Space and Time on a Sundial

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 Space travel seems to involve exiting planet Earth and finding oneself in some liminal orbit.  But where exactly is “outer” space?  The very word “outer” suggests that it is not contained in visible boundaries.  If we don’t know where outer space is, how do we know what space we are currently inside?

 Maybe it does not matter.  Or maybe the strangeness has to do with space itself, which must be all around and nowhere to be found.  Space itself does not seem to be any place.  When it is contained within a space, it must also exit by default.

Scientifically, space is supposed to be expanding like a balloon.  Yet, without boundaries, how can space be expanding anywhere?  Even if space as a whole expands as a whole, there is still the problem of what it means to conceive of space as a whole without conceptually expanding it beyond its own reach.

Animation illustrating the accelerating expansion of the universe.

The evasiveness of “space”— the space that occupies us as we occupy it—is not unlike the evasiveness of time. Heraclitus seems to be referring to time, when he says that, “different waters flow for those who step into the same rivers” (B12).  While we occupy the same space in the river(s), that space never contains the same space, and so, says Heraclitus, “it is not possible to step into the same river twice” (B91).

This becomes quite unwieldy when one realizes Heraclitus means that the self is like a river, and that the time that passes through the different waters in the same rivers becomes visible by Heraclitus’ observation—an observation, which, too, must stand still in the flux of time.

Time, of course, cannot be in a river, in Heraclitus, or even on a clock.  It is, rather, the motion from the river or the clock that gives an awareness of the passage of time.  Strangely, this arises by thinking of time as if it could pass through space.  

Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes (or, “Tower of the Winds”)

Before the first geared clock was invented in the 11th century, there were sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, candle clocks, and incense clocks—clocks that were connected to the natural flux of the cosmos.  It is interesting that the weight of sand falling through an hourglass has become a metaphor for time running out, while the movement of the gears in a mechanical clock has become a metaphor for human cognition.

Perhaps the ticking of an analog clock might signal that time is flying, but with digital clocks, even ticking becomes a function of man’s—rather than time’s—dictatorship.  Our attempt to control the mechanism of the “clock” is an attempt to control time’s inevitable “passage.”  But every clock is a grim reaper, the embodiment of our inability to stave off motion.

Speaking in the first person, Roman sundials were often inscribed with dark mottoes.  Here are just a few:

non fugit umbra, fugis 

“the shadow is not fleeing, you are fleeing”

vulnerant omnes, ultima necat

“all wound, the last kills”

sum genitor veri, domitor livoris aperti.
index astrorum, filius, atque comes;
me sequor, et fugio mea per vestigia nunquam
cum sim quotidie nascor et intereo.

“I am the begetter of truth, the tamer of open envy.
Index, son, and comrade of the stars;
I follow myself, and never flee through my own footprints;
though I am, every day I am born and die.”

Time travel through wormholes is an optimism lost on sundials. To be told the time is to be read your last rites.  Nietzsche uses the sundial as a metaphor for the problem of self-knowledge:  when the self becomes coeval with itself (at high noon), it ceases to be able to see its shadow; it can never come to think itself as itself.  So, to think of time in space seems to entail trying to make space in time.  But time is the sand in the bottom of the hourglass as well as the empty space in the top.  We don’t know of its passage until it is gone.  Yet, to be gone, it must be there again, only to pass away.