Category Archives: Science

On Space | …and Time | Mark David Major

The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”
– Stephen Hawking

NOTE This post is not about architecture or urbanism. It is about space in a tangential, generic way in terms of space-time. I do not have the scientific or mathematical skills to either prove or disapprove the hypothesis discussed in this post. It is likely some physicist much smarter than myself has already contemplated this idea and applied the mathematics to discount the idea. It is also possible I am discussing something already accepted in the scientific community (i.e. reinventing the wheel, see the Stephen Hawking quote above). In fact, variations about this idea have existed for decades in the realm of science fiction/fantasy though I cannot recall a previous articulation in the exact manner of this post. However, this idea came to me in a rush during one morning over coffee and so fired my imagination that I had to write some notes so I did not forget it. This post is an expansion on those notes. There is a small possibility that this idea is entirely new. If so, I leave it to (much smarter and capable) physicists to explore the mathematics and validity of the idea. I only ask for some credit in providing the spark to their ideas. I have attempted to represent the premise of this post in the diagram below. I am coming at this concept of time from the point of view of a historian, writer, and dreamer.

Diagram illustrating the relationship between entropy and probability in space-time from past to present to future (Credit: Mark David Major).

On the Constant Present and Variable Future Past
– Past Imperfect and Imprecise Future
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Time is a universal constant, according to my understanding of the science. By universal constant, it means that time flows at a constant rate much like the speed of light is 186,282 miles/sec everywhere in the universe. Of course, the exception is if one travels at or near the speed of light, then time slows down for the traveler while time flows at its constant rate for the non-traveler based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. This is not a deterrent to the ideas in this post. For example, my understanding is Newton’s universal laws do not apply at the quantum level of our universe yet they are still applicable as scientific laws.

The premise of the ‘multiverse’ has gained greater acceptance in the scientific community over the last three decades. In the realm of science fiction, this idea has been around much longer; more than a century if we consider H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) as the starting point. In terms of time, the concept of the multiverse imagines that every scenario of events/actions in nature (including those specifically human) are played out across an infinite number of dimensions (perhaps portrayed most famously in Star Trek beginning in the 1967 episodes “Mirror, Mirror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever”, which used this premise for dramatic purposes). In terms of the flow of time, this can be imagined as a ‘time tree’ whereby an infinite series of lines branch off at various points in the past to run parallel with our own time line, like the branches of a tree where the root of the trunk is the Big Bang and the dimensions of ‘multiverse’ diverge from this earliest point in time. You can also refer to Doc Brown’s simplistic chalk board drawing and explanation to Marty in Back to the Future II). It is a tantalizing concept. However, Einstein’s theories tell us that time travel is not possible; or, at least, it is accepted that time travel to the past is not possible (the future, maybe, according to some physicists). The usual shorthand for this is the ‘grandfather paradox’, which is if I travel to the past and kill my grandfather then I never existed to travel to the past and kill my grandfather, i.e. a temporal paradox.

But what if this premise of time is inaccurate? What are the implications if we invert our ‘time tree’ and anchor the root to the present? The future and the past become “a spectrum of possibilities” (or probabilities) whereby the past converges on the present and diverges into the future. In this sense, time flows at a constant rate but is fluid. NOTE: After later reading an article about time by a philosopher of science in England, we can add the concept of entropy to this picture; namely, entropy is only stable in the present and becomes increasingly unstable in both the past and the future (6 September 2017 revision).

This means the past, present and future are always changing based on the probability of small moments (decisions, actions, events) across time, and time itself is overlapping waves of probabilities anchored to the present. We do not perceive this because we are always trapped in this particular point of time-space that we call the present. We could only observe the fluctuating waves of time and history if we could simultaneously exist in the present and ‘outside’ of that point in time; in the same manner that Einstein explained the theory of relativity from the point of view of the observer and the observed traveling at the speed of light.

The past only ‘appears’ fixed to us but the probabilities of the past (some probable, others unlikely) are always altering our perception of the present, just as we do the same for an infinite number of probable futures. For example, according to the Wikipedia entry on the Holocaust, the Nazis exterminated approximately 11 million (nearly 7.25 million Jews) between 1941 and 1945. Note: This example is not intended to be controversial but merely illustrative in gross, easily understood terms. I understand this Wikipedia said the same thing yesterday and believe it will say the same tomorrow but only because I am anchored in the present, which defines my perception of yesterday and tomorrow. But if the past is a series of probabilities constantly changing the present, then it is possible this Wikipedia entry stated yesterday/tomorrow it was/is 10 million or 12 million. The lowest probability outcome would be that the Wikipedia entry will state/did stated tomorrow/yesterday that the Nazis exterminated the entire Jewish race or the Nazis didn’t exterminate anyone (or even existed). Without being able to observe time from outside its flow, I can never be certain.

Our actions in the past, present, and future continually shape history within an infinite set of probabilities measuring from unlikely (-) to likely (+). At the same time, time tends to converge on the highest probabilities in giving shape to the present, just as our actions in the present (in small ways at this specific point in time) give shape to the probable outcomes of the future. This is free will as measured in our actions; past, present, and future in giving shape to what was, what is, and what will be. However, there is also a balance to time in the universe as it tends to converge on the highest probabilities. This is not predestination but what we could term ‘pre-probabilistic’. In nature, it takes a dramatic event to change the probabilities; for example, the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event caused by an asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In human history, altering the probabilities is more easily achieved (if that is the right word) at the level of the collective; for example the Black Death pandemic from 1346–53 that killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in Europe. It takes a rare individual to alter the probabilities of history. For example, Alexander the Great directly gave rise to the Hellenistic Period. It is probable that the influence of Greek culture on the Roman Republic/Empire (and later on European and American models of representative government) still would have occurred but, absence Alexander’s ambitions for conquest, Philip I of Macedon or some other’s Greek’s ambitions would have been limited to Greece itself/Greek cities of Asia Minor and Darius III’s Persian Empire probably does not fall, which trickles down to affect the probabilities that eventually converge on the present. In fact, based on this concept of time, such people (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and so forth) do not ‘fulfill’ their destiny but overcome their destiny to profoundly alter the probabilities of times. It seems likely this happens all the time on a smaller, imperceptible scale for some people.

This concept of time appears to ‘fit’ well with Einstein’s ideas that time travel is not possible. Perhaps, though, it would be more accurate to state that if you did time travel, you could never certain of arriving in the most probable past or future that defines the nature of your present. First, you would have to locate, observe and map the probabilities of the past and future from outside of time-space itself. This is as good as a definition of the omnipotent as any, i.e. God. Second, this would be mathematically impossible since the probabilities from every event/action in history would be infinite. Perhaps it would be feasible in some manner to ‘random sample’ the probabilities by first mapping the least probable extremes (Nazis never existed, Nazis conquered the world) and work towards the most probable (Nazis exterminated 10.9 or 11.1 million people during the Holocaust). However, even this is a daunting task because how could you determine and map the extremes of lowest probability in an infinite set? It cannot be done except in a partial, incomplete manner. At least, not without taking some mathematical shortcuts, i.e. cheats. This always brings you back to an uncertainty principle in time travel. You could never be certain of arriving in the right place or time because the only ‘anchor’ is the present.

There is something comforting in this concept of time because our actions do matter but, at the same time, time in the universe develops a ‘self-correcting’ mechanism based on the laws of entropy and probability whereby time tends to converge on those possibilities with the greatest likelihood. If I travel back in time and kill my grandfather, then my ‘grandmother’ marries my grandfather’s brother (greatest chance is my grandmother marries someone most similar to my grandfather). I still exist as a slightly modified version of myself derived from the same gene pool to travel back in time and kill my now-great uncle. We can change the future and the past is always changing us but only through tremendous efforts in altering the parameters in probability do we make certain outcomes more or less probable. It also means there is only one ‘now’ – carpe diem.

On Space is a regular series of philosophical posts from The Outlaw Urbanist. These short articles (usually about 500 words) are in draft form so ideas, suggestions, thoughts and constructive criticism are welcome.

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VIEWPOINT | Theory Makes Perfect

“Good theory leads to good planning. Normative theory – without quantitative observation and validation using scientific method – is nothing more than subjective opinion masquerading as theoretical conjecture.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1934-35) (Image: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation).

Viewpoint | Theory Makes Perfect
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Regularly brandishing the bogeyman of Modernism, the architects of CIAM, and their industrial age vernacular to deride scientific method and endorse normative theory is a late-20th century practice du jour of the planning profession and education. It is a lot like suggesting a rape victim needs to marry her attacker to get over the experience. A shocking metaphor? Perhaps, but it is not a casual choice.

Early 20th century Modernist planning was a normative theory that aspired to science in its assertions. However, Modernism fails even the most basic tenets of being science. It was long on observation and way short on testing theoretical conjectures arising from those observations. Without scientific method to test its conjectures, Modernism in its infancy never made the crucial leap from normative to analytical theory. Instead, the subjective opinions of the CIAM architects and planners were embraced – sometimes blindly – by several generations of professionals in architecture and planning, and put into practice in hundreds of towns and cities. Today, for the most part, Modernism has finally been tested to destruction by our real world experience of its detrimental effects, though we continue to suffer from its remnants in the institutionalized dogma of planning education and the profession. Nonetheless, it has – at long last – made the transformation from normative to analytical theory and validated as a near-complete failure; at least in terms of town planning.

Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse (1930).

Modernism is a failure of normative theory, not scientific method. Ever since Robert Venturi published his twin polemics Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture/Learning from Las Vegas, it has been chic to assert that Modernism  – and by implication, science – was responsible for the rape of our cities during the 20th century. A direct line can be drawn from the proliferation of late-20th/early-21st century suburban sprawl to Frank Lloyd’s Wright Broadacre City, and even further back to its infancy in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. However, like a DNA test freeing a falsely accused rapist, scientific method reveals the true culprit is, in fact, normative theory. The 20th century is a wasteland littered with normative theories: modernism, futurism, post-modernism, deconstructivism, traditionalism, neo-suburbanism and many more ‘-isms’ than we can enumerate.  After the experience of the 20th century, it seems absurd to suggest we require more theoretical conjecture without scientific validation, more opinion and subjective observation – that is, less science – if we want to better understand the “organized complexity of our cities” (Jacobs, 1961). Sometimes it seems as if the planning profession and education has an adverse, knee-jerk reaction to anything it does not understand as “too theoretical”. Of course, the key to this sentence is not that it is “too theoretical” but rather that so many do “not understand” the proper role of science and theory in architecture and planning, in particular, and society, in general.

Science aspires to fact, not truth. The confusion about science is endemic to our society. You can witness it every time an atheist claims the non-existence of God on the basis of science. However, science does not aspire to truth. Not only is ‘Does God exist?’ unanswerable, it is a question any good scientist would never seek to answer in scientific terms. It is a question of faith. The value judgment we place on scientific fact does not derive from the science itself. It derives from the social, religious or cultural prism through which we view it. Right or wrong is the purview of politicians, philosophers and theologians. There are plenty – perhaps too many – planners and architects analogous to politicians, philosophers and theologians and not enough of the scientific variety. And too often, those that aspire to science remain mired in the trap of normative theory and institutionalized dogma. The Modernist hangover lingers in our approach to theory. But we require less subjective faith in our conjectures and more objective facts to test them. We persist with models that are colossal failures. When we are stuck in traffic, we feel like rats trapped in a maze. We apply normative theory to how we plan our transportation networks and fail to test the underlining conjecture. The robust power of GIS to store and organize vast amounts of information into graphical databases is touted as transforming the planning profession. But those that don’t understand science, mistake a tool of scientific method for theory. We project population years and decades into the future, yet fail to return to these projections to test and expose their (in)validity, refine the statistical method and increase the accuracy of future projections. And we hide the scientific failings of our profession behind the mantra, “it’s the standard.”

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898).

We require analytical theory and objective knowledge. If the facts do not support our conjectures, then they need to be discarded. In normative theory, ideas are precious. In analytical theory, they are disposable in favor of a better conjecture on the way to a scientific proof. Scientific method is the means to test and validate or dispose of theory. Our profession and communities have paid a terrible price for the deployment of normative theory. However, quantitative observation and analysis of its failings has offered enlightenment about how to proceed confidently into the future.  The work of notable researchers in Europe and the United States are leading the profession towards an analytical theory of the city. Even now, we will be able to deploy scientific method to derive better theory about the physical, social, economic and cultural attributes of the city. This leap forward will eventually propel planning out of the voodoo orbit of the social sciences and into the objective knowledge of true science. Until then, we need to focus a bit more on getting there and less time raising the SPECTRE of dead bogeymen to endorse the creation of entirely new ones.

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A unanimous Declaration of Planning Independence


A unanimous Declaration of Planning Independence

When in the Course of urban events, it becomes necessary for a people to overthrow the tired paradigm which has guided city building for too long, and to assume a new model of urban growth and renewal for our cities on this earth, the distinct and equal status to which the Laws of Common Sense and of Common Sense’s Spirit entitles them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to revolution.

We hold these truths to be proven fact, that all cities are created of space, that space is a living thing, which is endowed by human Design with certain indeniable attributes, that among these are Movement, Transaction, and the pursuit of Interaction. That to secure these attributes, Urban Designers and Planners are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Beingness of the City, that whenever any paradigm becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Paradigm, laying its foundation on such common sense and organizing its principles in such form, as to them shall to most likely perpetuate the vitality and sustainability of the City.

Scientific method, indeed, will dictate that a Paradigm long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Its evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by overthrowing a Paradigm to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and corruptions, pursuing invariably the same Object manifests a Design to reduce them under absolute Lunacy, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Paradigm, and to provide a new model for the future of the city.

Such has been the patient sufferance of our cities; and such is now the necessity that constrains us to overthrow our current System of City Building. The history of the current Paradigm is a history of repeated injuries and corruptions, all having in direct object the establishment of absolute Lunacy over our cities. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

It has refused to Assent to the wisdom of good Design, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good, found common over 10,000 years of city building.

It has passed Laws and Regulations contrary to the common wisdom of good Design over 10,000 years of city building, refused to reform or suspend such Laws and Regulations when proven fallacious, or lest utterly neglected to attend to them for the public good.

It has refused to pass other Laws and Regulations for the accommodation of good Design, unless the People relinquish the right of sound Planning, a relation inestimable to City Building and formidable to Lunacy only.

It has conspired to call together Professionals at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from Public view, for the sole purposes of corrupting and fatiguing the City into compliance with Its measures.

It has dissolved Common Sense repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness Its invasions on the vital humanism of the City.

It has conspired for a long time, after such dissolutions, to promote mediocre Professionals; whereby the Paradigm, incapable of Annihilation, have been applied to Cities at large without recourse nor correction; the City remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers from without, and convulsions within.

It has endeavored to prevent the good Design of these cities; for that purpose of obstructing the Common Sense building of the City; refusing to pass Laws and Regulations to encourage good Design, and raising the conditions for the Misappropriation of Lands and Social Isolation of Populations.

It has obstructed the Administration of Space for pedestrians, by promoting its Assent to Laws for accommodating the Automobile.

It has made the People dependent on the Automobile alone, for the movement, transaction and interaction of their everyday activities, and increased the time and cost of their livelihood in Urban conditions.

It has erected a multitude of New Laws and Regulations, and sent hither swarms of Attorneys to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

It has kept among us Allocations for Parking designed solely for a handful days of Christmas shopping without regard for times or amount of use in the rest of the Year.

It has affected to render the desires of Professionals independent of and superior to the Civic good.

It has combined with other Paradigms to subject cities to a jurisdiction foreign to their humanistic constitution, and unacknowledged by Common Sense; giving its Assent to their Acts of pretended logic.

For Quartering large bodies of automobiles on our roads: For protecting them, by idiotic regulations, from retardation for any Murders which they have commit on Pedestrians and Bicyclists in our Cities:

For isolating our urban centers from all parts of their Periphery:

For imposing Fees and Taxes on us without benefit to the Civic good:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Choice in our housing types:

For placing the transportation of Automobiles above the Humanity of living:

For abolishing diversity in Our Cities for the sake of suburban conformity, establishing therein an Arbitrary lifestyle, and enlarging its Model so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute Lunacy in our Cities:

For destroying our Street Life, abolishing its most valuable Character, and altering fundamentally the spatial Function of Our Cities:

For suspending Common Sense urbanism, and declaring itself invested with the power to Build Suburbs for us in all cases whatsoever:

It has abdicated Common Sense here, by declaring us inconsequential to City Building and waging War against traditional urbanism:

It has plundered our lands, destroyed the Social Contract between the City and its Citizens, promoted social isolation, and destroyed the fabric of our neighborhoods.

It is at this time renewing efforts to sprawl large suburban communities of suspect Value to complete the works of isolation, desolation and lunacy, already begun with circumstances of Euclidean zoning and deceits of transportation engineering and planning scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy as a model of City Building lest the Death of the City is its aim.

It has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive in a web of bureaucratic incompetence in all agencies against their Cities, to become the executioners of Urban Vitality and Sustainability, or to fail by their Hands.

It has excited domestic special interests against the City, and has endeavored to bring on the Death of our Cities at the hands of faceless suburban sprawl, whose known rule of assimilation is an undistinguished conformity of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms:

Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

A Paradigm whose character is thus marked by every act which may define Lunacy, is unfit to be a model for Great Cities.

Nor have Urban Designers and Planners been wanting in attentions to our plight. They have been warned from time to time of attempts by their Paradigm to extend its unwarrantable reign over our Cities. Urban Designers and Planners have been reminded of the flaws of their Paradigm, and they have been conjured by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these corruptions, which, would inevitably spurn revolution. Urban Designers and Planners too have been deaf to the voice of Common Sense and Accepted Wisdom. Urban Designers and Planners must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces their Guilt, and hold them, Responsible as Accomplices in this paradigmatic injustice against Our Cities.

We, therefore, The Outlaw Urbanist, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the our Ancestral history and the wisdom of Master Builders for the righteousness of our cause, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of our Cities, solemnly publish and declare, that Our Cities are, and of Right ought to be Free of the Prevailing Paradigm; that we are Absolved from All Allegiance to the Prevailing Paradigm; and that all political and moral connection between It and City Building is and ought to be totally overthrown; and that as Free and Independent Thinkers, we have full Power to build traditional cities, foster movement, transaction and social interaction in Cities made of Space, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent Thinkers may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Common Sense in the Human Spirit, we pledge each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

This article appears in Major, M.D. (2012) Poor Richard, An Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 1 with Foreword by Julia Starr Sanford). Jacksonville, Florida: Forum Books, ISBN-10: 1482659379, ISBN-13: 978-1482659375, ASIN: B00Q1V5VLK. Available for purchase on this page.

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