Block Universe

A scientific reading of my sculptures might be that they model a subset of a person passing through a 4 dimensional block universe. Let me try and explain what that means.

There are two main conceptions of time – they are conflicting.

Tensed Time

This is time as it is commonly understood; the past, the present and the future. The past is gone, the future doesn’t yet exist and only the present is real, constantly moving forward through time. An interesting question might be – at what rate is ‘the present’ progressing? Can we measure the rate of time? Does this mean anything?

Tenseless Time

In this model all of space and time is put together into a single huge object known as space-time. (There are 3 dimensions of space and 1 of time so this space-time is considered 4 dimensional). This model is also called a block universe. To view the block universe we would need to stand outside of time and space, seeing everything at once, the past, the present, the future.

This was the position occupied by the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse 5. They could view all of history at once (incidentally including their own demise). To them a human life looked a little like a billion legged millipede…

“… And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,”

One way of visualising space-time is by using an example in a lower dimensioned world and then lifting ourselves up a dimension by analogy. The lower dimensioned world I shall call Filmland, which has 2 space dimensions. Imagine that each event in Filmland’s space-time can be captured on a single frame on a piece of film, just as if we froze time we could capture a 3d model of the whole of the earth. We shall concentrate on a tiny area of Filmland, but it could all be captured, given a large enough piece of film. Here is one frame:

A moment later the red man has walked to the right a little:

Now as the red man walks to the right we could arrange all these frames into a 3d block by putting them next to each other. (Again we need to imagine that this block starts at the beginning of our 2d Filmland universe and ends at the end of its time. We are just looking at a subset of it.) This 3d block has now become our Block Universe for that 2d world.

There is no ‘present’ or procession of time in this conception; from outside the block universe everything that ever happens is visible – we can see the red man in all stages of his walk at once.

Now to go back up to 4d. By analogy imagine that our entire 3d world can fit onto each frame (the frame now being 3d). As each element of our world moves through time and space it goes from one 3d frame to the next. If now we make one final stipulation*, that the spatial dimensions of our model are fixed relative to the earth then you create a world model I shall call Longexposureland – and within this world live my long exposure sculptures, as subsets of the objects in this 4d block universe.

*This stipulation is necessary and slightly different from the standard block universe model (which assumes the universe as the reference point) as otherwise my sculptures would be hurtling through space around the sun.

Block Universe
The block universe model is favoured by scientists. The problems they have with the tensed time model is that if space-time is to represent everything and there is a passage of time through it (ie. each frame is lit up in order), then what externally is controlling this flow? The point of space-time was to remove everything external.

Another problem is how do you define what now is for all people? Einstein’s “Relativity of Simultaneity” says that different moving observers will have different opinions about what events are simultaneous. This being an inevitable outcome of the fact that light always travels at the same speed and to ‘see’ an event light has to travel from the event to your eye.

A third problem is what is stopping there being more than one flow of time? If there were more then we’d repeat our exact same lives over and over again.

So science is happier with the block universe tenseless model, and indeed it underpins the Theory of Relativity – still, the illusion of the passage of time is a hard one to break.


The Fourth Dimension (and how to get there)
Rudy Rucker 1985 Penguin Books

That Mysterious Flow – Paul Davies – Scientific American Magazine


One Response to “Block Universe”

  1. Steven Robert Gill (@Smokey_Marks) Says:

    Good post, I remember reading the theory that the non physical consciousness is what is actually moving through this 4D block, giving rise to the illusion of time passing from the conscious observers perspective. So actually the 2D sheet in the top image can be thought to represent consciousness, moving through this 4D block.

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