A talk given by Moyra Caldecott to the Wessex Research Group, Bath, UK on 9 September 1999.
When Grethe asked me to give this talk she suggested I should speak about the coming millennium. My reaction to this was one of dismay. Even way back then, in early spring, I was already tired of hearing about the millennium. I was not looking forward to a full fortnight of disruption to the normal tenor of life when you couldn’t get a plumber to fix burst pipes, or a gas engineer to mend your central heating unless you bribed him with a fortune. I was not looking forward to the world-wide disruption of the ‘millennium bug’ because we had foolishly put ‘all our eggs in one basket’. I was not looking forward to cities full of drunken people squeaking squeakers and punching balloons to celebrate – what? – the birth of Christ – when we didn’t even know the real date he was born and we had certainly drifted very, very far from the message he endured such suffering to deliver to us. How could we celebrate a world so full of corruption and genocide, so wantonly destroying its environment…?
And then an image came to mind of the film Titanic where we see the musicians playing up to the last moment before the ship is engulfed. At first I saw it as a bitter confirmation of our present situation, and then I saw it as an example of the courage of the human spirit in spite of everything – and I saw the millennium celebrations as a defiant gesture to the universe that in spite of the appalling millions who are bent on destroying our planet and breaking every rule, there are still some who honour another reality, another set of values.
But Grethe’s request set me thinking about Time, and this phrase ‘multi-dimensional time’ kept coming to mind. There are many different types of time that make up our experience. I intend this evening to throw into the ring some of my thoughts on the matter, and afterwards, instead of questions, I hope you will throw in some of yours.
Linear time, one thing following another in an orderly fashion – past, present and future in neat and inexorable sequence, is what we are celebrating at the millennium. Astronomical Time. Time based on Shakespeare’s ‘majestical roof fretted with golden fire’ (Hamlet Act. II. Sc. 2). Since ancient days the movement of the sun and moon in relation to the earth has been the way we have measured the passing of time. Ancient monoliths were raised to mark the summer and winter solstices, and equinoxes. Sometimes incredible accuracy was achieved. For instance, at only one moment in the year, at the dawn of the winter solstice, a beam of light from the sun shines through a small gap at the entrance of a Neolithic structure at New Grange in Ireland, reaches down a narrow corridor within the tomb, and falls on the deceased to give him ‘new life’.
We take the quartz watch on our wrists for granted, forgetting the centuries of trial and error and the great leaps in scientific understanding that have given it to us, the centuries of water clocks, sand-timers and other more or less inaccurate and unsatisfactory ways of measuring Linear Time. We could celebrate our skill in measuring time at the Millennium. It has given our lives order and predictability. But is it always such a good thing? Here is a poem on the subject of having to part with a lover because of the dictates of a clock.
Measuring can become
The water clock and hour glass
Were bad enough
But now, accurate
To a second in a thousand years
An atomic clock
The pulse of the earth.
Oh, lying with you
Should not be so confined!
Too clever we have
Undone ourselves again
And Science before it even
Blows us up
Has finished us
By making each second
So Linear Time marching inexorably from the past, through the present, to the future, measured by reference to the apparent regularity of the movements of the heavenly bodies, is what we usually think of as Time. It is what we use to mark birthdays and anniversaries. It is this type of time we notice most.