Time Warp with Lucretius
Lucretius lived and wrote a long time ago. Indeed, if we wanted to, we could calculate how much time has passed since De Rerum Natura was completed in 50 BCE—how many centuries, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds. (But don’t bother. It was 20 centuries, 2,079 years, 24,948 months, 759,355 days, 18,224,520 hours, 1,093,471,200 minutes, and 65,608,272,000 seconds—i.e., a helluva long time ago.)
So how is it possible for someone to have lived that long ago and yet seem almost like our contemporary in the way his mind worked? A few of the ancients seem relatively modern in their outlooks, but only in the area of their genius. In other respects, they were men and women of their times. Only Lucretius, among all the ancients, seems to have possessed a contemporary mind almost across the board.
The issue may have to do with the many forms in which time presents itself to us. We just calculated, for example, how long ago DRN was written in linear time.
But we know, thanks to Lucretius himself (the “swerve”) and to Henri Poincaré (who, 1,948 years later, speculated that time may be observer-dependent) and to Einstein (who, 1,955 years later, demonstrated that space and time are relative to the motion of the observer), we know, that is, that time is not simply a linear phenomenon.
And in fact we understand from our own experience that time isn’t a fixed commodity. When I was a kid and waiting impatiently for the school year to end or for Christmas to come, those events might have been only a few weeks away, but getting there seemed to take a lifetime.
At the opposite end of the time-is-relative spectrum, here’s a story for you. One day I decided for some reason to write a poem about, of all things, Zhou Enlai, the first and, by far, longest-serving Premier in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Unlike most of Mao’s thuggish advisors, Zhou was an educated, cultured man, and I had always been fascinated and troubled by him. I knew that I wanted to end the poem with a lament for the great classical Chinese poets Zhou had loved in his youth but the reading of which had been banned by Mao. I also had the first verse in my mind:
Zhou, you old dog!
Back again like the flooding of the Han
after all these years.
What a pair we made, eh?
Slipping across Europe in the old days,
you were a sly one even then.
One Sunday morning I sat down to memorialize these lines before I forgot them. I found that the rest of the poem was going well—not the usual course of things—and then stood up and went about my business, wondering why I was so stiff. I would have sworn I’d been sitting in that chair for no more than half an hour, but when I looked at my watch I found that I’d been sitting there for more than six hours. (By the way, the completed poem, Zhou En-Lai—not sure why I added the hyphen—was runner-up for the Eve of St. Agnes Award the year Peter Viereck was judge. It’s available here.)
In this vein the French philosopher, Michael Serres, suggests that we think of the distance between Lucretius and us not in terms of linear time, but in terms of what he calls “topological” time.
Suppose, says Serres, that we have decided to iron our handkerchief (bear with me here). We lay the handkerchief on a flat surface and smooth it out. While we are waiting for the iron to heat up we amuse ourselves by drawing a perfect circle on the handkerchief. Then we draw two points on the circumference of the circle as far apart as the points can be – i.e., directly across the diameter of the circle from each other. These points represent the distance between Lucretius and us in linear time.
We now reach for the iron but discover that, although we had turned it on, we’d forgotten to plug it in. Well, the hell with it, we wad the handkerchief up and stuff it in our pocket.
Aha, says Serres, where are those two points now in relation to each other? It’s entirely possible that the two points are immediately adjacent. It’s as though Lucretius had pulled a chair up next to ours and begun to chat with us about human evolution!
The conceit of topological time allows us to speculate about Lucretius, time, and the influence of ideas across the ages. For example, if the DRN manuscript hadn’t been lost and the Dark Ages hadn’t happened (those two events being not unconnected), DRN would have continued to exist in linear time. People who read the poem would have followed Lucretius’s lines of thinking, and science and philosophy would have advanced in slow but natural increments from 50 BCE to, well, to today.
But because DRN existed instead in topological time, vast stretches of linear time went uneventfully by while the poem was lost. The poem existed and Lucretius’s extraordinary thoughts and speculations had occurred and had been memorialized. It’s just that no one on the planet knew about any of this.
In Serres’s terms, DRN was still a point out there on the circumference of the circle, waiting for the other point to find it. But once people did find it, the (re)discovery of DRN allowed 1,500 years of pent-up scientific and philosophical thinking to burst forth quite suddenly in the phenomenon we call the Renaissance.
Next week we’ll finish up this series by speculating about how another phenomenon—Lucretius himself—could have happened.
Next up: On Lucretius, Part IV