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The RA's new show sparks meditations on the nature of space and time

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Rory Olcayto reflects on the nature of space and time

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to hear Claire Wright of Wright & Wright architects reflect on her experience of collaborative design: ‘It’s as though you are sweeping off the sand and it has always existed,’ she said of the strange, magical process of hitting upon an idea with a like-minded architect. Wright’s insight inspired last week’s column on the nature of ideas. (What are they? Where do they come from?) Thanks Claire!

One week ago I was lucky enough to hear Yvonne Farrell reflect on her experience of designing an installation for the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. ‘Buildings are really a vessel for capturing the movement, the orbit of the Earth,’ she said, remixing Laurent Beaudouin’s maxim, ‘architecture is a machine for slowing time down’. So, building on a tradition begun last week, Farrell’s insight shall be the inspiration for this week’s column, about space and time. Thanks Yvonne!

If there are any readers out there with A-level physics or better, bear in mind I’ve only got a few hundred words to answer the rather large questions I’ve set myself about the fabric of our reality, so please don’t judge me too harshly if I seemingly make sweeping statements and barely considered pronouncements about a subject you hold dearly.

Anyway, here goes. From an early age you’ve probably understood time to be the fourth dimension, even though this probably never quite sat right with you, seeing as you can only move in one direction along it - forward - unlike the other ones, the spatial ones, X, Y and Z, which allow you to move backwards as well.

The reason we think of time as a dimension is because of an Austrian polymath called Ernst Mach, who refused to countenance the metaphysical aspects of Newtonian physics. Despite being a revolutionary genius, Newton was still a bit medieval in his thinking - he even referred to the universe as the ‘sensorium of god’, meaning the cosmos was that part of god that experienced sensations.

Hah! Idiot! Well maybe not idiot, because Sir Isaac’s very reliable model, to this day, still accurately describes the world around us convincingly, from predicting the motion of that sugar cube you tossed into your tea this morning to the orbits of Phobos and Deimos around Mars. Nevertheless, in 1883, Mach wrote The Science of Mechanics to support his anti-metaphysical, anti-Newtonian stance. This classic text was acknowledged by Albert Einstein as the inspiration that led him to his general theory of relativity, which was the first, er, time, that time was described as a dimension within a model that actually worked. Einstein proposed a fourth dimension called spacetime, in which space and time were fundamentally linked (but not absolute). For example, according to Einstein, two people observing the same event would perceive it occurring at different times depending upon their distance from the event. This difference arises because of the time it takes for light, which travels at a finite and constant speed (absolute in other words, and evidently so) to reach each observer, with the one further away seeing the event occurring later than it would appear to the observer closer to it.

Mind you, as Lee Smolin posits in his new book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, we experience time differently from the way we experience space - the one-way only quandary - so it’s fundamentally wrong to think of it as a dimension. Doing so, say Smolin, alongside attempts to reconcile Einstein’s theory with quantum physics, has sparked new branches of contemporary, metaphysical ‘science’ that Mach would laugh off as hopelessly medieval - like the concept of the multiverse, an infinite range of universes with their own physical laws, distinct and inaccessible from each other, possibly even be superimposed upon each other, ie occupying the same space and - ah shit. Forget it. I’ve run out of space. And time.


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