Thursday, June 30, 2011


Take Five Cesium Seconds

“Time has been a major subject of religion, philosophy, and science, but defining it in a non-controversial manner applicable to all fields of study has consistently eluded the greatest scholars.” -Wikipedia

I feel better now. Defining time, (as in de-finus, to limit, to make finite) has always “consistently eluded” me, too. Ever since I was a child, small enough to be stepped over when adults rushed to be “on time” to this event or that, time puzzled and fascinated me. Once I conquered space, walking and counting, became events in time and time itself “defined” as “tics and tocks” measured by a plastic cat on the wall whose eyes rolled to and fro and whose aqua tail clicked back and forth in “time” with them. Even now, I have a hard time comprehending how quickly the time has passed from my childhood until this moment. I have a haiku that tries to express this feeling.

Climbing the mountain,
I look back to see how much
I have forgotten.

Much of my writing since childhood has focused on the past present in every day. If you have read this blog before you know that much of it is focused on my belief that time is inextricably linked to how I see my writing, a desperate attempt to capture the little firefly of thought before it disappears into the darkness of forgotten time. There is remembered past and there is forgotten past and Dave Brubeck and his crew of truly gifted musicians, whose 1959 album, “Time Out,” experimented with 5/6, 9/8, 5/4 and 6/4 “time.”

In “looking back” to when I was about 14, just starting to understand my self, or at least understand that I was different, an alien, a creature trapped in this space and time with this life to live out. I spent that period in the adolescent agony, consumed with sex and death. When I say sex, I mean of “Portnoy’s Complaint” than of “Candy.” Still a child in some ways, I was just learning what it meant to feel change, my body growing out of my clothes in a matter of months, my shoes not fitting each school year. The shame of acne and the pain of unrequited schoolboy crushes and early experiences with death.

I recall the biggest-selling Jazz recording by the best known combo in US history started playing on the radio. Hearing “Take Five” for the first time was, for me, a moment of expanding consciousness. I remember listening intently to Joe Morello’s drum solo with amazement, realizing for the first “time” that a drum could play a “lead” role and “keep time” while playing with and around the intricate rhythms of the song, how it “marked” time and then the piano took up that chore, while the drum played around that rhythm. I remember Paul Desmond’s sweet sax, like a gilded bird floating over the rhythms, Gene Wright taking the bass lead, Brubeck generous, supporting the entire effect, timeless.

I can’t recall a drum solo before and any since, except for when I heard Ginger Baker solo with “Cream,” at the Fillmore in San Francisco in the 60’s. No others stand out in my memory at all. Ginger Baker, fabulous as that was, was live, as well. I’m sure Gene Krupa was banging away in some big band prior to that recording. I’m sure Ringo put in a few beats that I might find attached to some memories. Baker’s solo was always in such a large venue and for such a short burst that it was never as “memorable” to me as the first time I heard this airy, almost meditative turn an the sticks, one that starts soon after the theme has been established and continues for several minutes, longer than any drumming I had ever heard recorded. It helped me appreciate the idea of “keeping time” or “marking time” with the time “signature” of the music, an odd 5/6 time that I had never heard before then.

If you haven’t heard the piece or can’t recall it in any detail, you should give it another listen. It was part of an experimental album that used a lot of odd time signatures. Brubeck’s piano often took the role of rhythm-keeper, pulling back to support the drum as it explored these strange timings in a half dozen different variations. It seemed to me to be about time itself and how music and time were integrated. It communicated more to me about time than Steven Hawking has ever been able to.

Music, has always seemed to me, to be an art form that is particularly about time. It takes the “measure” of a moment, the “tempo” and the rhythms “mark” time in “signatures” and “beats.” Of course, it is about so much more than “just” that. But, like dance, music exists in the moment. We may “record” that moment and “play” it “back” again and again, but the “recording” happened at one unique, specific moment and that moment is what is being “recalled” for us to sing along or dance to. This is part of the reason a song can be linked so completely to a memory, or a couple can say, “They’re playing our song.” Songs, like all utterances, occur in time. We forget it has only been since Edison that a song could exist after the singer had disappeared into the past.

“Two contrasting viewpoints on time divide many prominent philosophers. One view is that time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which events occur in sequence. Sir Isaac Newton subscribed to this realist view, and hence it is sometimes referred to as Newtonian time.[3][4] Time travel, in this view, becomes a possibility as other "times" persist like frames of a film strip, spread out across the time line. The opposing view is that time does not refer to any kind of "container" that events and objects "move through", nor to any entity that "flows", but that it is instead part of a fundamental intellectual structure (together with space and number) within which humans sequence and compare events. This second view, in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz[5] and Immanuel Kant,[6][7] holds that time is neither an event nor a thing, and thus is not itself measurable nor can it be traveled.” – Wikipedia

I don’t have the inclination, not the intellectual chops to get into the argument between Newton and Kant but I tend to think Kant’s ideas are more poetic and mysterious and to me, more attractive. It fits with my Zen view of the mind as the frame through which the world is “perceived”, in the Latinate definition, i.e. “to seize completely.” We seize the world in our battle to understand it, we capture it one moment at a time, take hold of our little frame for looking at what we want to see, and try not to notice those things that do not fit or match that framework before that moment melts away.

I used to think it quite arbitrary how we chose to measure time. I mean, after all, it’s a long way from a sundial or hourglass and the cesium atom. The current definition of time has cesium embedded in every second. Again, according to Wikipeida, “In 1967, a specific frequency from the emission spectrum of caesium-133 was chosen to be used in the definition of the second by the International System of Units. Since then, cesium has been widely used in atomic clocks.” (Prior to 1967, I guess this was determined by someone saying “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi.”)

All of this measurement is important for sequencing events, and of course, in some particular events, such as competitions and tourneys, competitors are limited by a “clock.” Many sports even have an official timekeeper. Ironically, it leads me to another thought about time and that is the “relativity” of its passing more or less quickly in certain circumstances. Often, the last few minutes of a game, with their strategic “time outs” allow the time during which a game occurs to pass more slowly and even run into “overtime,” which has always struck me as a sort of “life after death.” In baseball, that is preferable to a tie score. However, Americans are willing to sit through a dozen innings as if time had no importance when you turn a square on its side and call it a diamond.

It was once thought that the mind was actually perceiving time in "slow-motion" when under great stress but that was recently shown to be an exaggerated memory, rather than the moment itself. They found this out by dropping subjects from a high tower into a net and measuring their eye movements and brain activity. What will they think of next?

And cesium, itself, has more “timely” connotations from its discovery at the beginning of the 19th century. According to Wikipedia, again, “Since 1967, the International System of Measurements has based its unit of time, the second, on the properties of cesium. The International System of Units (SI) defines the second as 9,192,631,770 cycles of the radiation, which corresponds to the transition between two hyperfine energy levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom.[61] The 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures of 1967 defined a second as: "the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of microwave light absorbed or emitted by the hyperfine transition of cesium-133 atoms in their ground state undisturbed by external fields". One wonders if this precision, this desire to mark and measure so accurately the passing of a moment, takes into account whether that moment is spent in torture or pleasure.

Ironically, this extremely rare element is evident in abundance now in the topsoil of Fukushima province, an aftermath of the Fukushima reactor co-existing with an earthquake and tsunami in the space/time continuum. My first haiku about that moment in time that is slowed when history is being made, when you know this has never happened before, was about a news clip. The video showed a cherry tree in one of the ancient towns destroyed completely by the tsunami. Snow was cloaking the wreckage in a mass of white crystal, but the shapes were so jagged and irregular that the scene was anything but peaceful. The tree had blossomed and was bravely standing it’s place while all round had been swept away.

This Spring’s cherry tree
blossoming pink in the snow,
glows in the darkness.