Friday, April 27, 2007

Without Time

I have a friend (who shell remain unnamed, but you occasionally find him in the comment section...) with the habit to always come to late, at least 15 minutes. He is the truest academic that I know, and the 15 minutes are a part of his personality.

Here at PI, coming to late to a seminar or a meeting is significantly tougher, because your BlackBerry beeps relentlessly and reminds you of your slackness (that's the true reason why we get one). But still, it is possible to be late. The easiest way to achieve it is to make a detour via the kitchen to grab a coffee. (You must know that our executive director Howard Burton made 'the importance of coffee and good food' really clear to the architects, and so it became a priority for the building, as you can read here. )

If that coffee detour doesn't take enough time, it is advisable to take the elevator, which - as everybody will confirm - is the slowest elevator in the whole world. But this too is of course not a bug but a feature, and belongs to the design of the building: the intention is to support communication among researchers in 'an abundance of natural light' and so on and so forth.

Indeed, even with the BlackBerry we are pretty successful with the delay tactics I'd say. In fact, hardly any seminar or colloquium starts in time. But actually, I can't recall any institute or department for theoretical physics where this was the case...

... except back in Germany, where we'd just always start late in time. It is called the 'academic quarter' (das Akademische Viertel) and it's announced with a c.t. after the seminar time - an abbreviation for 'cum tempore', the Latin expression for 'with time'. That is, 3 c.t. means actually 3:15. The exceptions are meetings announced with s.t., meaning 'sine tempore' , Latin for 'without time'. I found this nice photo on Wikipedia which shows a plate at Lund University (Sweden) announcing the entry into the realm of academia

For me, one of the most obvious differences between Europe and North America is how much faster time seems to run over here. Most of the time, I am not in time, but without time, even if not outside time.

And now I've successfully killed time. Weekend is close, and on Friday we have our wine and cheese... (the importance of good food, you know).

A nice weekend to all of you, hopefull one 'with time' :-)

Aside: My lesson of the day is that Google has something called SafeSearch that you should turn off before you expect to find any hits for a term containing 'cum'. But if you do so, you'll find a truly astonishing amount of Latin texts.



  1. Time is always running away so fast... Just now at lunch, I had a funny conversation with my brother and my mother, starting with the piezoelectric mechanism in a new lighter, via Pierre Curie and quartz clocks to the definition of the second and the magentic moment of caesium in atomic clocks... Maybe I could turn it in a blog post sometime, if I find some time ;-)

    Best, stefan

  2. Lack of time and passing of time are both increasing functions of the time since you were born.

    The older you get, the less available time you end up finding to do the things you need (and/or want) to do, and the faster the days pass by. (Some people, however, seem to be able to overcome one or both of these phenomena... which are in certain instances related. Perhaps you are one of them? You *do* seem to cope well with time).

    I have the feeling that I end up doing nothing really useful and I'm beginning to realize that I am getting rapidly older than most of the people around me. sigh

    BTW: 15 minutes is not at all considered as being late for most Brazilians. I am a big exception to this rule... I usually arrive *earlier* at the events and often have to wait much more than 15 min for the others. :(

    Fortunately, I often bring a book with me. :)

    I once found a site were a guy was offering advices on how to save time. He went to the point of estimating the time accummulated in a year that one usually wastes in front of the computer watching the sandglass mouse cursor. :) Fortunately, I did not waste much of my time on that site!


  3. Half the secret to creativity is boredom over time. Brains cannot abide emptiness. Absent input they create filling. Amputated limbs become "phantom limbs" that hurt! Hearing loss includes maddening ringing in the dimmed frequency window. The cures for both are obvious - and work.

    Google, PI, old Bell Labs, and few other venues rock. Google hires only the most Severely and Profoundly Gifted, places them in a garden of earthly delights, and assigns them not nearly enough work. About six months after hiring their brains explode into corporate riches. Deux ex taedium. Time must be filled!

    OTOH, Welfare is a metastatic disaster. Achievement is an emergent phenomenon. Coal can burn in a furnace, but also in a tailings pile.

  4. Hi Uncle,

    Half the secret to creativity is boredom over time.

    As usual, you bring it to the point. I will include that in the proposal for my institute ;-) Someone should have told Mike.

    Reg. wandering minds, see also

    where is my mind?



  5. Half the secret to creativity is boredom over time.

    What about a interest in one's being? It can be quickly sidestepped while alloting it to boredom?

    While, "searching the aspects of creativity would be like trying to "stop time." You know it can go forward and (backward?)

    You recall "all the time." Qui! Non?

    So if you have the perfect fluid (viscosity) and vortices would that be like stopping time?

    So at the "center" where is that, that such a state would allow it all to come through?

  6. Dear Bee,

    now I understand my dear german colleague Horst! He always wrote these c.t or s.t things when calling for a meeting. We never knew what he meant. Of course we were always late. :-)

  7. lol Bee,
    the slowest elevator in the world at the Periphery?

    The should have put PI on the top floors of Taipei 101

  8. Dear Bee,

    Your "Without Time" post set off a cascade of thoughts in my mind. I realized that I have a peculiar relationship with time, in part because I live in Italy (slow time) but was born in the U.S. (fast time) and I'm an astronomer (long timelines, but I usually study short timeline solar system events), who is fascinated with history and archeology (past human time) as well as with every futurist topic (future human time).

    To give an example of my peculiar relationship with time. Once when my beautiful 20-year-old watch slipped off my wrist, lost forever, while running to catch the Roma Termini Stazione train from the Roma Fiumicino airport, I immediately interpreted the event that I was 'out-of-time' to have a family and that I should celebrate it as a wake (tragedy) and as a festivity (comedy) to help me come to terms with the event.

    And you should know that the phrase that best describes a time relationship for the average person living in Italy is: "Hurry Up and Wait", because everything in daily life takes time, but the lack of organization results in a deadline discovered today, to be one hour ago.

    In your nice photographs and essay, you set yourself up for another nice post for 'In Time' where you can describe some historical timepieces that are still used today.

    One of those timepieces is the hourglass, which I experienced just a few days ago in the Boulder Tea House, because an hourglass was given to customers who ordered 'white tea', in order to indicate to the customer when their tea was finished steeping.

    A check of the history of the hourglass led me to the Italian (Siena) painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti who, according to Wikipedia, recorded the first image of the use of an hourglass in his allegorical frescoe of 'Good Government' in the Sala della Pace of the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena. In his allegorical representation of Good Government, the prosperous townspeople are trading and dancing in the streets. Beyond the city walls is a lush countryside in which crops are harvested. And ... in his allegory of Bad Government, crime is rampant and diseased citizens roam a crumbling city. The countryside suffers from drought. Unfortunately, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and his brother, also a painter, didn't have a lot of time, because they both died of bubonic plague in 1348.

    A further web study of the hourglass at a medieval web site described the exact instance of the hourglass in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Good Government painting. In the fresco, the six cardinal virtues are represented by maidens, three being on each side of the ruler. The three on the right-hand side are Mercy, Temperance and Justice, and Temperance is shown holding a large hourglass in her right hand. It's interesting that I do remember that fresco when I visited Siena in 2003, but I don't remember the hourglass. What I remember most in that museum was Il Dolore (the Pain), which is such a striking caricature of the experience of Pain, that I use it in teaching lessons or science seminars if I'm presenting something difficult, but want to soften it with humor.

    From the medieval web site above, I arrived at the most fascinating nautical uses of the hourglass. The first is the measurement of a ship's speed. Knots were tied at seven-fathom intervals on a line tied to a log chip that would float astern. A sailor dropped the 'log line' off the end of the speeding ship and counted off the number of knots paid out while a small hourglass measured a half-minute. If five knots passed in the interval, the ship was making five nautical miles an hour. Throughout the nineteenth century, sailing vessels still "heaved the log" every hour to keep track of the speed. The second is the measurement of time on a sailer's watch. On a large sailing vessel, the ship's company was divided into two shifts or 'watches' made up of eight half hours each. One half hour being called a 'glass'. The helmsman used a 30 minute hourglass and would sound the ship's bell a consecutive number of times for each 'glass' of the the current watch.

    Another historical timepiece that is perhaps used more as interesting art today are sundials (a very small sample of sundials in the world). Here is a historical account. I love the beauty of sundials, and I notice them everywhere I go. Here are a couple of examples: 1) the Sundial in the gardens at Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey), and, 2) the Sundial on the stable at Cote de l'Azur Observatoire (Nice, France).

    Thanks for the inspirational post!

  9. Just a few days I went to the second Kosmologietag in Bielefeld - the relevance is that last year at the same meeting I managed to be late for my own talk.

    This is relatively easy to do if you have a 5-hour journey to make in the morning and the meeting starts at 2pm. Even easier if the journey takes place with the assistance of Deutsche Bahn (German train system). We had planned to arrive about an hour early and have some lunch...

    Well, not to worry, in the end we arrived only 10 minutes after the start of the conference, time for the organisers to change the order of speakers and get someone else to give the first talk instead.

    This time a Heidelberg speaker was also first on the program and we worried for a few days how insanely early we should wake up in order to avoid the same problem. In the end it was a bit disappointing that everything was on time, we were even able to look round the beautiful Gothic railway station of Cologne.

    Did Pauli say "No real theorist arrives in the office before noon"? Or am I dreaming that?

  10. Oh no, Thomas - now you are one of THEM! Everybody knows that Bielefeld doesn't exist...


  11. lol Amara!
    that's one way of defining the biological clock
    I musn't forget you believe the tale of Abraham is no more than folk-lore

    But not interested in starting a family - never too late you know.
    One can adopt, saves having to go thru the nine months of pregnancy, the big bang or pangs of childbirth

    or all that messy & tiresome nappy changing, and all that silly goo goo googling bubble blowing stuff!

    But hey, who said - one needs to have children to be fulfilled - to have your hands full, sure.
    But, Modern society provides the means for humans to still have all the fun without putting the bun (in the oven).

  12. >Life is a passtime
    Some pass the time making a mess
    Others pass the time tidying up the mess

  13. Quasar9:

    Heh. Here is a story for you about time and messes.

    When I first arrived in Italy, I shared my office with a Linux-hacker-chain-smoker named Giuseppe, who has a thing for clean floors. He artfully demonstrated a skill of holding two contradictory points-of-view, simultaneously, because I saw him shake ashes from his cigarette onto the hallway floor at some times, and mutter and complain about someone's black shoe scuff marks at other times.

    One May afternoon four years ago, his obsession regarding the floor led to an explosion. The focus of his explosion was the ten boxes of my office materials that I painstakingly moved from Heidelberg (moving company) to the warehouse in Rome, and then from the warehouse to my home (another moving company), and then from my home to my workplace ( the institute Van), all of this taking four months. Naturally, I was quite happy to have my work materials with me again, and even though I could not unpack them (because of my temporary office). Those materials were finallly accessible, in the stacks of boxes around my desk.

    Giuseppe had been gradually fuming about my boxes for a few weeks up to his explosion. They were not anywhere near his desk, but he considers the floor of our office as something that belongs to both, and should be spotless, and my boxes prevented the cleaning lady from maintaining a spotless floor.

    I don't remember what was the trigger, but at one point, he started yelling and moving my boxes and wishing to place them on top of the highest cupboard where I can't reach them. Then I yelled back at him. Then he yelled louder, and me louder still. Then we were both yelling at each other, I completely lost my temper, and people were running out of their offices, wondering what was going on.

    The secretaries calmed down Giuseppe, and told him that my office would be ready in 10 days, if he could 'please just be a little more patient'. I didn't say anything, but walked out, and soon after, I arranged my first holiday from work to follow up a business trip, both parts would mean that I would be away 2.5 weeks, and I thought that the situation would resolve itself. Uh huh.

    My new office was, of course, not ready when I returned from my business trip and holiday. During the next five weeks, after my return, Giuseppe and I didn't speak to each other. No longer did we have a 'saluti' when the other person sneezed, no 'buon giornio' in the morning, no 'ciao' in the afternoon, no desire to take phone messages for the other one. We didn't even look at each other when we passed each other in the hall. Molto stupido situazione.

    So stupido, that finally I cornered him in the hall one afternoon while he was talking to a friend of his. I said 'that we have to talk, we cannot go on like this'. He said that decided essentially that we have different styles that were incompatible, but 'it didn't matter because he had a new office that he was moving to, too, and he would be out in a few days'.I told him that his move would not solve how we got along with each other, we still worked in the same institute, and that we had to talk about what happened so we could get along again. In particular, I told him that I had never lost my temper at my job before, it's not like me to be in that kind of state of mind.

    His answer was something that I will never forget, and sums up very well my every day in Italy at those times when I'm waiting for a bus that never arrives, or I'm in a queue waiting for a piece of paper that was supposed to be ready four months ago, or while I'm being shuffled from one person on the phone to another, or while I'm being told to return two or three times because their computer software doesn't know what place is the USA:

    "Amara, We all have ways that we waste our time".

    I started laughing, and he did too, and basically we've gotten along ever since.


    So, Quasar9, you may have guessed that I'm one of those that cleans up the messes. With the present mess from which I'm trying to gracefully exit, my life is 200% absorbed by multitasking as best as I can to follow my science path while building a stable life and while navigating through the possibilities for how to have children in my life. I don't know how my life will look in a year or two from now, but hopefully it will look much different.

  14. Dear Amara,

    thanks for that story, I love it :-) It is so true, we all have our ways to waste time. The tragedy is if one doesn't realize it. It seems to me everybody of my friends is always busy, busy, busy or tired, tired, tired - including me. Yes, multitasking 200% of the time is a good description. Is it surprising if there is no progress in physics?

    Best luck with the graceful exit - I am looking for one as well (you know how it looks like...).



  15. lol Amara,
    so that's how the initial big bang created the universe, a 'spontaneous' explosion between two astronomers - like a clash of minds, or a storm in a tea cup.

    PS - I prefer passing Time

    "I was doing Time
    in The Universal Mind
    pom pom pom ...
    I was doing fine"
    Jim Morrison - The Doors

  16. Bee,
    the singularity evaporates or rather
    vaporises into Quark Gluon Plasma

    After all the QGP contains all the energy, mass and gravity which is later turned into light & clarity.

    What else could you condense the universe into, or do you still prefer 'it' seeping into the vaccum of Space thru a pinprick in a prior bubble

    PS - did you catch that LOOK LOOK link from the previous comment in my comments box
    Take a leap into hyperspace
    Possibly where anti-gravity is at.


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