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Book Review : Beneath the Nap in Fabric of Time

February 24, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap: A Wide Awake Inquiry Into the Human Nature of Time by Jeremy Campbell (Simon & Schuster: $18.45)

While reading this book, I got up from my chair from time to time to go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. The water takes three to four minutes to boil, which is wasted time because it isn't long enough to start something else or even to go back to reading. By the time I got back to the chair, picked up the book and found my place, the tea kettle would be whistling.

Three to four minutes is a short time, of course, but those minutes seemed endless, for, as everyone knows, a watched kettle never boils. All one can do is stand around waiting for the water to boil, which makes time pass slowly.

Near the end of this intriguing book, which has the intriguing title "Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap," Jeremy Campbell discusses why a watched kettle never boils. He concludes that it is because all one is doing while waiting for the kettle to boil is paying attention to the passage of time, and this attention to time itself makes it seem as if time has slowed down.

Something to Think About

But this, of course, is only one aspect of time, the part that's malleable, the part that we construct from within our own mental framework. But time also has an objective reality whose passage is separate from our reckoning. Campbell argues that this interplay between the subjective and objective aspects give time its texture and make it a subject worth studying and thinking about.

Along the way, Campbell throws in dollops of Thomas Mann, Henri Bergson, William James, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, St. Augustine, Albert Einstein and a cast of thousands as he explores what is known, what is believed and what is guessed at by scientists trying to determine what time is.

It turns out that many reactions to time are biologically induced. There are well-known circadian rhythms (from Latin circa diem , about a day) and, as Campbell explains, many other rhythms to boot.

"It is now a basic tenet of chronobiology that much of what used to be considered random, meaningless variation in body functions actually consists of meaningful rhythms of various frequencies, which may interact with one another," Campbell writes.

Time Off From the War

One of these cycles regulates sleepiness, and it increases in the afternoons, which is why many people feel sleepy after lunch but most of them ignore or brush off the temptation to take a nap. Winston Churchill, however, insisted on snoozing for at least an hour every afternoon during World War II, a charming fact that happens to provide the title for this book.

There is no reason, Campbell asserts, that this biological aspect of time cannot be chemically altered, promising, for example, that drug companies will develop a pill to overcome the effects of jet lag.

But, he says early in the book, "Inner time is seen now as being not one thing but many things. It reflects the mixed nature of human beings, which is partly fixed and partly free." And nearly 400 pages later he concludes, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the essence of an individual is partly given and partly constructed, fixed as well as free, and that includes his temporal essence. Human nature is heterogenous, a mix of the obligatory and the voluntary, the innate and the learned, the specific and the general . . . clock systems and mental constructs."

So you see, he travels rather a long distance in those nearly 400 pages.

Taking a Speculative Position

What should we make of this? It sounds perhaps a tad far-fetched. Should Campbell be believed? To put the book at its strength, let me suggest the following:

New ideas can be organized along a line from rear guard to avant-garde, and somewhere near the avant-garde end is a section called speculative, which is not a bad place to be. Campbell's book belongs there.

It is better to think boldly than to think narrowly, and Campbell thinks boldly. His book is chock-a-block with facts and things--perhaps a bit too many--but he also paints with a broad brush. He starts off talking about time and winds up thinking about the organization of the mind and its interaction with the world.

There is some razzmatazz to all this, mind you, but there is something to it, too. Campbell, a British journalist based in Washington, has written imaginatively about big ideas in science before. His "Grammatical Man" (Simon & Schuster: 1982) was a tour de force through information theory, entropy and language.

Campbell's style is to pick broad topics and then milk them for all they're worth--squeezing every last bit of meaning from his subject, and then some. The nature of time has puzzled thinkers at least back to the pre-Socratics, which provides a lot of grist for Campbell's mill. Campbell plays the science and philosophy together.

No complaints from this quarter.

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