Tuesday, April 8, 2008

An Image For Time

Recently the National Science Foundation released a visualization challenge. In it’s solicitation for entries is this statement.
“You can do science without graphics . But it’s very difficult to communicate it in the absence of pictures. Indeed some insights can only be made widely comprehensible as images. “
Advances in medicine have followed advances in imaging. The current interest in maps is a recognition of this as a primary way we organize information. The more complex the information, the more necessary images become for communicating important relationships. To understand we need to see, to be shown ,not to be told. Inner models of reality form the basis for thought. When the models aren’t adequate to the new information acquired we need to revise our images or our thought will be distorted.
Thinking of the passage of events as a timeline entails a sense of loss as things disappear into the past. But that may not be true of how we actually experience it. The sequential nature of our left hemisphere created our concept of time, but that is a feature of the way we process experience, not reality itself.
Exploring different images for time may give us a way of seeing it that goes deeper and feels more true to what we experience.
When my grandfather died I was really torn up about it. In the weeks that followed I began to feel that though he wasn’t there physically anymore, all the meaning he’d had in my life was unchanged. I began to think of time as like a big painting in progress, and that he was always there in his part of the painting. That part might not be developing anymore but the richness of the parts he created for me remained. It wasn’t until much later than I began to think more deeply about the analogy of time to a painting. An ant crawling across the painting would think the blue area came before the red area but it had to do with moving in a line through changes that were there all along. Unlike ideas of time as all there at once and locked in, what’s living and growing develops that area of the painting. When an area isn’t developing anymore it doesn’t go away, it just stops changing. This image creates a different analogy for time that includes the qualities we experience and not just the dry units of measurement. Analogy, the structural similarity between things, is how we understand something new. We compare it to something similar that we understand already. Images are powerful tools for understanding. In a world growing increasingly more complex, finding better images can broaden how we think.

1 comment:

B. Recacho said...

The dog-eared and well-worn issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Special Edition: "A Matter of Time" (that I carry around with me most days) proposes that "neither scientists nor philosophers really know what time is or why it exists...[that] Physicists think of time as laid out in is entirety–a timescape, analogous to a landscape."
Your lovely description of time as a painting in progress is a wonderful metaphor. It's both disconcerting and fascinating to think that there may not be a chronological order...that past, present and future exist simultaneously and that maybe one of the reasons we perceive time as passing is that time is asymmetrical, not chronological.