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.

 

Just Posted

CBC Radio tops the ranking again in Kelowna

CBC had largest market share for third year in a row say rating company Numeris

Kelowna RCMP seek witnesses in pedestrian hit and run

The incident occurred around 4:00 p.m. on Dec. 4

City of Kelowna proposes 3.9 per cent tax increase for 2020 budget

The City of Kelowna’s budget deliberations occur next Thursday

Two gymnastics coaches raise money for Kelowna charity

Two coaches from Kelowna Gymnastix want to raise $5,000 for Her International

Kelowna RCMP bring holiday joy to seniors

Local officers are visiting retirement homes to sing Christmas carols

Cat and dog die in house fire in Kelowna

The house is located 195 Valleyview Road in Rutland

Six B.C. municipalities accepted as interveners in Supreme Court of Canada carbon-pricing case

Victoria, Vancouver, Squamish, Richmond, Nelson and Rossland have intervener status

Bob Ross is coming to Penticton in 2020

32 of the late painter and TV celebrity’s works will be on display at the Penticton Art Gallery

Residents in B.C. city could face 133% tax hike in ‘worst case’ lawsuit outcome: report

An average home could see a tax increase of $2,164 in one year

Bird populations significantly declining around Revelstoke says Parks Canada

Out of the mountain national parks, bird populations near Revelstoke are in the worst shape

WATCH: Diehard Vernon Winter Carnival goers line up for tickets

Susan O’Brien was the first in line at 6:45 a.m. Friday

B.C. Transit finds 28 used fareboxes online, saves $300,000

‘Someone joked maybe we can buy used fareboxes on eBay,’ CEO says

Year in jail for ex-Vernon Judo coach for child porn

Bryan McLachlan pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing child pornography

Many of Canada’s working poor can’t afford lawyers, don’t qualify for legal aid

One lawyer says many people earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to really live on

Most Read