Taylor: The science of transitions

Linguist James Harbeck introduced me to the word “limen” which means, in its original Latin, a threshold, a crossing over.

Duck! Here comes another year! I just barely got myself used to writing 2015, and now I have to learn to write 2016.

The calendar makes the transition from one year to another so arbitrary—at exactly12:00 midnight, on December 31, the year changes over.

Astronomically, the changeover should probably have come at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, the beginning of a new cycle of four seasons. But that exact moment would be much harder to define—the difference in length between the day before and the day after is about one second.

As I write this column, the weather channel tells me that tomorrow will be six seconds longer than today was. It’s hardly going to make waking up in the dark much easier.

Transitions fascinate me. Linguist James Harbeck introduced me to the word “limen” which means, in its original Latin, a threshold, a crossing over.

We had a limen in October, when one government replaced another. Climate scientists fear we may have crossed another limen, a threshold, beyond which globing warming acquires a momentum of its own.

I heard a hydrologist refer to limenology—measuring the movement of underground water flows. You can measure dry soil here, and wet soil there—but it’s almost impossible to define exactly where wet turns to dry, or vice versa.

Harbeck illustrated his concept photographically: where does a lighted area shade off into darkness?

Limens are often vague, unclear. Unlike calendars and governments, there are few hard transitions in life. Or love. When is that moment when attraction becomes infatuation? When a relationship turns into a life commitment? Maybe there isn’t one.

We know about micro truths. Every toss of a coin—provided the coin is not artificially weighted—has an equal chance of coming up heads or tails. We also know the macro truth — in a million tosses, the proportion of each will come up infinitely close to 50/50.

But we persist in thinking that if we’ve tossed seven heads in a row, the next one should come up tails.

Not so. The coin has no memory. It doesn’t keep track of previous tosses. No matter what has already happened, every toss has exactly the same chance of coming up heads or tails.

So where does the micro probability shade into the macro probability?

Epidemiologists can predict with considerable accuracy how many Canadian men will have a heart attack this year. They cannot translate that into the micro level, to say that this man will have a heart attack in 2016.

Christians of the evangelical tradition tend to expect sharp transitions. At some point, you turn your life over to Jesus. Many Christians can give you the precise date and time of their conversion.

I believe that most conversions take place much more gradually. Understandings that have been nagging at the back corners of consciousness become more insistent, more demanding. Until one day, to your own surprise, you find that your religious faith really matters to you.

Or equally, find that it doesn’t matter to you anymore.

Sometimes we only know that we have crossed some kind of threshold after the fact.

Just as we won’t recognize longer days for some weeks yet.