In Search of Time: The Art and Science of the Fourth Dimension


The Oxford Experience is a residential summer programme providing one-week courses in a variety of subjects aimed at non-specialists. It offers a choice of seminars each week over a period of six weeks.

“What then is time?” asked Saint Augustine. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I try to explain it to him who asks, I know not.” And despite the best efforts of modern science and philosophy, still, today, we “know not”. This course celebrates the many mysteries of the fourth dimension, examining the inexhaustible lure of time’s arrow for physicists, writers of literature, film-makers, theologians and historians. We also explore the cultural origins of minutes and months and the myriad ways in which humans engage with time, from crude scratch-marks on stone to the mind-bending constructs of relativity and quantum mechanics, from art-house movies to the metaphysical musings of the novel.

Programme details

Seminars meet each weekday morning, 09.15-10.45 and 11.15-12.45, with afternoons free for course-related field trips, individual study or exploring the many beautiful places in and around the city.

Clocking Time: From the Palaeolithic age to the Postmodern, we consider the implications for daily life of the precise measurement and strict imposition of seconds, minutes, months and millennia. How has the inexorable drive toward technological accuracy and historiographical delineation shaped human society and affairs?

Time and Space: Einstein dismantled Newton’s intuitive model of absolute time, replacing it with “spacetime”, a startlingly counter-intuitive, ever-evolving construction in which universal time is anything but absolute. We learn in detail about the great man’s theories and discover how even within our teaching room, time is advancing at differing speeds. And I’ll be explaining how we can visit the year 3020.

Storytime: We uncover the earliest time-travel fiction, some dating from the Eighteenth Century and engage with the ever-growing body of writers inspired by the possibilities of temporal manipulation, among them H.G. Wells, James Joyce, John Wyndham, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. We also consider how in films such as La Jetée and Memento, cinema creatively challenges our perception of time.

Time in the Mind:  Why does time appear to drag when we are bored? And might we somehow prevent the years from whizzing by? Contrasting the latest developments in neuroscience with a range of venerable metaphysical hypotheses – those of Aquinas, Spinoza and Husserl, for example – today’s class examines how humans strive to comprehend and control their personal experience of time.

Time’s Arrow: Was there ‘time’ before the Big Bang? Why does time ‘flow’, and why only in one direction? And does time ‘stop’ inside a Black Hole? Quantum physics can supply some if not all of the answers and we’ll hear about these and other possible solutions to the intractable questions of determinism, infinity and The End and we will ask, finally, if human beings can ever truly ‘understand’ time.


Description Costs
Programme fee (no accom–incl.lunch and dinner) £1070.00
Programme fee (with single en-suite accom and meals) £1565.00
Programme fee (with single standard accom and meals) £1380.00


Dr Tim Barrett


Tim Barrett lectures in political history and the history of science.  Ten years an OUDCE International Programmes tutor, he is also an Honorary Research Fellow of Keele University, Staffordshire.

Assessment methods

There are no assessments for this course.


Online registration closes on Friday, 1 May 2020 but please note that this course may be fully booked very quickly so early registration is recommended.


During your course, you will stay in typical Oxford student accommodation at Christ Church in buildings which range from the 18th to the 20th century.

The fee stated includes a bedroom with private bathroom facilities (shower, washbasin and toilet). Most are single but a few twins are available*.

There is also a limited number of standard rooms available, which all have their own washbasin and shaver point but shared bath and toilet facilities. Most standard rooms are single but there are a few ‘twin sets’ (two single rooms opening off a sitting room)*.

*If you wish to book a twin en-suite room or a standard twin set room each person should complete an application form and email it to us at as these rooms cannot be booked online. (Forms may also be posted to us at: The Oxford Experience, OUDCE, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA, UK)

Please indicate your accommodation preferences (either online or on your application form) together with a note of any mobility problems. Students should note that bedrooms are modestly-furnished, do not have air-conditioning and are arranged on a staircase of four or five floors.

We regret that we are unable to offer you accommodation at Christ Church prior to or following your course. Additionally, family or friends who are not enrolled in the programme cannot be accommodated in college.


If accommodation is unavailable in a particular week, we also offer places on a non-residential basis whereby participants can take classes and have meals at the college, having arranged their own accommodation elsewhere.

If you wish to enrol on a non-residential basis please complete an application form and email it to us at as this option cannot be booked online. (Forms may also be posted to us at: The Oxford Experience, OUDCE, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA, UK)