An Experiment With Time

by Andrew Crumey

Picador blog entry, March 2008

Certain books have a strange way of stalking you. I remember being in a second-hand shop in Edinburgh a few years ago and seeing an old volume entitled An Experiment With Time.

A quick perusal showed it to be a work from the 1920s offering a new theory of time: just the kind of thing I like. Ever since I was a physics student, I’ve always had an eye out for fringe works of the sort you could call speculation, pseudo-science or crank theory, depending on your point of view.

Maybe I was short of change that day, or I’d already spent too much, or the book was in a poor state – I can’t remember, but for whatever reason, I didn’t buy it. Then a while later I was reading Paul Davies’s About Time which mentioned the book, and its author, John William Dunne (1875-1949). His theory, I learned, was that instead of there being just one dimension of time, there are an infinite number of them, and it’s only while dreaming (or in other altered states of mind) that we get a glimmer of these higher dimensions, enabling us to dream about the future as well as the past.

That’s the theory, and if you want my honest opinion, I think it sucks – but Dunne’s infinite time idea appealed to me on one level, because in fact my PhD research was about systems that can, in a sense, be thought of as having lots of different potential time dimensions – it’s just that in practice they can only have one time at a time, if you get my drift. And if you don’t then tough, because things soon get even more complicated…

A year or so back I took up the gentle art of fly fishing. Not very gentle in my case: my casting is lousy, so trout can swim safely when I’m around, given fair warning of my approach by all my thrashing. Being a bookish sort, I took the trouble to investigate one or two classic writers on the subject – such as G.E.M. Skues, Arthur Ransome… and I came across another name: J.W. Dunne. Apparently in 1924 he published a book called Sunshine and the Dry Fly, trying to establish what translucent insects look like to fish swimming underneath, in the hope of copying the effect with fur and feather on a hook. Dunne even created his own special equipment to test his theories. Could this be the same guy who went on to experiment with time?

Yes it was, and having established that curious link, I figured I really had to read An Experiment with Time, which Dunne – an aeronautical engineer by profession – published in 1927. Fortunately I didn’t need to comb second-hand stores in search of it: there’s a modern reissue by Hampton Roads Books that’s still in print.

It was a number of apparently prophetic dreams that set Dunne away from fly fishing experiments and on to theoretical physics, and thanks to his engineering background, An Experiment with Time is written in a sober, methodical style – comforting to readers used to orthodox science, though perhaps a little disappointing to mystics or sensation-seekers. Dunne’s basic question concerns the way that we say time ‘flows’ or ‘passes’. Those words both imply movement; in other words they imply time – another time beyond the one that’s ‘flowing’. And if that second time also ‘passes’ then there has to be third in which it moves, and so on.

Like I say, I think it sucks – but it’s a valid problem. Roland Barthes expressed it in a different way: he said that in narrative there is no time, we only think there is. My copy of Anna Karenina hasn’t changed since the day I bought it, except to go a bit yellow – the words are exactly the same, and for the characters described in those words, no time has passed. The universe, many physicists have argued for the last few centuries, ought to be just like that: a story written out in full, and our experience of it is like a reader’s, working through the pages. The problem, then, is why our sensation of temporality – the passing of time – should happen at all. Books can exist perfectly well without readers, and the universe could get along fine without any of us worrying about our grey hairs or pension plans.

Dunne offered one answer – not a very satisfying one, because instead of temporality being a problem of a single dimension, Dunne made it a problem of infinitely many, most of which are unobserved. But his book apparently attracted a lot of attention at the time: a particularly big fan, it seems, was J.B. Priestley, who was inspired by it to write Time and the Conways. T.S. Eliot may have been another reader – certainly, speculation about the fringes of physics was as vigorous in the 1920s and 30s as it is now. So thanks for stalking me, Mr Dunne. Now maybe I’d better track down Sunshine and the Dry Fly - or at least get my back-cast sorted.