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An Analog Mind in a Digital World

Bill Meredith

"There are lips in pistol, and mist in times; cats in crystal, and mice in chimes."
                                           James Thurber

When I was teaching, I tried to make each exam a mixture of a few hard questions that would challenge the best students, and some easier questions so the weaker students could pass if they were really trying. At the end of the test was a bonus question. Usually it was a trivia item, like "Name the last U. S. President who wore a mustache," or "Name the band that plays on the Muppet Show," or a riddle like the Thurber quotation above.* But occasionally it strayed into the realm of real science; for instance, once I asked them to define "Time."

The students got one point for answering the bonus question correctly, and there was no penalty for getting it wrong. Most of the class took it in fun; if they ran short of time, they ignored it, or if they didn't know the answer they would make up one. One creative student named Groucho Marx as the President with a mustache (I awarded him 3/16 of a point); several defined "Time" as "a weekly newsmagazine," or "nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." But there were always a few misguided souls who tried to give serious answers, and the "Time" question frustrated them. Most of them had never thought about it before, and they were astonished to discover they couldn't define a word that they used every day.

I cannot recall being unaware of time. In my earliest memories every house had a mantel clock that struck the hour; you could hear it all through the house, and it couldn't be ignored. At the age of two I knew there was a big hand and a little hand, and if asked when my bedtime was, I would hold up my hand with the thumb pointing out and the index finger up, to indicate 9:00. I learned to count and to recognize numbers by counting with the chimes at each hour; if I was bad, I had to sit in a hard chair until the clock struck. I learned that the passage of time could be either slow or fast; I knew my dad's work shift ended when the clock struck three, and it took the big hand forever to mark the fifteen minutes until he got home. The big hand went a lot faster when bedtime was approaching.

Awareness of time influenced the way I learned to think about the world. We didn't have pre-school or kindergarten, but by age 4 I could count by fives, and I knew that big hand on 4 meant 20 minutes after, while big hand on 8 meant 20 minutes until; thus I became aware that time connected the past to the future. When I was about 5, I went through a period when I loved to draw clocks, and I was never satisfied because the drawings always came out lopsided. My father didn't show me how, but one day he asked me if I knew there were 60 minutes in an hour, five between each number on the face. After puzzling about this for a long time, I set a water glass on my paper and drew a circle around it, and then carefully marked out the numbers with five marks between each, and as if by a miracle, it worked. The delight I felt in that achievement is still fresh in my mind; I ran around showing the wonderful drawing to everyone, and I was convinced that everything in the world would be found to be perfect and symmetrical if you studied it hard enough. In the long run, this was a mixed blessing; it prompted me to be more analytical about things, but it also made me overly critical of things that weren't perfect. I was well along toward adulthood before I realized the world really wasn't like that.

When I was about ten, my grandmother's old mantel clock stopped and refused to go any more. It just needed to be cleaned, but my father and uncle, both working overtime in the war effort, didn't have time for it, so I offered my services. With some misgivings, Grandma agreed, and I spent a whole day taking it completely apart and laying the pieces out in neat rows on the kitchen table. There seemed to be hundreds of wheels, and at first I played with them, spinning them like tops. But soon I became fascinated by the way the teeth of each wheel fit into the next one, a model of the perfect precision I expected of everything. Putting some of them back in the frame, I saw how a series of wheels acted as gears, speeding up or slowing down, depending on which one you turned. After a couple days of this, Grandma reminded me that she needed her kitchen table, so I carefully cleaned and oiled each piece and started reassembling the clock, and to everyone's surprise I got it back together again… except that there was one piece left over. It was an odd-looking piece, not a wheel like all the others, and I couldn't imagine what it was for. I wound the clock and started the pendulum swinging, and it ticked away with enthusiasm; and when it reached the hour and began to strike, everyone applauded. But it didn't stop when it got to 12; it kept going until the spring ran down, 116 consecutive strikes. The leftover piece obviously had to be what connects the striking mechanism to the part that moves the hands. So another lesson was learned: cause and effect exist, and every part of a structure has a function, even if it isn't immediately obvious.

The clock was already old when Grandma's uncle gave it to her as a wedding present, around 1890. It now sits silently on the wardrobe in my bedroom; my wife won't allow it on our mantel because it ticks too loudly, and its striking is clamorously unmusical. Apart from its being a family heirloom, I keep it because it taught me to think in terms of cause and effect, and to believe that the functions of complex things can be understood if you take them apart and study them carefully enough. That approach to problems is called reductionism, and it is the principle on which the whole of science is built.

It was easy for kids of my generation to learn to think this way; we picked it up by practical experience rather than from school. But it was another mixed blessing. My mind works like wheels and dials, like an old analog clock, while increasingly the world I live in is run by computer chips, like digital clocks that flick information before us instantaneously. I can't "multi-task;" to get any feeling of satisfaction, I have to focus on one thing at a time and see it progress logically from start to finish. Increasingly, I feel out of place in the world. My grandchildren open a new computer game and are off playing characters against each other instantly; I cannot bear to start until I have figured out what the object of the game is, and not knowing how the computer changes the shiny surface of that disc into moving, interactive screen images bothers me.

Perhaps the grandchildren have it right. It may be that in order to survive in today's world, understanding how everything works is less important than getting it done quickly. Perhaps I'm lucky to have reached retirement age when I did; I'm not sure it's possible to convert from an analog mind to a digital one at my age. Time is speeding up, and digital minds are the only ones that can keep pace. But every now and then I get the feeling that something valuable is being lost. So once in a while, when my wife is shopping, I go into the bedroom and start the old clock up and let it exercise a bit. After all, I owe my career to it. And maybe I'll give my grandson an old clock for his next birthday.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith