Over the course of my days on this Earth, I’ve seen a few episodes of Dr Who but it wasn’t part of my science fiction heritage growing up. That said, I’m familiar with some of the basics and I’ve always been taken with the idea of the TARDIS.
While the TARDIS is a masterpiece of engineering and design, my focus here in on a particular aspect of the TARDIS, namely that it’s much larger on the inside than it appears from the outside. There are structurally similar ideas elsewhere. For instance, there is the bag of holding in Dungeons and Dragons, and the different manifestations of the portable hole.
But the idea of the inverse TARDIS effect first came to my attention some years ago, when I was moving from a smaller office in the Maths Tower to a larger room, and I found it difficult to fit into the larger office, everything that had fit reasonably well in the smaller office.
On a rational level, I have a clear idea of what might have happened. Perhaps I had more shelves in the old office and perhaps I had more cabinets. But regardless, in conversation with colleagues, they also expressed some experience with this effect as well.
But I think the inverse TARDIS effect is much broader than just its application to physical space, whether offices or moving house. It also applies to time.
Again, there is I think a rational explanation. When I was in a major administrative role, the small moments in the day, 15 minutes here or half an hour there, were exceptionally valuable, and I had to make good use of them. But now, out of that role, there isn’t the same external pressure to make best use of those small pieces of time through the day. For me, the external pressure made it easier to focus, and it’s been a relearning process to get myself back to the point of using those small pieces of time well.
Anecdotally, colleagues have mentioned that retirement can be similar. I suspect, fueled by a lack of personal experience, that this might be similar to the previous example; fewer constraints on time allow for the other activities to expand to fill the available time, no matter how much time there is available.
And this then raises the question, which only occurred to me as I was writing this, of the extent to which the inverse TARDIS effect is related to Parkinson’s law, that work expands to fill the available time. But that I think is a question for another day.
Professor James W Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy. He insists his role on the Milford committee is as Most Egregious Token Male.