Killing time is murder: Whitehorse and the arrow of time

When all is said and all is done, time will waste everyone.

Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet, known together as Whitehorse, waste nothing in their soulful acoustic blues track Killing Time. It’s a tight package of cinematic images giving the clear impression that no one is left out in the inevitable passage of time. And that passage always has the same result, no matter who you are.

I chatted with the Canadian couple as they made a stop this week in the small town of Viking, Alberta and Luke agreed, the song “recognizes that we’re only here for a finite amount of time and that’s all.” Melissa went further explaining, “It’s not so much following someone through their life, but the whole song is about the concept of time.” In the face of mortality, time is one of the most powerful artistic themes. It’s something we all experience. “Love and death are probably the two pinnacle topics for songwriters.” she continued, “It’s kind of the go to material [because] I think when it comes to this topic, mortality, the passage of time, it’s something that everybody can relate to. Everybody can feel that, can understand that fear or that acceptance or whatever it is. We’ve all struggled with it at times.”

The fear mostly comes from our experience of time as an arrow. Time doesn’t go backwards: what’s done is done, what’s gone is gone, and we cannot get it back.

Why though? Why does time waste everything?

It’s a difficult question to answer. In thinking about the finality of time in the song, Luke hit on how incomprehensible time can seem. “Our brains are not really sophisticated enough to fully understand [it]. The concept of time is such a clusterfuck for our minds, I mean the whole notion of it expanding and that it’s relative. We’ve slapped an inflexible grid on time, 365 days, and the sun tends to cooperate, but in terms of our experiences that’s kind of arbitrary. ”

Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, in his book From Eternity to Here, suggests one of reasons it’s so hard: There are a lot of phenomena that make it seem like the arrow’s direction shouldn’t be fixed. Simple collisions governed by Newton’s laws, for example, can be played backwards and forwards. It would be hard to tell the difference, and there’s  no particular reason why they couldn’t work in either direction. “The weird thing about the arrow of time” he explained in an interview with Wired, “is that it’s not to be found in the underlying laws of physics. It’s not there. So [time’s] a feature of the universe we see, but not a feature of the laws of the individual particles. So the arrow of time is built on top of whatever local laws of physics apply.”

It isn’t lost on him, though, that the arrow is part of our universal experience of time. He remarks that nothing messes with a fiction reader more than playing with the arrow of time, like Kurt Vonnegut does to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Taking Melissa’s idea further, time isn’t just universal because we all experience it. Even more than other so-called universals, like love and loss, we all experience at least part of it in the exact same way. It moves in the same direction for everyone. We all remember the past and not the future.

The consistency of the arrow of time is most often explained by the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy describes the amount of disorder in a system. That disorder is defined by comparing the microscopic arrangements of particles to how something seems on a macroscopic scale, a definition we owe to Ludwig Boltzmann. Entropy is high when there are many different ways that the particles could be arranged without us noticing a difference. Entropy is low when the particles can only be arranged in a few very particular ways. Imagine a set of books sitting on a desk. There are only a few ways to arrange them so that they are a neatly piled up (low entropy). Even leaving one book askew would make the desk look more messy. On the other hand, there are many many ways for a messy desk full of books to look messy (high entropy). It really doesn’t matter what order they’re in or what exact angle each of the books are sitting at for it to look equally messy. A mess is a mess.

The arrow comes from the second law of thermodynamics, which explains that the entropy of any system will always (well, it will tend to with very high probability) increase or stay the same. It will (almost) never decrease.  Messy desks don’t spontaneously become neat, but the opposite happens all the time. It’s most likely that a neat desk will eventually become messy even if the owner doesn’t put any effort into purposely making it that way. Statistically speaking, there are just so many more ways for it to be messy. It’s this second law that governs the direction of time. The arrow, driven by entropy, is equally inescapable for the characters we meet in Melissa and Luke’s song and for potentially messy office desks.

Do you need to know about entropy to appreciate Killing Time? No, probably not. It stands on its own as a terrific song. It’s a testament to great and thoughtful songwriting, though, that while they may express it differently the song and the second law have the same message: the arrow of time doesn’t care who you are, its effects are the same for all.

Killing Time can be found on Whitehorse’s debut, self-titled album released in August 2011 by Six Shooter Records.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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