Students ponder visual representations of time with Jenann Ismael

Written by Arman Aboutorabi, CAS communications intern

Jenann Ismael

On November 21, professor of philosophy at Columbia University Jenann Ismael addressed a large crowd in Shriver Center to give a special lecture titled "Visual Representations of Time: From Physics to Philosophy." Its purpose was to examine the role of pictorial representations in our understanding of time.

Ismael's lecture was part of this year's John W. Altman Program on "Time and Temporality." The Altman Program is a yearlong, interdisciplinary study of a salient public issue sponsored by Miami's Humanities Center. The largest research program in the humanities at Miami, the Altman brings together a team of faculty, students, and distinguished visitors from a wide range of academic disciplines to study the year's special topic.

This year's topic has been popular with students and faculty. "When I first arrived, the entire room was packed," said Anna Skudlarek, a senior majoring in English Literature and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. "I had to stand in the back until somebody brought in more chairs."

Ismael began by outlining the two major philosophical understandings of time in our universe. The first claims that the universe is open-ended and ongoing, while the second sees the universe as a contained, discrete manifold of events.

"What I want to talk about is the role of the image of time in these controversies," said Ismael, shifting the focus of the lecture away from philosophy and more towards physics.

Ismael first extolled the virtues of pictorial representation, praising how a picture helps the human brain understand complex problems and associations.

"It takes an Isaac Newton to see the similarity between cannonball trajectory and planetary motion, but any high school freshman can see the similarity in a well-depicted graphic," she said.

However, Ismael made clear that the process of representing space-time pictorially is not without drawbacks. Sometimes it causes philosophical misunderstandings.

"Four-dimensional images of space-time work by creating a point of view outside of the universe, treating the universe as an observable object," she explained. The problem with this approach is that "there is no external dimension outside of space and time; there is just space and time itself."

This way of representing space-time has twisted our understanding of the universe and confused many brilliant thinkers, said Ismael. It invites us to believe that the future already exists within the universe, when in fact it does not.

Ismael offered an alternative way of understanding time: "We discover what time looks like, not from the perspective of a fictional creature outside of time, but from the perspective of a creature within time who, like ourselves, experiences time minute-by-minute, second-by-second."

Ismael likened this approach to the experience of listening to music. Although an entire musical piece can be written out on a score, we experience music a series of notes in time, but our memory of previous notes and expectation of future notes puts together the musical piece as a whole.

"What your mind does with the events of your life as they are encountered and in the intervals that separate them is essential to temporal experience," she said.

Ismael's thought-provoking lecture was received well by the audience of students and faculty. Junior English literature and French major Mady Neal marveled at the interdisciplinary nature of Ismael's work.

"It was really interesting to see philosophy and physics be put together in this unique way," she said. "Seeing different areas of study come together like this to explain the same topics makes me think about all the cool ways different types of research can connect to each other."

"One of the goals of the Altman Program is to challenge people to rethink seemingly obvious features of our world," said Timothy Melley, director of the Miami University Humanities Center. "Ismael revealed how easy it is for even brilliant people to make mistakes when they get too caught up in comfortable ways of thinking."

If interdisciplinary lectures such as Dr. Ismael's interest you, visit the Humanities Center website to see upcoming events and learn about how to participate in this unique program at Miami.