Episode 10: Wandering Rocks, ~pp 216-251

What They Are Saying, Episode 10

Matthew Arnold predeceased Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity by seventeen years. Unless Arnold died with the untold secret of time travel, it’s unlikely that he referred to relativity when he penned “…between two roaring worlds where they swirl.” Joyce didn’t know about Einstein’s papers of 1905 on the first Bloomsday either, but by the time he quoted Arnold in Ulysses, he knew about space-time. By the time he began Finnegans Wake, he was steeped in the potential complications and opportunities of time, mass, and velocity mischief.

Einstein deserves the blame. When Albert explained the effects of space-time, it flew in (or through) the face of the classical thinker. Some had embraced the evidence processed by the senses (a la Newton and Maxwell), but Einstein’s theory would also confound those who rejected sensory data (like Aristotle and Bishop Berkeley). Space-time treats both sensory evidence and the rejection of classical acceptance of time with equal and utter disrespect.

In her paper “Time, Space, and Consciousness in James Joyce’s Ulysses” (1992), Alexandra Anyfanti lays out a time-tussle between Wyndham Lewis and Henri Bergson. Lewis conservatively offered that time is an unshakeable part of the physical universe. Budgen mentions Lewis scolding Joyce for his unnecessary emphasis on time. While Lewis dismisses time as something that just is, Bergson dismisses time as something that just isn’t. Anyfanti quotes Bergson claiming time is an invention. What has this to do with Ulysses? She connects “Wandering Rocks” directly to the argument. Says Anyfanti: of the episode, we” …telescope the past into the present, and make our life a fiery point ‘eating’ like acetylene flame into the future.” Time travel!

Famously, the thought experiment that led Albert to relativity had to do with riding a trolly away from the Bern clocktower at the speed of light. Contemplation led to the conclusion that time slows as we approach the speed to light and that gravity “bends” time. The latter point isn’t just theoretical. Unadjusted clocks gain 38 microseconds per day due to gravity.

NASA agrees that some options potentially exist for moving through time-space at speeds approaching the speed of light, but the options are problematic. According to Einstein’s math, an object traveling at the speed of light would have infinite mass and a length of zero. That might hurt, and how we might develop a wormhole is unknown at this time. Other options exist, too, like circumnavigating a black hole or constructing a Tipler tube, possible but of unknown applicability.

Characters weave in and out of space and time in “Wandering Rocks” like dancing Professor Maginni. There have been attempts to test the choreography. It couldn’t be replicated in modern day Dublin on a Bloomsday in the recent past. Logistically this test must have stretched patience and the envelope of time. Events and characters appear, reappear and vanish some chronologically concurrent, some subsequent. Dark-backed Bloom moves away from us at the speed of light. Much Maligned Molly drops charity to a one-legged sailor both in Lenehan/M’Coy Mean Time and in Lambert/O’Molloy Standard Time. Farrell careens, Conmee strolls, Kernan parades through Einstein’s equations.

Timepieces are everywhere tugged at by gravity and the earth’s rotation. Conmee’s pocket watch, Walsh’s Clock, O’Neill’s too, the sundial, “Micky Anderson’s all times ticking watches.” “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet says. All were drifting gradually away from the last moment’s reality in an impossible dance of Dublin’s demography. Bloomsday 1904 continues forever in the novel and everywhere. Is that a proof of time warp?

Dr. Don Lincoln of the Fermi Labs tells a physicist’s joke. Here’s my retelling of his story:

A farmer wanted to increase milk production. He took his problem to a physicist. The physicist said he might help and that the farmer should return in a few days. When he returned, the farmer was greeted with a mountain of papers and many whiteboards filled with equations, erasure smears, squeezed-in additions. The physicist was pleased with his work. He said: “I certainly can help. The problem was merely to frame the assumptions optimally. Here’s what we do. Start by assuming that the cow is spherical and gives off milk in equal quantities in all directions.

It may be that some assumptions about space-time may not be helpful in a world where cows are not spherical. Furthermore, there are physicists like Dr. Gretchen Carlsen, who dare voice questions about our mathematics. It might be a mistake to assume that our mathematics will always reflect the physical world. What if the problem exists not in the physical world but in our mathematics? But we speak of art not science. Ulysses is great art. That is settled to my satisfaction. Perhaps relativity is art too.

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