Today, we look for Right
Now. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I grow increasingly put off
by the common advice that we should live in the
present. Actually, that's quite impossible to do.
If you can tell me when Right Now occurs,
then I'll try it.
Let me offer an example here in my office. I soak
up sensory input -- objects, tasks pending, books
already read and papers long since written, and, on
the wall, my photo of the Iguazu waterfall. That
day when I made the surrealistic mile-long trek
along its rim in Brazil comes back, as does the
hope of one-day seeing it again.
But where, in the process of looking at
the photo, is the pre-sent? As long as I stare,
unblinking, I seem to own a present mo-ment. Then I
find my eyes moving about the picture, imagining
the motion of the water, the changing perspective
of that day in Brazil. Even so calm a thing as
seeing a cherished photo turns into a process with
its thens and will-be's. You
may've heard me quote Isaac Watt's
eighteenth-century hymn about the directionality of
Time, what an empty vapor 'tis;
and days how swift they are.
Swift as an Indian arrow flies;
or like a shooting star.
He knew time doesn't sit still. And his second
verse drives that point home. He says,
The present Moments just appear,
Then slide away in haste,
That we can never say, "They're here;"
But only say, "They're past."
Watts knew, long ago, what early twentieth century
physics would tell us in more formal terms. After
we sorted out quantum mechanics, we not only knew
that no single instant in time could ever be
experienced. We found that it couldn't
even be specified.
By then, Einstein had shown that it's also nonsense
to speak of simultaneity between any two
things that aren't sitting still. What does
simultaneity mean between two moving clocks, each
of which sees the other through relativistic
Along with Einstein, arose Proust, Joyce, and
Duchamp. A Proust character might relive a vast
portion of his life within a single instant. Yet,
anyone reading Proust is quite aware of time
passing, as the instant stretches out over pages.
Joyce's narratives and Duchamp's paintings undercut
the human experience of time-as-sequence, by
displaying action kaleidoscopically.
I won't shrug off the canard about living in the
present; but what it really means is that I need to
connect my past to my intentions -- recreating from
the best of what has been in a future that is my
responsibility. It means I cannot leave my past in
some nos-talgic box where it doesn't touch my
The most amazing twentieth-century discovery was
the folly of our tidy notions about time. So I do
my best to live within to-day's process -- devoid
as it is of any present moment. But then, the game
never was about moments; it's always been
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Here's a nice treatment of relativity and
I am very grateful to Sarah Fishman, UH History
Dept., and George Reiter, UH Physics Dept., for
A good example of Proust's writing and his handling
of time is: M. Proust, Swann's Way (Remembrance
of Things Past, No. 1). New York: Penguin,
Listener Larry Friesen writes to point out that my phrase,
"nonesense to speak of simultaneity" is hyperbole. It would've
been more accurate to've said, perhaps, that simultaneity is
dependent upon the reference frame of the observer.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.