When Time Turned into Space

Num°11 SPACE
time travel

Whatever became of time? Marcel Proust may have been searching for times lost, but it is time itself that has long since disappeared. It happened in 1905. While the rest of the world was sleeping, a Swiss patent clerk turned time into space. To be more precise, it happened when Hermann Minkowski teamed up with Albert Einstein to create four-dimensional Einstein-Minkowski space-time. As Minkowski famously declared, “henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Time has, just as Minkowski predicted, faded away into a mere shadow. Today, over a century later, it has become fashionable to speak of space-time, instead of space and time. Every school child does it. To speak otherwise is to put oneself in the company of the Flat Earth Society. A reference to space-time is taken as a sign that one is scientifically educated, that one has heard the sound of Einstein’s violin. Immanuel Kant’s clear, categorical distinction between the two forms of intuition, space vs. time, has been relegated to the unscientific past, to be replaced by a single geometrical (i.e. spatial) idea known as space-time. Even philosophers, who should know better, have not escaped this trend. The philosopher of science Hilary Putnam has written, explicitly, that after relativity, “there is no more philosophy of time, there is only the question of determining the correct geometry of space-time”.

Now, it should go without saying, though, unfortunately, I need to say it, that this is an alarming development, a kind of tragedy (or perhaps, comedy), for since the dawn of western civilization, time has struggled to keep pace with space. “[We] do not know what to do about time,” wrote Abraham Heschel in The Sabbath, “except to make it subservient to space.” Since Plato – who, with his hero, Parmenides, held time in great suspicion, finding a conflict between the idea of time and the idea of being – everything western thought has touched has, in a strange twist of Midas, turned into space. Indeed, according to tradition, Plato, who in The Republic had taken great pains to remove time from geometry, put his cards on the table by inscribing over the entrance to his Academy, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” It was left to Einstein, however, whose own motto might well have been, “everything is something else”, to deal the final blow. A blow to philosophy, as such, it turns out, as much as to time.

When Time Turned into Space

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Numero 11 SPACE luglio, 2014 - Autore:  Condividi


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