Earlier this week, I attended the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network workshop on Deep Time, Deep Waters. The purpose of this symposium was to imagine how water — particularly in oceans — allows us to think about time differently, especially through the multiple and intersecting deep-time cycles within submarine ecosystems. Thinking of time through fluids is quite commonplace. One intuitive characteristics of time is that it flows, either as an objectively real series of continual transformations or as a subjective habit of the way in which we order temporal events in our understanding. This notion of temporal flow is, however, linear and laminar. The discussions at the workshop took this thinking of time through fluids further by imagining how the flow of time is more turbulent than previously imagined. Following these discussions, I thought it worth imagining how the flow of time can be understood not just through water but a different kind of fluid, namely cats.
The idea that cats are liquid has a very short but rather amusing history on the Internet. It grew from the wider obsession with cat memes on social media platforms and media sites. There is something delightfully postmodern about this intersection between frivolous, on-line mass culture and sincere academic research. The web site Boredpanda.com ran an article that offered fifteen ‘proofs’ that cats are liquid. They are images of cats fitting inside various containers — wine glasses, bowls, jars, boxes, gutters, et cetera — satisfying the conventional definition of a liquid as a state of matter in which a substance ‘maintains a fixed volume but adapts to the shape of its container’.
Like many great ideas, this began as a joke and was later taken up in earnest by scientists. I came across this subject for the first time on the Improbable Research podcast (episode 89), published by Marc Abrahams and the Annals of Improbable Research, both of Ig Nobel Prize fame. Abrahams was joined by fluid dynamicist and science communicator Nicole Sharp as they discussed an article by Marc-Antoine Fardin in Rheology Bulletin titled ‘On the Rheology of Cats’. Rheology is a branch of fluid dynamics which is concerned with the flow of fluids and the deformation of matter, particularly in the case of substances with complex microstructures. One of the most profound insights from rheology is that ‘states of matter are a matter of time(s)’ (Fardin 16). Our understanding of what is a solid or liquid depends on how quickly it responds to stresses over time. What this means is that rather than being a property of the matter being observed, whether or not a substance is a solid or a liquid depends upon how long it is being observed. Essentially, something which may appear solid when observed for a short time may, when observed over a much longer duration, appear liquid. One example of this is the biblical verse which inspired the prominent rheologist Markus Reiner, in which the prophet Deborah says ‘the mountains flow before the Lord’ (Judges 5:5). This verse inspired Reiner to coin the ‘Deborah number’, which is a crucial concept in rheology defined as the ratio of the time it takes for a body to return to equilibrium after being stressed and the duration of observation.
In the case of cats, their bodies have a certain relaxation time over which they change their shape to adapt to the container they are in. While they may not be as quick to do so as water (a Newtonian fluid of very low viscosity), when observed over a longer duration they can be said to flow over a much longer time. So when observed over prolonged periods, cats can flow like liquids. The same can be said for all kinds of bodies that are subject to transformations over time. One particularly interesting subject in the workshop was about whale falls as in Michelle Bastian and Nicholas Higgs’ respective papers. These are complete ecosystems that develop around whale carcasses that fall to the bottom of the ocean. As whales die, their carcasses become negatively buoyant and they sink to the bottom of the ocean floor. They are acted upon by different kinds of bacteria and parasites which break down the bone and flesh. Over several decades, the body of the whale undergoes several transformations into a different shape. Just like cats, whale carcasses can be considered liquids over much longer rheological regimes.
Heraclitus’ aphorism that ‘everything flows’ is the motto of the field of rheology. Taking this even further, one could suggest that everything is a fluid. This can have quite a radical implication on the way in which we understand time. If everything is a fluid, then it is a fluid that has a complex microstructure. There are different bodies within it which flow or transform at different rates. The biblical verse about mountains flowing is particularly intriguing because it expands our understanding of time into a cosmic perspective in which even geological time is instantaneous by comparison. However, mountains are still terrestrial. What makes oceans particularly fascinating is that these internal complexities of the flow of time are rendered more salient.
The wide range of papers presented at the EEHN workshop, each engaging with a specific aspect of time within deep waters, characterised submarine time as an interface and transfer point between multiple and multi-species time scales. This included, just as a few examples, the geological history of the evolution of species as in Higgs’ paper on bone worms in whale falls, the ancestral history of archaeology as in Christina Fredengren’s broader work on the archaeology of deep time, and the persistence of anthropogenic pollution in the oceans and one’s responsibility to deep futures as in the papers by Alexandra Campbell and Christopher Lyon. The most provocative suggestion was in Astrida Neimanis’ paper on the impact of the disposal of chemical weapons in the Gotland Deep. This represents a network of complex, multispecies time as has been central to these discussions. These temporalities is further constituted by the specific materiality of the ocean — its temperature, salinity, pressure and ecosystems. Neimanis’ paper, along with the Helen Rozwadowski’s keynote lecture on ocean time, further underscored how the view that the ocean is a constant, unchanging resource that is unaffected by human activity is untenable, and that it is in fact acted upon by anthropogenic change.
Neimanis’ paper argued that, contrary to the linear notion of the flow of time, the attention to these transfer points between these different temporalities in submarine ecosystems serves to ‘queer’ our understanding of time, and render it much more dynamic and internally complex. Taking insights from rheology and conceiving of everything as fluid, everything as flowing, further allows one to queer this temporality by emphasising the internal differences in the behaviour of fluids. Time is not as uniform or laminar as conventional understandings of the flow of time suggest. Instead, its flow is much more turbulent, with eddies resulting from the interface between temporal processes of different scales. In order to understand everything as fluid, one must imagine a much wider perspective offered by deep time. When observed over at such a grand scale, everything is liquid, just like cats. And within this, everything is infinitely complex, fraught with internal tensions and contradictions, having a mind of its own, also just like cats.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all of the presenters and participants at the Deep Time, Deep Waters workshop, those whom I have mentioned above as well as those whom I have not, for all the stimulating discussions over the course of the event.
Abrahams, Marc. ‘Can a Cat be both a Solid and a Liquid? (The Deborah Number)’ Audio podcast. Improbable Research. Play.it, 9 Nov. 2016. Web. 16 Jun. 2017.
Fardin, Marc-Antoine. ‘On the Rheology of Cats.’ Rheology Bulletin 83.2 (July 2014): 16-7, 30. Web. 16 Jun. 2017.