Tag: science

"We’ve all become expert time travelers"

In his newest book, author James Gleick explores the history of Time Travel. And its future. A conversation about fascination, regret, and killing Hitler.

Early on in your book, you write that time travel isn’t possible. That it can’t be. Did you go into this research wondering if it was?
No. The honest truth is that I thought from the beginning on that it was just a fantasy. And I know very well that there’s something perverse about expecting people to read a book about time travel by someone who doesn’t believe in it. I worried about that at first. And I’ve discovered, as I’ve been talking about the book, that many people are disappointed that that’s my opinion. I have to reassure them that to honestly represent the view of mainstream physicists, I have to say that they don’t want to rule it out. They like to believe in time travel. If you’d like to imagine that some day we’ll have a time machine and go to any year that we want, you’re free to do that. It’s just not something I believe in.


James Gleick is a historian and science writer, who most recently published “Time Travel – A History”. He often writes about the impact of technology and has published titles such as “The Information” and “Chaos”. Previously, Gleick has worked for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Find out more about him on his website.

I wasn’t expecting the revelation that traveling through time would be possible, but I didn’t expect your sober reasoning either: “You can’t go into the past. Because you didn’t.” Is it really that logical?
No, it’s not. There is something complicated about my approach to the question. When I talk about philosophers making that sort of argument, I find myself making fun of it.

”You can’t logically prove time travel”

Why is that?
A lot of philosophers have said “time travel isn’t possible” and proved it logically. My view is different from that. I don’t think you can logically prove it. It’s a matter of having a consistent view of how the universe works. The logical arguments are kind of silly and have become word games – like the one you mentioned. But I actually end up giving a lot of thought to what time is, which is what the books turns out to be.
You also talk a lot about how language is insufficient in describing time – the sentence I quoted seems convincing but doesn’t necessarily reflect the physical reality.
That’s true. But also: The way physics works is not the be all and end all. It’s not an absolute representation of reality. Physics makes models of things and uses them to predict real-life events. That works very well. Yet it’s very different from making an absolute statement of what is and what isn’t real. So to put my view into a simple way: If you believe that the present is real, and that the past is not real because it’s already done, and the future is not real because it hasn’t happened yet, then you have what I’d call a normal sense of time.
That means?
This is what people think before they start to worry too much about the details. The past is gone, we don’t have access to it. The future hasn’t happened, and maybe we have some degree of free will and can make choices about the future. I can have cheese for lunch or I can have ham. Until I do one or the other, that future is not yet determined. That’s a common sense view of things and lots of philosophers have considered that that’s not how things really are. And more recently, so have lots of physicists. They have created mathematical models in which it’s possible to view the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum. A complete package. In this mathematical picture, the future and the past are every bit as real as the present. They look exactly the same in the equations of physics. But in my view that doesn’t mean we have to accept the mathematical view as a statement of reality – and I think many physicists would agree with me.

”Time isn’t like space”

Because of the impression of free choice? You certainly don’t feel like it’s been predetermined for your to have the ham for lunch.
Right. We don’t have to settle the question of free will, maybe my choice between cheese and ham isn’t as big as I think I do, but at least it feels as though it hasn’t happened yet. The whole notion of time travel implies that this common-sense view of time isn’t right. That you can go back into the past and even change it. You can go into the future and walk around there as if it exists now.
When H.G. Wells invented the first time machine, he realized when he was constructing what he knew to be just a fantastic story, that he was saying something that was different from our common sense view of time. He was saying that time is a fourth dimension, that time is like space. So when we talk about time travel, we are saying that time is analogous to space, that it is a thing you can travel through. And when you stop and think about it, come back to earth, that’s not what I believe. I don’t think is like space, I think it is quite different from space and we all know that quite well, deep in our bones.
It’s funny you’d use that expression, because you also wrote “time travel is in our bones” and that time travel “is a sexy idea”- Is that why we embrace it, despite of its shortcomings?
Let’s talk about the good news – we’ve been focusing on the bad news that there’s no such thing as time travel in a literal, mechanical thing.

”We are imagining new future all the time.”

Of course there is such a a thing as time travel and we’ve all become very expert and efficient time travelers. My book is not meant to just debunk this idea that’s so much fun but rather to celebrate the idea and to appreciate how powerful it has been in our thinking for more than a century. We have a relationship with the past and the future that is very exciting and very rich – even if it’s largely a matter of imagination. That’s ok, because imagination is who we are. We’re imaginative creatures. We have knowledge of the past and a kind of foreknowledge of the future – whether is it based on anticipation or terror. We are imagining new futures all the time.
Is that fascination with the past, for instance, due to our regretful nature or rather our aspiration towards perfection – going back to fix what went wrong?
Both of those come into play. People who create time travel stories, for books, TV, or just in their own minds, are motivated by different things, and you have just mentioned a very important one: Regret. You think about something and you want a do-over. We can all think of great time travel stories that are based on the idea of wanting to do something over and over again. Remember the great Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: That’s not just a version of the story where he doesn’t want to do it again but finds himself trapped and gradually realizes that he has to live this one horrible day over and over again, until he finally does it right. It’s a variation on the theme.

”Killing Hitler has become a meme”

What does the it mean, then, that our society is so enamored with time travel.
It means we think a lot about history and about how things might have been different. It’s not an accident that one of the great memes of time travel of the late 20th century is “What if the time traveler would go back to kill Hitler in a timely fashion?” Nowadays – at least over here – you hear people wondering if it might be possible to go back and teach manners to Baby Trump. Can we change history? Is the world we’re living in the only possible world? Or might it have been different. Is it just an accident that everybody is driving around in automobiles with internal combustion engines or, if one little thing had happened in the early nineteen hundreds, would we all be driving around in electric cars instead? To pick just one trivial technological example…
In the book you reveal the role technology plays in our thinking about time travel: The idea of the time machine is directly linked to industrialization. But at the same time, it seems that there’s more to it: We’ve come to accept that machines can solve so many problems that thinking they would break the laws of time doesn’t seem too far off…
Of course we have a love-hate relationship with our machinery. I have always been interested in connections between technology and the rest of our culture. The way we live and think about the world is often unconsciously a consequence of devices and machines that are part of our life. That’s true about my last book, The Information, which was all about advances in information technology. And it’s certainly true with how we deal with time. It’s not just that H.G. Wells invented time travel at a time when there were railroads and steam engines and electric telegraphy synchronizing clocks around the world; it was also when Einstein reevaluated physics and reshaped scientists’ sense of time. And that’s not a coincidence. Our cultural understanding of how time works was being reshaped by the availability of clocks, high-speed transportation, new kinds of light speed global transfer of information.

”A paradox in many guises”

A development that has continued.
Now it’s all happening again. And this is where I found an ending for my story. It looks as though our sense of time is undergoing a new revolution. Where that’ll lead isn’t quite clear but we can already tell that in our highly-networked world, where so much of our experience comes to us through screens of different sizes and shapes, our relationship with the present, the future and the past is changing again, in tricky ways.
You mean: There’s time-shifting going on across the culture?
Right. We’re expert time-shifters. We’re watching TV with instant replays, tape-delayed version of an instant replay. We’ve gotten very smart about this and I think that occasionally we can forgive ourselves if we suffer a little bit of confusion as well.
Speaking of confusion: What is your favorite paradox that you encountered during your research?
In a funny way, it’s all one paradox that keeps turning up in different guises. There’s one – that I won’t try to explain: the central kind of loop in the movie La Jetée by Chris Marker, which not many people know, but which some people have seen the remake of, 12 Monkeys.
A lighter version of the paradox appears in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. His time traveler goes back to the 1920s and meets Louis Buñuel, the film director. He says “I have a great idea for a movie for you” and pitches him his own movie. And the young Buñuel says “That doesn’t make any sense!” It’s a paradox: If Buñuel did make the movie based on what the time traveler had told him, the question becomes: Where did the idea come from in the first place?

"Isolation isn't the biggest problem"

It’s hard to imagine a more solitary place than space. How do astronauts prepare for it? We spoke with researcher Jack Stuster, who has helped NASA develop a training.

You research and counsel astronauts in outer space. Judging from your experience: is space a lonely place?
Let me go back one step before answering: I study conditions on earth analogous to those on a spacecraft – Antarctic research stations or expeditions for example – and I study the behavior of astronauts working in isolation and confinement on board the International Space Station (ISS). That research was conducted in two phases. Between 2003 and 2009, members of two-or three-members crews participated in the study and from 2011 up to this year, members of six-person-crews participated in the study. Neither the first nor the second phase revealed that loneliness is a problem for the astronauts.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

How come?
Even with small crews, as phase one has revealed, astronauts do not get very lonely. They might be alone all day but they are busy working and meet the others over dinner later. Every minute in space is programmed in advance so that there is relatively little free-time and when there is some, the astronauts tend to spend it together with their crew-mates. I ask astronauts to write a sort of diary to see how they feel and I have only very rarely read about loneliness or lack of personal space. Between phase one and phase two, private sleep quarters were added and so the astronauts always have the possibility to interact with others but they can also withdraw to their own sleeping chamber. I think the main reason why astronauts don’t get lonely is because they are too busy. However, there have been occasions where a supply spacecraft was severely delayed and the astronauts would have to wait for the material it was supposed to bring them. Then all of a sudden, astronauts have relatively little to do and that can become a problem.
Because they have the time to allow for loneliness?
From their journals, I learned that during such incidents, the astronauts felt under-challenged, bored and useless. But even here, loneliness is not the biggest problem. Let’s also not forget that the astronauts have e-mail and a phone with which they can call their friends and family. This helps a lot with the negative effects that separation from the loved ones can entail. Now on an expedition to Mars, this will not be possible. Astronauts will have e-mail but there will be no possibility for phone calls when the time delays increase beyond a few minutes.
Allegedly, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did not take a pocket knife with him on his polar expeditions but only the parts required to build one because he said that boredom is the greatest enemy of the explorer. Your findings seem to confirm that.
Boredom was the number one enemy of the polar explorers and when Amundsen traversed the North-West passage, he only took with him the raw materials to make trade items with the Eskimos rather than pre-manufactured items because he knew that he had to keep himself and his crew busy. When Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole, he had on board a library of a thousand volumes, music and wonderful food to fill the free time. The engineers even disassembledand re-assembled the engines on board twice to keep busy when the ship was locked in the ice., Nansen reported in his journal that the saddest day of the expedition was the day they ran out of beer.

“Being behind schedule is stressful, but having nothing to do would be worse.”

So work is the best remedy against negative feelings on such expeditions?
As I said, the only time that astronauts report negative feelings is when they have nothing to do. So NASA puts them on a very tight schedule so that there is always something to do. Astronauts are constantly running behind schedule which is an awful feeling for a person with high achievement goals which all astronauts are. Being behind schedule is probably the most stressful thing for astronauts but having nothing at all to do would be even worse.
How do the astronauts schedule their day in an environment that is not regulated by sunrise and sunset?
The ground crew schedules the day for the astronauts and trains their body clocks. They go by Greenwich Mean Time and wake up at the same time every morning except on weekends. Even though they have many sunrises and sunsets throughout the day – every 90 minutes basically – because they circle the globe, they do have a day schedule because of their work schedule. But some astronauts have problems adjusting to this because of the excitement. I mean it is a unique experience to look down at Earth! It is something that almost nobody will ever experience and it is so exciting that they sometimes forget to go to sleep at the set time. If they have problems sleeping, there are also sleeping aids on board that can be taken in special cases when sleep schedules change. So there are a lot of things that help them adjust to a regular day and night schedule.
Obviously there are many things you can do to prepare astronauts for issues like sleeping disorders but are there things you can do to prepare them for the distress of solitude?
The astronauts are almost never in complete solitude, unless they wish so. I am not aware that there is formal training but there are or have been simulations. In Russia, six test subjects were locked in a small module for 520 days to study the effect isolation has on their mental state and body. NASA is currently conducting 30 day simulations with four member crews. But these simulations cannot train the crew members for the special conditions on board of the ISS, they can only prepare them to a certain extent. Just knowing that you will experience certain conditions like isolation and confinement can help you a lot to deal with them later on. Because these conditions can cause some severe problems.
Like what?
Because of the pressure of isolation, trivial issues can become very serious issues and this can lead to arguments and fights between the crew members which must be avoided at all cost. Knowing about this helps you to cope with it.
So there is no way to predict how astronauts will react to certain conditions?
No, they are humans and we humans are too complex to be predictable. Especially in environments like outer space. But behavioral psychology teaches us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you plan a long and difficult exploration, you should of course pick crew members who have demonstrated that they are capable of living and working in isolation and confinement.

“Going to Mars would be a challenge to even the most experience astronaut.”

That is where the simulations overlook a crucial question: can you simulate solitude here on Earth and predict future behavior in space when the conditions of these environments are so different? Solitude on Earth surely is different than solitude in space.
I believe that solitude on the ISS is easier to deal with than solitude or isolation at a small Antarctic station, because work is performed at a high tempo and the scenery is beautiful and constantly changing. One astronaut wrote in his journal that no matter how bad things are going on board or how stressed one might be, the view fixes everything. On an expedition to Mars, where your destination is just a little dot in the sky and ultimately your home becomes just a little dot in the sky, that will make things very different. The solitude that interplanetary explorers will experience will be qualitatively different from what ISS astronauts experience.
How so?
A few years back, I gave a lecture about expeditions to Mars and a distinguished and experienced astronaut walked up to me afterwards and told me that he has always been comfortable being in the Earth-moon-shuttle system, but that he might not be the correct person to leave low Earth orbit and head to Mars. That, to me, revealed a self-awareness that astronauts have and that goes both ways: they know how capable they are but they also know their limitations. Going to Mars and having Earth so far away for two or three years would be a challenge to even the most experienced astronaut.
In his essay “On Solitude”, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes that we should have family, friends and property but that we should never make them the masters of our well-being, that we should be able to be happy on our own. Following his reasoning, the perfect astronaut would be a loner.
Not a loner, because interpersonal skills are essential to getting along in isolation and confinement. However, I have recommended that astronauts on an expedition to Mars should not have small children because they would probably regret the separation. I am an advocate of selecting husband-and-wife-teams, but this definitely is a minority opinion.
Would that not be a possible source of conflict?
Yes and no. There could be conflict between married people, but if they have been married a long time it demonstrates their compatibility and fidelity to a cause, two essential personal qualities. Also, people who have been married for 25 years probably know how to deal with conflict situations. There would, of course, be other advantages.
Are there astronauts who value the solitude in space because they enjoy having that time on their own?
Yes, absolutely! The astronauts are there to work and they often consider too much personal contact to be a burden. Sometimes, when the crew of the ISS gets visitors or when new crew members arrive, they feel happy at first but it can quickly turn into an annoyance because it disrupts the rhythm and work flow.
You have said that in the extreme conditions that astronauts find themselves, food becomes extremely important. Can you tell us why?
Food assumes added importance when usual sources of gratification such as family, friends, or hobbies are denied,. So the astronauts learn to cherish what they have up there. Their exercise machines become extremely important and so does food. Unfortunately, food has become kind of a disappointment to them in the sense that the options are very limited. But ground control is very busy making the food experience as pleasant as possible. Often, the people packing the food include small hidden messages, wishing the crew a good mission. Something like that can really cheer a person up after a long day of work. This has tradition: even during the early Polar expeditions, explorers would find little notes in their food to console and cheer them up.

“Solitude binds astronauts together.”

Is there a food that astronauts crave in particular?
Tortillas – by far. Astronauts never get enough tortillas. They train in Texas so they get used to eating Mexican food. But the other thing is that food starts to float away in space. So you need something that keeps the food together. What better than a tortilla?
Popular culture often paints the picture of the lonely astronaut such as David Bowie’s Major Tom, Elton John’s Rocket Man or Matt Damon in the movie The Martian. How accurate are these portrayals or descriptions?
It’s not very accurate because astronauts are always in groups, but it would be a completely accurate description if an astronaut were to be stranded somewhere, which is not very likely but possible. The Martian depicts a solitude that is not completely unrealistic in that sense. When a person is all by him- or herself, the things around start to change. You no longer perceive your environment the same. We know for example from prisoners in solitary confinement that all they need is the assurance that somebody is close to them. Even the noises coming from other people are enough to feel like you are not completely alone.
Is there one concluding observation that you can share from your research?
I have found that solitude and the extreme conditions in space have had a very positive effect on how the crew members deal with each other. There is sometimes a bit of friction among the American crew members or among the Russian crew members, but there has never been conflict between the Americans and Russians, the Americans and Europeans, or the Russians and Europeans – or with the Japanese. There have been several crews composed of former American and Russian fighter pilots. They had trained for years to kill each other but there they were, 230 miles above the Earth, working together in complete harmony under arduous conditions. The solitude and their common goals bind them together. If they are able to do that in space, we should also be able to do so here on Earth.


How an ancient council turned lines into borders.

Art is like a border of flowers along the course of civilization.
-Lincoln Steffens

In the beginning, there was a dot. The dot went for a walk, and formed a line. The line evolved, multiplied, diversified. Soon the earth was covered with all types of lines.
Not long after, there came man. Man went for a walk, and formed another man. They too evolved, multiplied, diversified, and soon the earth was filled with all types of men.
Now somewhere along one of these walks, man and line met. This was disconcerting to man, as he had never seen a line. Unsure of what to do with it, or even what it was, he captured and pocketed it, and summoned all the other men of the earth to a grand meeting. Between them all, he hoped, they would define this strange phenomenon and lay the issue to rest.
The historian was the oldest amongst the men, so naturally he went first. He called the line a time line, and tossed it like a fishing net across the others’ memories. He recorded names, ordered events, set precedents, drew parallels. He tied the line into a loop, so it would repeat itself, and tainted it in different shades from different angles and sides.
The merchant glimpsed an opportunity, so he went next. He called the line a trade line, and promptly stretched it over land and sea. He then set off along it, transporting silk and spices, gold and silver, ivory and salt. He carried chessboards in one direction, religious texts the other. Apples West, chocolates East. Exchanged knowledge for sugar, wine for rice, art for oil and coal.
The scientists were less hasty. They needed structure; a definition based on data, methodology. The mathematician placed the line on a graph, a plane, a chart. He then presented it to the others, who recorded precisely what they saw. The astronomer observed a spectral line. The geologist, a fault line. The chemist, a bond line. The physicist, a field line. None could prove the others false; they would need more experiments, more tests, more time.
The artists were experimental too, but of a more spontaneous kind. They got creative with the line, to everyone’s delight. They made it thick, they made it thin. Long, short, straight, and curved. The Romantic’s line was delicate and fine. The Realist’s, accurate and neat. The Impressionist blurred it in a colorful haze, from which the Cubist made it reappear in a jagged, frenzied daze.
The writer unfolded a story line, to the tune of the pianist’s melody line. The comedian delivered a punch line, which the athletes then took for a finish line. Some ran, some swam across it. Jumped over, crawled under it. Swung high above the ground from it, walked deft and precariously along it.
This meeting had turned into great, loud, fun. All the men were clapping and cheering. All the men but one.
The politician awoke grumpy from his nap and frowned as he looked around. The meeting had clearly gotten out of hand. It was time to take it into his own.
He cleared his throat and silence fell as he took the floor. He looked down at the offending line that had cost him his sleep, then around to address his fellow men.
“This line is a dividing one that has spurred enough controversy and debate. As guarantor of mankind’s safety, and to preserve the peace, I hereby declare it a border line and banish it to the edge of the map.”
His advisors nodded in approval. The council agreed. And man immediately set to work, enforcing the party line. The cartographers drew, the engineers designed, the workers built. The following morning, when man awoke, the headlines read:

Dividing Line Now Border Line.

No one really knows just how the devolution of mankind began, but it happened somewhere, sometime along those lines. Man’s own strategy turned on him; falsely accused and put to wrong use, all the lines united and became border lines. Those within them feared those without them, and suddenly everyone was obsessed with crossing them.
Once demarcation turned to separation, nothing, it seemed, could stop the lines gone rogue. History could recall no precedent. Trade could find no route. Science ran out of experiments, and art ran dry. For once, even the politician could find nothing to say. The border lines had turned to enemy lines, front lines, dead lines.
Then something remarkable happened. It took the whole world by surprise. One sunny day, one little child and his brand new box of crayons happened to pass a border line. He stopped to examine it, looked around cheekily, pulled all his crayons out of the box… and colored all over it.

A Natural Nuisance

We live in overtired times, and sleep has turned from a necessity into something worth fixing.

Rafael Trujillo, the notorious Caribbean dictator, never slept. He did, of course, but the people living under the Dominican strongman did not know that. It just so happened that Trujillo fundamentally got public relations and knew that to appear powerful, it helped to hide the very things making him human. And since he needed very little sleep anyway, he went to bed late, rose before the crack of dawn, and could be seen back at his desk and in a stiff uniform before his fellow countrymen even made it out of bed.
One does not build a despicably brutal surveillance state without some elbow grease of course, and Trujillo used the extra hours at his disposal with terrifying efficiency: During his 31-year reign over the Dominican Republic, he established one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world, had his infamous secret police execute thousands of dissidents, preyed on and raped countless young women, and killed thousands of Haitians that his soldiers identified by their mispronunciation of the Spanish word for “parsley”. In his book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, Dominican author Junot Díaz compares Trujillo’s rule to that of a plantation owner, but with the whole country subject to his ill will.

Sleep stands in the way

Like any self-respecting dictator, Trujillo also perpetuated a potent personality cult: He renamed every other monument in the country after himself or his family members and liked being called the “boss”. But what I find the most fascinating is that sleep played a role in shaping his public image: Not sleeping made him appear almost superhuman, an impression that aided him in retaining his iron grip on power. But sleep is such an unexpected ingredient of a personality cult that I can’t help but think it expresses something about the way we view the activity itself.
Sleep is a very basic human need and therefore utterly democratic. Some people (like Trujillo) evidently need less of it than others, but nobody can deal with sleep deprivation for an extended period of time. In theory, you should spend around a third of your day sleeping, which boils down to an incredible amount of lifetime each and everyone of us spends with the head on the pillow. And as much as we all like staying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning, that basic human need often stands in the way of our plans or ambitions.
As you are reading this, millions of people across the world are doing their utmost to stay awake. They might have boring jobs, crying babies or worries that kept them up, or perhaps simply a sensitivity to the moonlight falling through their bedroom blinds. They didn’t sleep enough. But they also have things to do: work to be done, babies to be raised, worries to be alleviated. Which means they can’t let themselves be tired or catch up on the sleep they are missing as they wish. For them, sleep has become a nuisance, something keeping them from accomplishing something else.
It is no wonder, then, that we live in chronically overtired societies. The New York Times, which frequently reports on sleep and its health impacts, loves to cite statistics demonstrating that we don’t sleep even nearly enough. Much of our days go into other activities, and because the day counts only 24 hours, we try to squeeze other activities into the third meant for sleeping.

A potent lie

And then there’s the fact that humans are a stubborn species. In the face of obstacles, we tend to look for fixes. We don’t just accept the biological rhythm – instead we cut some corners to make it work. The impulse of those overtired legions isn’t to sleep more, but to somehow circumvent sleep.
That is a powerful idea, and quite a mouthful at that. It has people across the globe clinging to coffee mugs or snorting white powders. There is a myriad of substances you can take to remain awake, some of them legal, some of them not, but whether they have been imported from an Colombian mountain range or synthesized in a Czech meth lab ultimately doesn’t matter, for their utility is the same: To be a technical solution against that natural urge to sleep and recharge.
Trujillo, then, was simply better at combatting sleep than most of us. And that is what made his lie so potent. There is no true fix for sleeping, no realistic solution that will make the need go away. There’s even something beautiful about it: That some things cannot be solved by anything, but by reshuffling the hours of the day to make more room for sleep. That sleep is so democratic that even the most ruthless of dictators can’t find a fix and has to pretend, like the rest of us, that he can somehow cope.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist on Sleep

The famous curator’s schedule barely allows for sleep. But his job requires it.
A talk about fighting the internal clock – and embracing it.

What does sleep mean to you?
My understanding of it is very much influenced by the work of the German professor of chronobiology, Till Roenneberg, whom I met a few years ago during the DLD conference in Munich. We have had conversations ever since and even plan to do a book together. He explores the impact light has on our circadian rhythms and what phenomena like social jet-lag, the misalignment of biological and social time, do to our body.
What are his findings?
He developed a chronotype questionnaire and in his book Internal Time, he explains how our circadian rhythms work. We often think that we choose our sleep patterns, that we choose to be an early bird or night owl, but he tried to demonstrate that our patterns are actually genetic. We are all bound to our internal clock, and it can be extremely harmful to try to go against it. Roenneberg focuses on the social jet-lag that results from that and defines it as the difference between mid-sleep on free days and mid-sleep on workdays. It’s interesting to see how people will wake up at a specific time without any exterior alarm clock but just because of their inner alarm clock. When I was younger, I didn’t think much about this, I went against my internal clock almost daily. It produced some interesting things and ideas but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.

“Productivity fueled by an immense amount of coffee”

During the early 1990s, you tried the Balzacian coffee-regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee per day. Was that such an attempt to defeat your internal clock?
At that moment, I was very fascinated by the productivity and the sheer output of Balzac. I was just embarking on my first book project and it took me forever. I kept thinking about how I could increase my output and reach a more dynamic form of productivity. When I found out that Balzac’s productivity was fueled by an immense amount of coffee – up to 52 cups a day –, I thought that his method was worth exploring and so I tried it out for a year.
Did you stick to his 52-cups-a-day-rhythm?
No, I probably drank between 30 and 40 cups a day but often just small espressos. There were, however, days, when I did reach the Balzacian threshold.
Did it help you boost your productivity?
Very much so. I was extremely productive, finished my first books in no time but I knew that it wasn’t a sustainable way to work or live, so I switched methods and tried the da Vinci rhythm – which again means going against the internal clock. His rhythm was sleeping 15 minutes every three hours. It did actually prove to be more efficient than the Balzac regime because I was even more productive and less tired but there were other problems.
It’s not compatible with social life. At the time I had an office job at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and it proved extremely difficult to maintain it throughout a regular working day, so I had to stop. But there was also the problem with the internal clock because if you sleep for fifteen minutes, you won’t just wake-up by yourself. You need gigantic alarm clocks that could wake up entire dormitories because you are tired and you want to sleep some more. A little bit later, I started to work on a book about dreams and that really changed my whole attitude because I realized how important it is to adhere to the internal clock. I discussed this with Hélène Cixous, who wrote the magnificent book Dream I Tell You and writes down all her dreams when she wakes up in the morning. It made me realize that you don’t dream a lot if you don’t sleep a lot and that if I wanted to explore my dreams, I needed to sleep more.
So what is your current sleeping routine?
After discussing this with Roenneberg, I focused more on my internal clock and found out that the best thing for me is to go to bed relatively early, around midnight, and then get up between 5 and 6 am. That way, I can use the time in the morning and work and read before my actual day of work at the office begins. Once I understood the importance of my internal clock, I started to organize my entire life accordingly.

“We have to revive the daily ritual”

You also founded the Brutally Early Club, where you meet with people at 6.30 am in cafés in London to debate and discuss. What was the impetus behind that?
Since I wake up early and am ready to work around 6 or 6.30 in the morning, I figured I could also have meetings with other people at that time instead of just working alone at home. Also, in a city like London, everybody is so busy all the time that it is very difficult to organize meetings. You have to plan it months in advance and it is impossible to improvise. But at 6.30 in the morning, everybody is available because the regular working day has not yet started and there is no hassle to get from A to B.
It also demands a certain discipline to get up that early if you are not used to it.
It does, but it is also a ritual. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that we live in a time in which the ritual is dying and that we have to revive the daily ritual. In a way, the Balzac regime and the da Vinci rhythm were already an attempt to ritualize my life.
Isn’t sleep in a way the most widely shared daily ritual because it is an activity that most people do roughly at the same time?
It is very much a ritual, since every person has a very own and specific internal clock. Some of my friends cannot sleep before 4 am because it would go against their internal clock, but to most people that seems unusual. I even know people who can’t sleep at night but only during the day. There is also creative potential in that.
In what way?
I once had a research assistant who always came to work late because he couldn’t get up before dusk, because he was sleeping during the day and working at night. Given the usual office hours, that turned out to be a bit of a problem. However, that was during the time I discovered my internal rhythm and noticed that our internal clocks were exactly the opposite from each other. He could work best at the time I was sleeping and I realized the complimentary potential in that so I hired him to be my personal assistant for my book project. He comes to my house around 11 pm and then we work together for an hour before I go to bed and he works throughout the night until I get up around 6:00. We have a briefing and then I take over again – very convenient.
What’s striking is that sleep for you seems to be about productivity, or the lack thereof, while to most people it is about rest and relaxation.
It is about optimizing my working process and to stretch the realm of the possible, that’s true. But I don’t think that it is about output, I am not a factory. It’s about curiosity and my desire to learn. I am constantly under the impression that I lack time to read or write and obviously sleep gets in the way of that. I was very influenced by a monastery near St. Gallen my parents took me to when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the drive of the monks during the Middle Ages to gather and conserve all the knowledge. Even in the 18th century, the idea of the Universalgelehrte was flourishing with people like Athanasius Kircher. But we know today, that that is virtually impossible, that there is a limit to what you can learn or know. So it’s rather an input than an output problem.
Following the logic of optimization, sleep must be a waste of time to you?
I used to consider it that. But I realized how important for example dreams are and you can only dream if you sleep enough, so sleep is not a waste of time but a necessity.
Many artists cherish what is often called “creative sleep” as their most important source of inspiration because it is in your sleep that you reach the vital subconscious part of your mind power. Does sleeping trigger your creativity as well?
Definitely! Sleeping is a parallel reality and we can use the insights it offers. I have actually embarked on a project recommended to me by Hélène Cixous. Every day when I wake up, I write down my dreams, I compile them. Another thing that I encountered is that the sleeping structure or pattern is also very similar to our patterns in the state of wakefulness.
In what way?
In the 1990s, I was basically a nomad, traveling on trains nearly 365 days a year throughout Europe and Asia to investigate art. Around the year 2000, I decided that it was time to settle down and so I took a job in Paris and later moved to London, where I live and work now. So over the last 15 years, I have been living pretty much in one place. But I use the weekends for my own research, so to speak, and spend almost every weekend away. So you see that I have fixed daily or weekly rhythms and that these also change over time. The internal clock is not just about when we sleep and when we are awake, it’s also about what we do when we are awake. Changing your structure is important because you make different experiences and can learn from them.

“The bed is one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition”

De-structuring wakefulness?
Not de-structuring but re-structuring it from time to time. There is an interesting book by Jonathan Crary called 24/7 in which he cautions against our permanent availability. With every new device or medium, you become more available and accessible and how time is being modernized and standardized. This ties in with what philosopher Édouard Glissant had to say about mondialité and how globalization forces out to re-define time and space. It is extremely important to de-link and break free from this 24/7 circle and that usually happens at night when we sleep. I also do it during the day, when I switch off my phone and read or write.
In a way, sleep is standardized because we do it not only at specific times, but also at a specific place: the bedroom. What are your thoughts on the concept of the bedroom?
It’s an interesting concept. To me, the bedroom is always connected to books and reading. I can’t sleep unless I read something in bed. It’s not only a place I go to to sleep but also to read and unwind. So I always take a lot of books with me when I am traveling to make myself at home.
Sleep is obviously an essential part of our lives, but in comparison to other aspects of life, it is relatively neglected in art. Why do you think that is?
There was an exhibition at the 21er Haus in Vienna called “Sleepless”, curated by Mario Codognato. It examined the role and importance of beds in art, like when Yoko Ono and John Lennon got into the bed for the “bed-ins” to protest against the war. It is striking to see how many artists used the iconography of the bed in their artworks. It is probably one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition. Life usually starts in beds and very often ends there. There are the big topics of art such as death, life, love or fear, and in a way, these topics are all very much related to sleep and the bed.
When you sleep, you are as close to death as you can be as a living person. Jean Cocteau once argued that sleep is not a safe place because we are completely vulnerable.
The moment you fall asleep, you give up every bit of conscious control over your body and mind. There is the saying that every day is a new life and hence you die every single night and are reborn every morning. John Steinbeck once said that it is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. So yes, we are vulnerable during our sleep, but more often it helps us solve our problems. It’s also interesting how sleep is connected to silence. Francis Bacon famously said that silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom. That quote often reminds me of an encounter with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer I had.
How so?
I visited him at his home to interview him. We talked about sleep and at one point during the interview, he just fell asleep. I didn’t know what to do because there was no way I could just shake him and wake him up.
What did you do?
I let him sleep for 15 minutes when the phone suddenly started ringing. That woke him up and he told the person on the phone that he could not talk now because he was in the middle of an interview. He perfectly realized what had just happened. So he looked at me and said: “You would have had great difficulties transcribing my silence”. I could understand why it happened because it happened to me a lot during my Balzac and da Vinci days.
Falling asleep during activities?
I once fell asleep on the treadmill while running. It was just for a second, but it was definitely a strange dynamic at work. That dynamic fascinates me about sleep. There are two quotes I like a lot about sleep.
Hemingway once said that he loves sleep because his life has the tendency to fall apart when he is awake. The other one is probably my favorite. It is by Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

Everything ends

There’s a feeling that swells up your veins and chokes your senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out all thought. That’s the awareness of your own mortality.

My Grandmother faced the same fate as a biodegradable shopping bag. Both made of molecules, of atoms, controlled by thermodynamic systems intrinsically complex. With entropy, no worldly item is more special than any other.
The formal definition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics states:

The total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.

Entropy is represented as an abstraction – something intangible – but its effect is very real.
I have often thought that thermodynamics might be the Universe’s real God. We all bow down to the same master in the end, whether a star, a galaxy or a slug. Coaxed through life by the forever deceitful and cunning time, we tumble through the world blindly, as if the laws of thermodynamics had enlisted time as a servant guiding us to the bittersweet.

There is something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death

Contemplation of life has led many of us to study: Theology and philosophy, metaphysics, future technologies and even their role in a supposedly promised Singularity. Time is dripping. Time destroys all things. And to think about it – to blank out all worldly thoughts and think about man’s demise, to concentrate and connect with our fortune of a vast nothingness, of the absurdity of it all, of your own existence, of your own thoughts – creates an intense emotional paralysis. A feeling that runs through your entire body, swelling up veins and choking all senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out every other thought as if you’ve been paralyzed by a stroke. That’s the awareness of your own mortality. Some feel they could die in end that very moment, completely humbled by their own inferiority. Perhaps that is the last experience we feel when we do actually die. Completely overpowered. Gone.
But there is value in invoking that emotional uneasiness. To feel it deeply but then use it as a motivator, a call to action. For regardless where science takes us, regardless what the future holds for the lifespan of ourselves and our descendants, there will always be something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death. For a lover to overpower you is a minor prelude for what one day we imagine death might do. The French got it right with le petit mort. We each only have one real relationship, and it’s between us as individuals and time. In the end death consummates that relationship into an eternity. One day, time will ravage your body, she will destroy you, physically and mentally. Evolution may be the greatest artist but she paints a cruel beauty of destruction. All us creatures, harmonizing or contrasting with each other. None of us holding Dutch the value of the eternal whole, none more important than the other – although perhaps naively thinking we are.

Each of us, roaring to disturb the universe

To think about these things – love, consciousness, life and death – leaves us humbled by the histories of all those who have lived before us, and of all those who will live after us. To realize the unimportance of ourselves in the sequence of the eternal everything. Forever impressed by the genuine role of human anonymity, the universe doesn’t and won’t ever really know who we are, other than just one of many dots in the vast space-time spectrum. Each of us as individuals, roaring in our attempts to disturb List the universe. We roar! We roar! It’s imperative for the human condition. For change, for progress, for the advancement of our species.
Contrast that with the lives of less conscious animals and how they carry their humbler paths in the evolutionary sequence: At the end, they seek to find a secluded spot to hide and die quietly. They rot to the ground and into the circle of life. There is no fanfare. No quest for immortality. No funeral procession. And there’s a strange Lancement sort of sublimity in the minimalism. It came. It went.
Imagine if we had the capabilities to experience both our own birth and death. Man would be a different creature. By the time his consciousness has fully developed, he has often already taken much of the world around him for granted. With death there is no chance for post-experience reflection. From a positive, a something, we become a negative, a nothing. I feel my own fragility in moments of sickness, the starkness of my own decay, and I think to myself “How lucky you are to normally keep this complex atomic mix so together.”
Even though I have no desire to die, even though it’s imperative to extend and expand human lifespan, I feel lucky for what I already have. Grateful and humbled that out of all the randomness, out of all the complexity, out of all the cells and out of all the stars and out of all the processes, out of this mad unique palette that makes up this universe that I have a chance to experience. It’s a feeling that makes the mundane beautiful, because in reality there is no mundane. The simplest thing in our regard is laden with sublime complexity. It’s near impossible to not become awestruck, once you start paying attention to the details. And at the end of a long day, tired from work with restless worries, to again have the chance to be in bed remembering that it’s another night under the Milky Way. Another day that has bred a lovestruck fascination. Another day of life.