunderstanding between us has arisen simply because we measure our time differently. To be clear, everyone measures their time differently, but between the two of us, time is especially out of whack.

Let me explain. Both of us have what I like to call a personal interval, a smallest chronological atom into which our time can be subdivided. You can, if you like, think of it as a fundamental unit of personal time. All our experience is made up of larger units – moments, instants, junctures, points, or what have you – whose basic lengths are multiples of this fundamental chronometric unit. Thus, an individual, ideally, experiences an intrinsic sense of time that enjoys a constant and soothing periodicity, because all units of felt time are proportional to one another. This proportionality allows the individual to excavate and piece together fragments of his own experience without encountering the complicated conversions and disturbances involved in reconstructing a past event held in place by multiple points of view.

What was going on, when you sat down and we immediately began to create a network of bridges between our respective time-kingdoms, was the establishment of a novel system containing both of us, in case it became necessary for communication to take place. It would be, of course, possible for us to establish an immediate connection in the case of some emergency, or to entertain the sort of expendable rhetoric strangers are prone to dispensing when they feel nervous.

However, the system instantaneously and instinctively cobbled together at that moment would mock the both of us, consisting chiefly of hasty conclusions regarding appearance, speech, and bearing. It would also totally fail to account for the fact that there are three kinds of time, and not just one. Time in the brain, which is the way time feels. Time among brains, which is the way time feels to a group of people. And object time, which is time that may either pass or pause when no one is looking. No one really knows.

Time in the brain is the constant interval, or period, by which a person observes themselves and the world around them. The interval is the amount of time it takes for consciousness to lash out into the world, grab a piece of something, take it back to its lair and start slicing into it. For each individual, this interval is more or less unchanging, even when confronted with fields of information that resist analysis. Time among brains is a formal or informal collusion of multiple intrinsic times through the creation of a conversion factor for each one, which allows transactions to take place in a single shared language. Object time can, in a very simplistic, working way, be seen as the multiple by which individual time is converted to collective time, or vice versa. There are always two ways of expressing object time.

Time in the brain is a measurement of how quickly – or slowly – information is gathered, broken down and stored or processed. It can be thought of in terms of a frequency, the rate at which a wave consistently passes a certain point. The rate does not need to be known; only observed. This wave is not time, but it generates, upon collapsing, time. Time among brains is the product of the diffractions produced by multiple waves. Object time is the carrier signal revealed by the subtraction of all this information. Conceptualizing object time as a conversion factor is just shorthand – easily done, for the purposes of communication. Calculating real object time requires skill.

We both knew the time to speak might come, and I believe we were both girding ourselves for it. Our basic intervals were visible in our faces: mine, I maintain, somewhat smaller and faster than yours. Our fundamental units of belief, which refract through all thought and language, were constructing a world that might eventually come to pass, and providing us with barely legible sets of instructions to be followed in such an event, written in the language of probability.

The language of probability looks something like this:

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In our case, I think we both agreed that the provisional reorganization of our mental warehouses for the sole purpose of exchanging a few poorly-understood words, severed and joined and severed again in semantic labor, served neither of us very well. I think we knew, as we indifferently sized one another up before the offense, that the other was sovereign of a time-kingdom with a vast register of foundational metaphors so far removed from our own that to exchange a single word would engage our respective internal milieux in a closed-circuit escalation from which we might never recover.

When, surrounded by the industry of our respective internal forges, we met one another, worldbuilding atoms of a distinct size and shape were already being marshaled into space in my mind to represent you, and in your mind for the same purpose. The exchange of information between us was as automatic and unconditioned as breathing. (The first impression is often, as a matter of fact, as shattering an experience as the first breath.) These epistemic atoms are the material from which a worldview is constructed, on the particular scale of a person. If knowledge can be conceived, by a sort of geometrical shorthand, as a family of particular shapes made up of vertices drawn between nodes representing the constituent elements of related beliefs, then all things known to you will exhibit the same ratios in their corresponding shapes. These shapes can be scaled up or down, according to which sense of a belief it is desirable to use in response to some provocative situation. Received, objective definitions or fact bodies are converted to the shape-currency of the mind, with an effort made to preserve their structure even as they’re disarticulated and pieced back together in grotesque feats of heuristic engineering. Scaling up or down is a function of analogy.

There are many kinds of trouble you could be in. Perhaps you’re dying. Perhaps your car won’t start. Perhaps you said something that, strictly speaking, wasn’t true. Perhaps you said something that was true. Trouble is a scalable state.

Where I think you and I went wrong is in crossing paths in the first place. Hear me out: if I’d kept away from you, and you away from me, neither one of us would be forced to reckon with the other’s time. My hunch, unconfirmed as it is, is that the necessary conversion process between our fundamental time-scales was so especially complicated that neither one of us was willing to make the effort.

When I first crossed my legs, and you then crossed yours, I knew there would be trouble. Not only had you noticed my action, but I had noticed your reaction, and so we had already launched ourselves into the kind of unpremeditated conversation that, as I said, is so uniquely dangerous. When I attempted to calm my nerves by rummaging inside my purse for a tissue, I saw you shift uncomfortably in your seat. By then, we were well into our battle of wills. I stared as hard as I could at your earlobe. After a moment, you touched it, indicating that you had accepted the challenge. I then dropped my gaze pointedly to the book open on my lap, indicating by this gesture that I was the kind of person who desired, laudably, to replace the noise and stench of the train with the coordinated observations of a trusted soul, while you obviously were not. I saw your lips pinch themselves together in what I assumed to be a dismissive gesture, and I was ready to let it go at that. But then the hinges of your lips moved unaccountably upwards, by a fraction of an inch, and I was looking at a smirk.

Well! I couldn’t let this go. I angled my book upwards to permit you to see the title. To this, I received a visible eye roll, and a slight, slow shaking of the head, as you rejected my life’s philosophy outright. With that single gesture, you invalidated my search for a sliver of consistency in the wild all-out, and for this you could never be forgiven. You indicated your wholesale dismissal for my need to identify, by strenuous observation and inspired extrapolation, the long silver threads that attached my mind to some external reality, and the ever-shifting units of that external reality to one another. I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. You had undermined my reasons for trying, for abstaining – for living.

Where I saw intellectual victory, you saw idleness. Where I toiled to separate my impressions from their biases, you saw leisure. Where I labored to connect the unbridged relation, you saw privilege. I was stunned, struck dumb. No one had ever dared to confront me with this before.

Even before I crossed my legs, and you crossed yours, I had known there would be trouble. This was because I understood your undirected and reflective half-smile as the flag of a fragile self-satisfaction easily shattered by any number of common occurrences.


I stood up, swaying with the motion of the train as it trampled over the light bridge, and lurched across the aisle. I grabbed a handful of your hair and jerked your head forward. You made a sound like a zoo and stood up and pushed me into someone’s lap. I hit you with my book. I was afraid. I saw no fear in you at all – no doubt whatsoever. I was in awe of this. How was it that you believed yourself? What had I done to make you into the maniac you desired above all to be?

Imagine, if you will, that the universe is a two-dimensional ray that sweeps through all possible universes like the second hand of a clock, and that the midpoint of this endless ray is the point at which you become aware of the subjective character of your experience. There exists at any given time a certain number of individuals who realize they are being pushed out to the end of the ray, and there also exists a number of individuals who have no such awareness, but who have nightmares.

I considered framing this interaction as my gift to you, but I felt that even with your limited experience, you would see the cowardice in this. I wanted to tell you that when I laid my hands on you, in a healing but remonstrative way, I gave you to yourself, and that this is the kind of salvation it is most useful to receive, despite what you may have been told. No one is looking out for you. Not really.


The universe, like a child or pet, has an intense avidity for opposites. Hardly half an action passes before the eager all-doing answers back with its converse, heightening the difference between them with much meaningful waggling of eyebrows and prodding of elbows, so that we get the picture. It takes great pleasure in our bodying forth of opposing principles, imagining that we have learned to do so by its example, and even rewards us sometimes with an extra hour or two of transparency for our efforts. The downside of this, though, is that it imagines that it has found a collaborator in its quest to perfect the form of the conundrum, or paradox, and so it passes these to us first in order to test them out. The recognition of this process as being itself a species of conundrum delights the universe, but does not make things any easier, as we are now forced to participate in our own undoing. A conundrum is a wicked problem assumed to have at least one solution. A paradox is a statement that is neither true nor false, or both true and false.


All motion is lateral, along the two-dimensional axis of the ray. The illusions of a third and fourth dimension are produced by encounters with objects that meet the ray (creating a third dimension of space) and the ray’s forward progress (creating a dimension of time). Most living things are clustered near the midpoint of the ray, at the point which the experience of centripetal force becomes the illusion of centrifugal force. These creatures are either clinging to the certainty of an objective, impersonal universe, afraid to cross the point of self-determination and be pushed out to the ray’s end, or are seeking the point at which the force exerted on them will be lightest. They are repelled by the mystery of themselves, and also wary of glimpsing the ray’s end.

What does life look like, and what, exactly, does it move through? It moves through a confusion of all possible events not yet sequestered into alternate modalities, all having an identical valence until selected for. These events are in motion relative to the advancing universe, manipulated at a distance by changes in the properties of the objects and events brought into contact with one another by the universal ray.

At the center of the clock? In the zone in which things hardly move at all? The single universal constant? A hollow arch, in which is contained a large, ornate box, in which is contained something. It should be understood that the box itself is the center of the clock.

What do I say when I mean luck? I mean unfairness. To use the word in any other way is an abuse of intent. Other people use it to mean good fortune, or perhaps even chance, but not me. Of course, like most objects, it has a convex and a concave side, and which side you choose to scrutinize is largely a matter of choice. But in the case of luck, I don’t think there’s anything to argue. No one when they speak of luck means anything good by it. Down in the basement of the word, in the shattered hull of that saxon near-epithet, there is a hobbled cry, a terror, a bitterness like iron. The word is disastrous. To claim luck for oneself is to invite ill-luck. It has always been that way. Luck is a word claimed by no one. It is practically an invitation for the alldoing to reverse the advantage it’s thoughtlessly conferred upon you. Luck and its variations are verbal portals to the wiry underside of things, sonic tokens that grate on the ears of the wraiths of causality, causing them to roll screeching upon you and snatch back what they’ve carelessly given you. No one speaks of themselves as lucky unless they are forced by social convention to do so, and in doing so, they must manually shut down their fear response, and act naturally.

Luck is one of those words that does not break when it is dropped. Not, of course, because of the nature of luck – that is facile. It’s a word without any moving parts. A single unit, a bullheaded word, a creature of simple and brutal means. There are no joints. The beginning is like the end: a sound that can be held, a word that can be said in birth or death. I use it hopefully, as a charm, grasping the word with both hands as one grasps a rough and heavy wood carving and pulling it towards me by means of an ungrounded belief that my laying claim to it is unusual and highly impressive, and draws me closer to the class of imaginary persons for whom the word luck is a throwaway, a relic to be used when other words are too good.

If it helps you make sense of things, you can think of the universe as a long, very long palindrome, with the point of our accident as the letter that hinges it in the middle. This is the sane way of looking at it. You can bend the palindrome all the way around to form a circle, which is a tame species of infinity, or allow it to extend indefinitely in a kind of bilateral perpetuity, each movement answered by an equal movement in the other direction, or swing one side around and clamp it on top of the other producing a perfectly self-symmetrical universe in which time nevertheless moves in two different directions, or convert it into a waveform that collapses when it is ignored, or watch, as if from far away, as the derangement of entropy pulls it towards other universes. What matters is that – one way or another – you understand.