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Telling Time: Its Meaning and Measurement



Bosiljka Glumac
Bosiljka Glumac, Geology
Richard Lim
Richard Lim, History



Time matters, and in ways that we are not always fully conscious of. We aim to rectify this by proposing a long-term Kahn project that will be a cross-disciplinary exploration of the definition, determination, meaning, and significance of time. We are interested in the ways that temporal and temporality shape materials, events, and processes, as well as how we perceive, analyze and create discourses using them. The general aim of the project, therefore, will be to understand both the effects of time on things and the implications of the temporal dimension for our ways of seeing and interpreting the world and our place in it. The project will consider a broad range of questions. Some will treat the metrics of time, including: how do we tell the age of ancient objects and materials? How do we determine the temporal sequence of past processes and the rates at which changes occurred? Other questions may concern the temporal lens as a way of seeing. What roles do the measurement of time play in shaping our respective intellectual disciplines? Why do temporal contexts and relationships matter in our interpretations and analyses and how do they shape our appreciation of the past, present, and future? Can knowledge of the historical dimension ever have a distorting effect on our analyses?

The practice of archeology may provide us with an apt metaphor for our proposed project, for while we are in interested the discovery and measurement of past time, we are also interested in the archaeology of knowledge itself. While the temporal dimension is surely present in all facets of human life and in the intellectual endeavors of every academic discipline, it is never analytically neutral. For example, traditionally time is determined by observing the movement of the Earth, the Moon, the Sun and other stars, while modern approaches use atomic clocks and quasar observations. But do they tell the very same “story” of time? Astronomers and geologists use the concept of “deep time” to express time in millions and billions of years. Timing of historical events, on the other hand, is stated in millennia, centuries, decades and years. Biologists study organisms with life cycles of 24 hours or shorter, an athlete can win a race by a hundredth of a second, and time can be measured in billionths of a second. How is our perception of time influenced by such an enormous range of temporal scales?

Historians who work on cultural memory and how societies remember (and invent) the past, have introduced doubt into the conventional understanding of human history as a neutral, continuous unfolding of events and processes from the past to the present. What about the storytellers? To what extent (and to what intellectual end) has the “historical record” of a certain event been a story told by those with a direct stake in how it has been represented? How do those who tell the story of time, whether archeologists, paleontologists, or cultural historians, been predisposed by their training to only look for things in certain ways, but not others, and what are the implications of these methodological blind spots? A premise of this project is that our own intellectual practices would be enriched and deepened by a greater awareness of how telling and invoking time shape our own work, as well as an appreciation of the variety of temporal understandings and practices across other disciplines.

This project will be “about time” and is open to scholars whose work navigates its course and who wish to consider its promises, problems, and prospects.



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