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25 October 2004
We humans live and think in a specific context of space and time. It's easy to imagine that this context is all the space and time that there is. It is only recently that we have an idea of the vast distances to the galaxies, and to the core of the atom. Similarly, it's only recently that the depth and texture of events in geological time and atomic time scales were realized.
As Different as Day and Night
What is our place in this web of space and time? What is meant by a "place" and a "time" if they are so different at different resolutions?
To illustrate, consider the phenomenon of night and day. For those living on the surface of the earth outside the arctic and antarctic circles, there is a difference between night and day. But, as you travel toward the poles, nights and days stop being daily phenomena and more accurately describe seasons. Go deep enough under the sea, and rhythm of life is probably more governed by the moon. Leave the earth's surface and you will see that the distant brightness of the stars and the close brightness of the sun are the realities of light, light which is everywhere and unescapable, except where it is shadowed by planetary bodies or clouds of interstellar gas.
For every solar night, there are untold billions of nights related to the shadows of the other stars and luminous gases of the universe, each one of which could be called "day" in the proper context.
Similarly, at the atomic level, day is distinguished from night by the effects of electromagnetic energy.
Consider the unit of time that a day represents - what does that mean at the scale of a galaxy or at the scale of molecular interaction? Or for a less profound stretch of the imagination, consider the perception of sound. Sound is the perception and interpretation of a medium changing pressure in time.
At one scale, you can hear individual beats. Speed the beats up, and they are now perceived as a tone. Overlapping beats become simultaneous tones. Changes in the speed of the changes in pressure result in melodies and harmonies. Structure those melodies and harmonies and you have measures, movements, concerti, opera, opera cycles, opera repertoires. The instantaneous sound is meaningless; as the sound acquires context, it acquires the structure that allows it to mean something.
There is an equivocal nature in the simultaneous structuring of events at different resolutions. The water in a wave does not move far, but the energy of a wave does. The water in a stream is ever changing, but the shape of the stream is related to the speed and volume of the water in it, and not any specific set of molecules. The speed and power of the flow erodes the riverbank, which itself is not a property of any particular set of water molecules, but a property of their actions and the direction and speed of their energy, and this in turn affects the direction and speed of the river in the future. Action in one context affects the actions perceived in nearby ones.