Saturday, October 27, 2012

How Culture and Cosmology Intersect: A Review of Adam Frank's “About Time”

Book Cover with a broken watch

Cosmology is a fascinating field to read and think about. And whenever I do, I am overwhelmed by two contradictory feelings about myself and my relationship with the universe. I feel both small and big at the same time. Small because my whole existence, my life, worries, achievements, thoughts and dreams combine to much less than a mere speck, a fragment of a fragment when seen in the enormously big picture, the canvas of our universe (which in turn may only be a speck within the even greater multiverse).

Yet it also makes me feel big because of my fortunate place in this whole process and evolution. In fact, my own personal existence is intricately linked to the Big Bang, the birth of our universe. My own body is stardust, dipped in and made from particles that have been shaped the way they are through a process of billions of years! At the same time, it is also our previous cultures, the combined and shared history of our humanity that have led us to this particular moment, through their inventions, efforts, and most importantly, imagination.

Adam Frank in his book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang has tackled a highly ambitious undertaking here because he is linking our own evolution as a species to the creation and development of technology. As he himself reinforces various times in the course of the book the two, evolution and technology, affect each other in mutual and reciprocal ways. Put differently, we are where we are, namely our current scale and status of our evolution and technological progress, not to say prowess, due to the achievements of our past, the cumulative work of our ancestors.

Our humanity started with simple tools, drawings and myths that have turned into complex and sophisticated gadgets filled with even more possibilities for the future. Along the way, we both shaped and were shaped by technological invention and scientific discoveries. Newton gave us a paradigm that people lived by until it was shattered by Einstein's theory of relativity with the development and subsequent implications of quantum mechanics.

The most original part of Frank's thesis is to point the arrow of progress in two directions, that is "up" and "down." He claims that material engagement, the needs and wants of a particular people at a particular time led to the development of necessary technology, while at the same time, the new technology itself directly affected perception of time and culture. 

Hence, in terms of time, for example, the downward movement has been changing our perception of time in everyday life, whereas its upward movement has influenced our ideas about time in relation to philosophy, physics and cosmology, which in turn also affects our lives in significant ways.

On this epic journey we then encounter pretty much everything from radio, television, washing-machines, Internet and GPS. Some of them are based on daily necessities, others have sprung up due to new discoveries in science, yet each discovery on its own has left an indelible mark on our consciousness reshaping our life and culture.

Yet among all these inventions, the most relevant one must be the clock. The moment time became precise and countable, in fact, even a physical embodiment and reality of our lives, our paths toward discovery and innovation accelerated significantly. Time has become the essence in our digital age. 

Our whole day, not to say life, is structured - some might say enslaved - by time. Time is money; time is running out; don't waste my time; we are a time-obsessed culture that simply never has enough time despite all those time-saving gadgets. This obsession over time as we experience it today is rather a modern idea, something that previous cultures lacked, for better or for worse.

For a clear and wide-ranging overview of how culture, time and cosmology go hand in hand, I recommend this well-researched, informative and entertaining book. Although it tends to become a bit didactic towards the end, the book's indisputable strength lies in spinning the narratives of human culture and tying it with the history of cosmology. 

It is fascinating to see how one idea and discovery led to another; how we all live and move in this web of time and technology. This is followed by Frank's optimistic and open-minded invitation to continue rebuilding and refining our theories about the universe, something from which, in the end, everyone, not only the scientists, will benefit.

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