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Of Time, Space, and Other Things

Isaac Asimov

Part I Of Time And Space Introduction

  As we trace the development of man over the ages, it seems in many respects a tale of glory and victory; of the develop ment of the brain; of the discovery of fire; of the building of cities and of civilizations; of the triumph of reason; of the fimng of the Earth and of the reaching out to sea and space.

  But increasing knowledge leads not to conquest only, but to utter defeat as well, for one learns not only of new po tentialities, but also of new limitations. An explorer may discover a new continent, but he may also stumble over the world's end.

  And it is so with mankind. We are distinguished from all other living species by our power over the inanimate universe; and we are distinguished from them also by our abject defeat by the inanimate universe, for we alone have learned of defeat.

  Consider that no other species (as far as we know) can possess our concept of time. An animal may remember, but surely it can have no notion of "past" and certainly not of "future. "

  No non-human creature lives in anything but the present moment. No non-human creature can foresee the inevita bility of its own death. Only man is mortal, in the sense that only man is aware that he is mortal.

  Robert Bums said it better in his poem To a Mouve.

  He addresses the mouse, after turning up its nest with his plough, apologizing to it for the disaster he has brought upon it, and reminding it fatalistically that "The- best-laid schemes o' mice and men / Gang aft a-gley. "

  But then, in a final soul-chilling stanza (too often lost in the glare of the much more famous penultimate stanza about mice and men), he gets to the real nub of the poem and says:

  "Still thou art blest compar'd wi' me!

  "The present only toucheth thee:

  "But oh, I backward cast my e'e

  "On prospects drear!

  "An' forward tho' I canna see,

  "I guess an' fear!"

  Somewhere, then, in the progress of evolution from mouse to man, a primitive hominid first caught and grasped at the notion that someday he would die. Every living crea ture died at last, our proto-philosopher could not help but notice, and the great realization somehow dawned upon him that he himself would do so, too. If death must come to all life, it must come to himself as well, and ahead of him he saw world's end.

  We talk often about the discovery of fire, which marked man off from all the rest of creation. Yet the discovery of death', is surely just as unique and may have been just as driving a force in man's upward climb.

  The details of both discoveries are lost forever in the shrouded and impenetrable fog of pre-history, but they appear in myths. The discovery of fire is celebrated most famously in the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Sun for the poor, shivering race of man.

  And the discovery of death is celebrated most famously in the Hebrew myth of the Garden of Eden, where man first dwelt in the immortality that came of the ignorance of time. But man gained knowledge, or, if you prefer, he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

  And with knowledge, death entered the world, in the sense that man knew he must die. In biblical terms, this awareness of death is described as resulting from divine revelation. In the 'solemn speech in which He apprises

  Adam of the punishment for disobedience, God tells him (Gen. 3:19): for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. "

  But man struggles onward under the terrible weight of

  Adam's curse, and I cannot help but wonder how much of man's accomplishment traces directly back to his en deavor to neutralize the horrifying awareness of inevitable death. He may transfer the consciousness of existence from himself to his family and find immortali,ty after all in the fact that though his own spark of life snuffs out, an allied spark continues in the children that issued out of his body.

  How much of tribal society is based on this?

  Or he may decide that the true life is not of the body which is, indeed, mortal and must suffer death; but of the spirit which lives forever. And how much of philosophy and religion and the highest aspirations of man's faculties arises from this striving to deny Adam's curse?

  Yet what of a society in which the notion of family and of spirit weakens; a society in which the material world of the senses gradually fills the consciousness from horizon to horizon? The nearest approach-to such a society in man's history is probably our own. How, then, has the modern

  West, which has deprived itself of the classical escapes, re acted to the inevitability of death?

  Is it entirely a coincidence that of all cultures, that of the present-day West is the most time-conscious? That it has spent more of its energies in studying time, measuring time, cutting time up into ever-tinier segments with ever greater accuracy?

  Is it entirely a coincidence that the most materialistic subdivision of our most materialistic culture, the twentieth century American, is never seen anywhere without, his wristwatch? At no time, apparently, dare he be unaware of the sweep of the second hand and of the ticks that mark off the inexorable running out of the sands of his life.

  So it is that the opening essays in this collection deal directly with man's attempt to measure time. The notion of time creeps into a number of the other essays as well; in a discussion of units which turn out always to include the "second"; in a discussion of catalysts which squeeze more action into less time. For really, time is a subject that cannot be entirely excluded from any; corner of science.

  When man faces death directly, then, he studies time, for it is by accurately handling time that he can measure other phenomena and find a route through science. And through science, perhaps, may come a truly materialistic defeat of Adam's curse.

  For my final essay in this book takes up the inevitability of death, and the conclusion is that though all men are mortal, they are not nearly as mortal as they ought to be.

  Why not? That is the chink in death's armor. Why does man live as surprisingly long as he does? If we can some day find the answer to that, we may find the answer to much more.


  Who knows, but-maybe!