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The rhythm of history


Conversation on the Origin of Time has been inspired by a certain scientific ideas, among them the writings of the French philosopher René Thom and the Danish physicist Per Bak, who have developed several theories in an attempt to define the phenomenon of the crisis/catastrophe. For Thom nature is an inventory of forms that are born, come into conflict with each other, and die in a continuous flux. He defines catastrophe as an abrupt transition from a minimum state of potential to another similar or stable equilibrium. The scholar identifies a number of elementary catastrophes on both organic and inorganic structures that allow us to describe a range of dynamics underlying the developments possible in nature.

Per Bak’s theory of self-organized criticality is derived instead from a series of studies to analyze those transformations—from small changes in shape to large catastrophic events—that occur in complex closed systems. Starting from the Gutenberg-Richter law, which denotes how the relationship between the magnitude and the total number of earthquakes in a given place, for a given period of time, is proportional, the physicist also analyzed how in certain other complex systems phenomena are recreated following well defined laws of proportion. Per Bak writes, “Major catastrophic events occur as a result of the same dynamics that produce small ordinary events [...] self-organized criticality is then Nature’s way of making huge changes in short periods of time.”

If the time of man is thus marked by periods of stability and well-being that alternate with the abrupt and sudden onset of decline and poverty, the time of the planet is also marked by slow changes that alternate with disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, floods, and avalanches that profoundly transform territories in short periods of time, and these alternate in cycles that follow certain laws of proportion.

These incessant movements, varied but pronounced, can be read as the language of a rhythm, the rhythm of history, and the passage of time.

The Art of Making Stones Speak

by Bruno Giorgini, Laboratorio di Fisica della Città – University of Bologna and INFN

Physics is the art of making stones speak. It is a process of studying and reading sources and translating them into natural languages, words, geometry, mathematics, algorithms, or simple collections of numbers that, somehow, the physicist is able to put in order and interpret. The central focus of the investigation, which then becomes a conversation— a form of Socratic dialogue with the stones we are studying—is experimentation in the laboratory and/or observation in nature, usually driven in both cases by one or more underlying theories, or if you will, by one or more paradigms. One experiences the dynamics of a falling object, leaving it to drop many times until we are unable to describe, understand, and explain the phenomenon, while with a planet we can only observe it in the time required to describe, understand, and explain it.


We were astonished and surprised to discover not long ago—a few centuries compared to evolutionary time—that our planet revolves around the Sun, not as humanity had believed from the beginning, that the Sun revolves around the Earth. The laboratory can also be virtual, when the algorithms are implemented on a computer we can do experiments and simulations that are not simply figments of the imagination, but are like what the neurosciences teach us about mirror neurons, operative mechanisms put in place by the brain to explore the outside world. In philosophical terms these could be thought of as a cognitive praxis that functions with action, for example movement. Thus physicists deal with very tiny stones as the primary components of the elementary particles of matter, such as electrons, protons, neutrons, mesons, and atoms, and with large stones such as planets, stars, galaxies, star clusters, and superclusters of galaxies, ending with the entire universe. In between the very small, submicroscopic scale up the atom, and the very large, macroscopic dimensions of the solar system at the edge of the universe, are the terrestrial stones, studied by geologists and geophysicists in a mesoscopic dimension.


The various measurements of time are decisively different, from the Planck time of ̴ 10-44 sec. (10 to the power of minus 44 seconds), which is lower not only than anything we can possibly perceive but beyond our imagination (even the boldest science fiction), compared to the 20 billion years since the Big Bang, the primordial explosion from which our cosmos began, up until today, a number that is also not easily comprehensible. Then the so-called age of Dyson, when the universe will become pure radiation, which tends to absolute zero (according to some models), is equal to (1010 )77—(ten to the power of ten) to the power of seventy-seven—years. Also this is an inconceivable number that literally surpasses the time of life, at least here on Earth.


But how old is the earth, the stone on which we live and on which the measure of time evolved? Up until 1800 the answer would have been a few tens of thousands of years, more or less the same age as the human species. At one time this was reassuring as it made us feel in harmony with the planet; it seemed the dynamic rhythm of geophysics beat in unison with the pace of human evolution. The image of a young Earth, almost from its beginning governed by humans, was comforting, as if the Earth had been put here on purpose for us. But this was disproved,  with the discovery of so-called “deep time” that dated the earth as several billion years old (about 4.5 billion, the oldest rocks are measured at around 3.8 billion), while homo habilis appeared only a couple of million years ago, and sapiens sapiens—that is to say, us—about 40,000 years ago.


This disturbs the beliefs of priests and many conservatives—and is obvious— but also conventions rooted for centuries in common received ideas, and more than a century will be needed to reform this sense of time. In addition, life appeared on the planet in elementary forms about three billion years ago and evolved through subsequent catastrophes and disasters of the earth, climate, tectonics, and so on. In addition biological disasters occurred in the development of the characteristics of cells and/or aggregates of cells and organisms, with the occurrence a great deal of extinction. Or traces of life remain dormant for millions of years in places where nothing appears to be active, and everything seems on the surface if not annihilated, at least frozen. From this the earth looks like a battlefield that is continually disarranged and remodeled, from which human evolution can be described as a long march toward “the magnificent and progressive.”


This long, and perhaps excessive, introduction is a way of saying that in seeing Conversation on the Origin of Time, I have felt at home. The stone has a familiarity, like an event that is inscribed in our understanding of evolutionary mechanics, defined in the interaction of man with nature. It is a cognitive interaction that is expressed as a “work of art”, meaning that it is presented in an art gallery, but it might just as easily be found in a “scientific” laboratory. Recording the rhythm of the stone whether through an image or by sound, or indeed song, amplifies the scope of human perception. To put it in other words: to our common understanding of the five senses we add a sixth, a sense of stone. This would be a new and wonderful sense, as acknowledged by the ancient Greeks, putting us in harmony and rhythm with stone. This is the rhythm and form of the interaction of human need when confronted with stone—and therefore confronted with mother earth, of which stone is a fragment. Concerning rhythm Nietzsche says, “In terms of rhythm we must impress on the Gods more profoundly our human desire (...) Rhythm generates an irresistible urge to follow, to put yourself in consonance; not only the movement of your feet, but also your soul itself surrenders to the measure of rhythm—probably also the soul of the Gods! One tries thus to mediate the rhythm and exert a power over it: to put forth poetry as a kind of magic lasso.”


Thus we have in Conversation on the Origin of Time a journey on the earth, preparing instruments and sensors that allow us to follow the branches and reconstruct the sounds, or better the voice. Thus humanity becomes the medium that brings out the rhythms, and the harmonics, in which the stone is permeated, and traces a sort of musical path that suggests the idea of an equitable contract between humans and nature. At this point someone may be tempted to ask if this work about matter, its rhythm, and its forms, should be placed in the category of science or art. A quote from Keats cancels out this question, which often acts as the box in which academia often want to lock up the creativity of research: Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


It is more interesting to ask whether this work flows into a stream with many others, in short, if it is part of a movement. The answer is yes—it is part of the movement of Art-Science. In Leonardo, the Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology (Vol. 44, No 3, 2011, MIT Press), a manifesto was published titled “ArtScience: Integrative Collaboration to Create a Sustainable Future,” whose first three paragraphs read as follows: 1) Everything can be understood through art but that understanding is incomplete. 2) Everything can be understood through science, but that understanding is incomplete. 3) ArtScience enables us to achieve a more complete and universal understanding of things.

Obviously the manifesto is much more complex and rich, with a total of seventeen points, however I hope the three points mentioned above at least give you an idea. I think  that this work lies at the

crossroads between artistic and scientific research, a work that in other times would have been defined as avant-garde, and created in a city with an ancient and unique history of communion between land, water, and sky, and consequently requiring a firm grasp between science and art. With this the original question was simple: Why does the light beat down and become matter and corrosion? We are still looking for the answer.

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