On Wednesday, the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies kicked off its first panel of Polymathic Pizza, a series of open discussions on topics covering various academic disciplines. The panel event, aptly titled “The Arrow of Time,” featured theoretical physicist and California Institute of Technology research professor Sean Carroll, USC physics and astronomy professor Clifford Johnson and USC provost professor of art history and English Kate Flint.
This semester’s Polymathic Pizza series focuses on all aspects of the concept of time.
“When we were going . . . through all of the troubles as a University and also some of the student deaths that happened this past year, [I] started thinking about how I wish they had more time and [the idea] that time heals,” said Karin Huebner, a senior administrator at the Academy.
At the event, panelists were asked to speak about time as a “multivalent framework for life.” Each speaker drew ideas and contributed expert opinion from their academic backgrounds in their talks on the topic.
Johnson, the first speaker on the panel, focused his presentation on the malleability of time. To illustrate this concept, he presented an image from the 2014 film “Interstellar.” He later explained that the plot point in which 22 years pass in the couple of hours that characters enter a black hole is a scientifically true phenomenon, contrary to popular belief.
“Space and time are all packaged in an exotic way,” Johnson said. “The way to think about objects moving is that matter warps and bends space time in some way.”
While Johnson’s approach to understanding the complexities of time focused more on the relativity aspect of the subject, Carroll focused his contributions to the panel on physicist Stephen Hawking’s idea of the arrow of time, the titular topic of the discussion.
Carroll’s area of expertise and research focuses on how people can distinguish between the past and future.
“Space happening over and over again is the passage of time,” Johnson said.
He continued to explain that the idea of entropy is related to our understanding of time in the universe and stated, “as the arrow of time [continues], entropy increases from left to right.”
While both Carroll and Johnson were able to draw from their STEM backgrounds to discuss the idea of time, Flint offered a more literary and art-based area of expertise. Her experience as a novelist and photographer allowed her to look at time through a different lens.
Drawing from her recent book, “Flash! Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination,” Flint explored the question of what flash photography is and how its answer is relative and dependent on technology and its context. Her presentation reviewed the history and evolution of photography and, specifically, flash photography. According to Flint, there is a light created by the flash eruption and that in the moment, “time is artificially stopped so we can look at moving objects.”
Tying her presentation to that of the other presenters, Flint described flash photography as a new way to see beauty and .
“One of the gifts that the humanities gives us is the thought of the flexibility of time … without having to come up with any mathematical explanation or rationale of how the world works,” Flint said.
Her perspective introduced concepts, such as art history, which would otherwise not have been discussed if the panel was solely composed of STEM field experts.
Carroll, Johnson and Flint ended the forum with an open discussion of questions from Polymathic Institute director Tara McPherson, and the students and faculty in the audience.
“I just wanted students and the campus to understand that time is our friend — time heals,” Huebner said. “There is no division we are all going through time together.”