Winding Back The Clock – Time in Popular Culture


Using both one of the best films of last year, and one of the most insightful writers I know of, I reflect on that thorniest of subjects – time.

A 2014 article from Wired, which goes into great depth about the science of time itself, proposed that a ‘New Quantum Theory Could Explain The Flow of Time’. The science was exciting, but ultimately perhaps too vague to merit that statement. Still, that doesn’t mean that time is a subject to avoid because of all-too-apparent difficulties. After all, time underpins everything else that takes place in the universe. Time is also a constant throughout recent cultural history, something we have a primal need to understand because it defines our lives, and art can give us as much of a window on the concept as science.


Take the 2015 Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as the famous English physicist. In one scene, Stephen and future wife Jane ‘wind back the clock’, and at the film’s conclusion, we slip back through Hawking’s life and see the film’s events happening in reverse. Despite the theoretical impossibility of this, it tells us a great deal about our relationship with the very idea of time – it is a matter of perception. Science can only go so far. The human perception of “big matters” like time is our most immediate way of engaging with them, before the science which only a select group can understand.

However, although time is a universally-acknowledged constraint, there is also the argument that it is, to an extent, man-made. The 2001 novel Austerlitz, by the late German author W.G. Sebald, proposes that ‘Time […] was by far the most artificial of all our inventions’, implying that time is an inherently human concept and, almost regardless of science, something that we began studying ourselves, and concluded that section of the novel by hoping ‘that time will not pass away…that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was’.

This philosophical hope that time can be moulded to suit our own ends brings us back to The Theory of Everything, where time is seen as something fluid, which can potentially be controlled merely by going through memories of the past. Time is a big concept, but perhaps also a man-made idea that unnecessarily weighs upon our lives. Perhaps we would be better simply living, and disregarding the constant tick of the clock.

However, to do so would be to ignore something we cannot control, or to deny its existence. Therefore time is a subject which has been tackled both in science and in popular culture down the years, with increasing scrutiny of late, and despite the fact that scientists have a better understanding of it now, we still seem no closer to concrete answers. Time is a funny old thing – that, if nothing else, is certain, and it will continue to bewilder and entrance people for a good while yet. When will we be able to really talk about time? It’s impossible to say. But using art to start the conversation, alongside established science is, at least, a start.

Alex Nicholson


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