“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past”
– T.S. Eliot (Burnt Norton)
How much time does it take to think of something new – a poem, a scientific theory, a song, a conspiracy? Can we watch it happen? Is the time it takes to think of something preserved in the product? What is it about Time – the most unsolvable puzzle life offers – that makes us want to “save” it so much – librarians in particular? Countless songs, books, poems, symphonies, theories, myths and scientific studies have been devoted to preserving time, or lamenting its loss – and yet no one is willing to accept the obvious: that it can’t be saved. This is a fact of death, more than a fact of life. Time is the cost of living; the more you invest in life, the more you spend of it. We all have only the time given us, but we always want more. This is one reason I remain perpetually skeptical about the need for – or value of – speeding up research and research tools.
Many information professionals believe that productivity is victimized by time, as if we’ll miss learning something important if it takes too long. Yet nothing that we want to keep has ever been produced quickly. Information competes with pleasure, biology, habit, fear, family and purpose for our attention, and all must be given their due. It might be fun to dramatize time here a little, make it more visible, if not controllable. Our blogging software doesn’t allow me to embed a stopwatch, but you can get to one easily enough. Firefox offers a good one as an extension, which you can download at Stopwatch . If you can’t do that, you can find a java-based stopwatch application at Web-clock ; it counts in milliseconds. The Firefox stopwatch doesn’t take up much room on a desktop, and a web-based stopwatch page can be minimized so that it can be used with other pages. If you resize your webpage you’ll be able to keep the stopwatch visible next to it. You can also download stopwatches, both as free or fee-based software. These will give you much more flexibility in placing them and using them.
Do we know how long it took for Einstein to formulate his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, e=mc2? Those who knew him or have written biographies might say it took him 2 months, or perhaps two years, of really intense thinking. Some say it took eight years. Thinking isn’t research, exactly, but we know Einstein was aware of his predecessors in theoretical physics – Mach, Maxwell, Lorentz, Poincare…..
There’s another way of looking at it. Maybe it took Einstein only 3 billionths of a second to think of the Theory. How would we know? Where and when does a thought begin, or end? Has anyone figured out how to measure the speed of the thought process yet? Many think they have. Numbers can be so convincing, and there are more numbers than facts. Does consciousness even exist in time? Some neurobiologists insist it should be treated as a new branch of physics. We know the brain has trillions of neurons, which are powered by chemicals, atoms, forces, electrons….. Physicists agree that the fastest speed known is the “speed of light” – 186,000 miles per second (the cin Einstein’s famous formula). How fast is that? Haven’t you ever wondered how the speed of light could be squared? Squared, it’s 34, 459,610,000 units. What is that a measurement of? It couldn’t be a measurement of speed any faster than light, could it? It’s a measurement of space or energy or mass. We already know that light establishes the ultimate measurable speed. Not very coincidentally, the speed of light is also the highest speed that the “movement” of electrons can be measured. Keep that fact on hold. Multiplied by matter, c2 is said to be measuring an equivalent of energy: e=mc2. In miles crepresents a “distance” of 186,000 seconds, or 51.67 hours, and c2 takes 1097 years. Of energy divided by mass? What is that? I don’t know: I’m no Einstein. A light-year is said to be the distance light can travel in a year: 5,865,696,000,000 miles. But are hours, days or years energy? Can time energize? Does a mile exist outside time, or time outside of space?
They say all measurements are relative to the measurer. Then isn’t knowledge proof that time travel is possible? In 3 billionths of a second light – and electricity – travels about 2.95 feet. But electrons can cross the width of a normal human brain, assuming the brain occupies only that spongy mass in your skull – about 7 inches – in far less than 3 billionths of a second – in one 600,000,000th of a second in fact. So what does that tell us? That Einstein was a fast thinker, that computers by definition could never think? If a brain – or a computer – has a billion circuits going at once in all directions, what does that say about the relative measurement of light, or thought? After all, our capacity to measure is still limited to the three dimensions we know. Maybe all those other “directions” are actually dimensions. To me, these musings suggest that thinking may be faster than light, or slower than is measurable in a single lifetime. Or both. What does it mean when Google shows it found 108 million references to “Einstein” in .017 seconds? Or finds 14,900 references to “einstein (and) e=mc2” in .26 seconds? No human can do that. But who asked Google to search, and why? Can we know when a search engine actually finds something of value? Or does thinking, that endlessly instantaneous process, have to intervene somewhere? Will search engines ever be able to speed up thinking?
There are hundreds of
time measurements, and ways of measuring time, from the Planck moment (10 to the minus-44 power of a second), currently considered the shortest describable duration – the one (the only one?) which may have lasted long enough for the universe to form – to the speed of light, used to measure the real estate of universes. But wait. There is also quantum time, which doesn’t really involve measurement (too primitive a concept) or linearity. There is the Eternal Present (which you just missed). There is generational time, geological time, historical time, warped time, sidereal time, millennial time, vacation time, lunch time, subatomic time, dog-years, cellular time, billable hours, time off, watched pots, stopped time, doing time, bed time, keeping time, making time, having a good time, time wasted, dream time, too little time, forever (and ever), the time it takes to live, write, read and study Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past…and that disfiguring, untreatable but legal addiction affecting a small minority of privileged misfits (including this writer) – extra time.
Putting a stopwatch on your desktop changes your perspective on time and online searching, especially when you see hundredths of a second whiz by. Milliseconds can’t truly be seen by the eye, though the eye is what sees the results of Google searches rounded off to milliseconds. What can you do in a hundredth of a second? Some studies show it takes at least 5 hundredths to blink an eye. In one hundredth, light in a vacuum can travel 1860 miles, a crow’s flight from Stony Brook to
All right. You have decided on how to search. You’re going to go with the ever-reliable Academic Search Premier. Milliseconds continue to disappear while you manipulate your mouse or keyboard in a way that allows your browser to find the search screen when you touch something with your finger. Digital behavior. Or are you using a new voice-activated computer? You have a fast connection, and virus protection. Good. In only 2.12 seconds the website appears. If you’re chatting a question, you’d better allow for time to pass on the other end, while your answering human becomes “live.” By the time that happens, light could have made a trip to the moon and back hundreds of times. It could have been worse: the appearance e of the ASP database might have taken 3.4 seconds, or even – unthinkably – 6 seconds, if traffic was bad. Or maybe a better machine, better software, or a better connection would have made it faster – how about .074 seconds from click to screen! – even though the signals may traveled thousands of miles over 7 different relays. But a signal should be able to handle such small distances – however old your region’s electrical grid is. After all, signals can travel 186,000 miles in a second. In a vacuum.
Academic Search Premier screen (members only!) – once you find it – is pretty easy to negotiate. As with most search screens, you have relatively few options to consider – only 3, or maybe 6. Maybe 11? Only the stopwatch knows. Your chief decision will be, what terms to search. That’s easy. We can use “impact” (or is that the right word? What about “influence” or “effect” or “outcome”?) and “einstein” (does capital E matter?) and “War?” (which war? Two? 2? II?
Never mind. It turns out that “einstein and war” (with no limits set) does produce at least 97 references. Should we go down the list and see which ones may interest us? How about New Details Emerge from the Einstein Files, by: Overbye, Dennis. New York Times, 5/7/2002, Vol. 151 Issue 52111, pD1, 0p, 1 chart, 16bw; (AN 6614828), reference number 38 on page four of the screen. I guess you had to be there. Well…. if we add “atomic” to the search, it narrows it down to only eleven. That may work better. “Relativity” instead of atomic” yields 6. Hmmmmmm. What if instead we want to see how this search displays in a colorful graphics mode, not a list? (Forget the stopwatch.) What a brilliant idea! Who thought of that? If you happen to look at the top of the basic Academic Search Premier search page, you’ll see “Visual Search” on the middle tab. Click it, go ahead! Thanks to Grokker, a dynamic, hypermediated screen appears that puts information in a whole new light:
This certainly looks like more fun. The info is inside a “globe”! Plus: the globe already separates subtopics for you (based on what kind of tagging? Don’t ask: somebody had to do it!) Click on one of the small circles, like “World War,” or one of the small squares within them, and further refinements appear, until, at last, you are given specific references to articles like the ones we started with, though in a different order. Will the order we find them in really make a difference to our research? Maybe. Who Knows? The fact is, we will never know. Even if a study showed that it did, would a brilliant researcher tailor his search tactics to findings based on studying an experimental model (using inevitably outdated references)? He might if an articulate librarian showed him it was “advantageous,” though the librarian researcher will need time (using who’s time?) to explore all the ways she can refine a search using this one engine (not even Google does the Grok for you). But with that stopwatch going, how could anyone spare that much time?
Most librarians and search engine developers take pride in the time they claim they can save people who are looking for information – whether it’s the best price for a pair of Guess jeans, a new Thai restaurant on the North End, 5 articles on teenage gangs in Singapore, or the latest treatment for pancreatic cancer. We – and our users – continue to promote speedy searching – by teaching users how to search and research, by using different engines and strategies, by designing new search engines. Our users expect us to, and get darned impatient if we take too long. And we do save time. The problem with this outcome is that the only time we save is human time, and neither searching nor faith nor scientific knowledge is measurable in human time. Internet search engines can improve searches for specific information, information that is embedded, in a sense, in descriptive tags (even a title is a tag), though nearly every search engine will link to “related search terms”. Librarians re-shape “why” questions from users (even Jeeves got tired of being Asked “why?”) because such questions can go in so many directions. It may take lots of time to find the end of “why.” “Why does time sometimes go slowly and sometimes quickly?” “Why are artists so crazy?” “Why is the sky blue?” Ignorance can’t be squashed by generalization. Its coin is time and education costs a lot of coins.
Then perhaps we should use a different kind of stopwatch. One that measures time lapses in fractions of a year would show that a successful 20-minute search, using several strategies, back-tracking, and sampling, takes only 38 ten-thousandths of a year to accomplish. How incredibly fast is that? How quickly we learn! Would you really need to cut down your search time to a speedier 11 ten-thousandths of a year by eliminating one of the steps in the thought process? What would you do with those extra 27 ten-thousandths of a year? On your millisecond stopwatch, it’ll go by before you can think of a good answer. There’s never enough time to learn: a puzzlement, a paradox, a false dichotomy? Or am I just spinning an issue out of too much time?
Consider the time it takes to learn, to think. Has anyone really studied the connection between research and thinking? That they are connected is usually an a priori assumption. Many people have measured the time it takes to learn, but all they have come up with are numbers telling us who (or what animal) learned what was already known, or knowable, and under what circumstances. Which is fine: all most of us need to learn are the facts of life and the right way to the dead end of the maze. Education and research, however,deal with how people think. There are ways to re-define thinking, but the measurement of it is always surprisingly different from the size of the thought. Intellectual history traces the origins and development of ideas, and often assigns dates to them, but it measures outcome, not process. Are the origins of ideas separate from the process of thinking? When it comes to thinking, all time is equal – or irrelevant. Why spend time trying to save seconds, minutes, hours or even days from the search for knowledge when we don’t even know how long thinking takes to become knowledge? A bad habit, I suppose, akin to human error. Forgivable when inconsequential or productive. After all, saving time can be profitable, even fun! Sesame Street proved it, and so does NASCAR. And look how much time we spend in thinking why we didn’t get the terrorists in time to prevent their acts of violence! The Report of the 9-11 Commission made findings out of unanswerable questions that had to be asked about the day that time stopped, then, infuriatingly, just kept on coming. And a good algorithm will turn these findings inside out.
Paul B. Wiener
Sept. 11, 2006
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