I love problems that plague humans for millennia.

Maria Balcells

Most people take the passage of time for granted. But Professor Maria Balcells views time, its passage and concepts such as eternity as the inspiration for questions that have intrigued fellow students of philosophy since pre-Socratic times. These questions will most likely never be fully answered.

"I try to understand our experience in time," Balcells explains. "I look at what physics says about time, which seems to be at odds with how we experience time. How should we understand the tension between the two?"

To make these weighty inquiries accessible to students in her Philosophy of Space and Time class, Balcells — a self-described "arts-and-crafter" — creates visual props, such as a hand-crocheted representation of hyperbolic space. She also uses illusions to remind students that what they perceive with their senses doesn't always coincide with physical reality.

Balcells, a musician who plays guitar and sings at venues in downtown Lewisburg, considers music a "representation of time." Therefore, like art, music plays a role in her pedagogy. "Some students have composed musical pieces to represent nothingness, or to illustrate the passage of time," she says.

Balcells adds that students from different disciplines tend to engage with the material in different ways. In particular, engineering students are sometimes initially resistant to theories that question mathematics and the laws of motion. "Sometimes, they'll become physically uncomfortable," she says.

According to Balcells, students from non-Western cultures often contribute different perspectives on time. And math and physics majors "tend to be some of the best students of philosophy," she says. "They're used to thinking in abstract ways."

Balcells enjoys watching students' thought processes evolve throughout each semester. Regardless of their chosen primary disciplines, most students come to embrace "thinking in a totally different way," she says, adding that her classes are meant to provoke thought, not provide answers. "Eventually, I hope that my students always have this voice in their heads that asks, 'But why? Or why not?' "

Posted Oct. 6, 2017