Origin of Our Concept of Time

On September 5, 2010, in Ontology, by eCoylogy

One of the primary concepts of being alive is dealing with “time.” There is never enough of it. As much as we’d like, we cannot pause it, rewind it, or fast forward it. But what is it exactly? Time, in reference to the length of days, months, and years, is a human construct based on the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. This is an article discussing the origin of time from the September 2009 special edition of Scientific American.

Clocks: Their origin is one of the deepest questions in modern physics:

Sundials and water clocks are as old as civilization. Mechanical clocks – and, with them, the word “clock” – go back to 13th century Europe. But these contraptions do nothing that nature did not already do. The spinning Earth is a clock. A dividing cell is a clock. Radioactive isotopes are clocks. So the origin of clocks is a question not for history but for physics, and there the trouble begins.

You might innocently think of clocks as things that tell time, but according to both of the pillars of modern physics, time is not something you can measure. Quantum theory describes how the world changes in time. We observe those changes and infer the passage of time, but time itself is intangible. Einstein’s theory of general relativity goes further and says that time has no objective meaning. The world does not, in fact, change in time; it is a gigantic stopped clock. This freaky revelation is known as the problem of frozen time or simply the problem of time.

If clocks do not tell time, then what do they tell? A leading idea is that what we perceive as “change” is not variation in time but a pattern among the universe’s components – the fact, for example, that if Earth is at a certain position in its orbit, the other planets are at specific positions in theirs. Physicist Julian Barbour developed this relational view of time in the winning entry for the Foundational Questions Institute essay contest last year. He argued that because of the cosmic patterns, each piece of the universe is a microcosm of the whole. We can use Earth’s orbit as a reference for reconstructing the positions of the other planets. In other words, Earth’s orbit serves as a clock.  It does not tell time but rather the positions of the other planets. By Barbour’s reasoning, all clocks are approximate; no single piece of a system can fully capture the whole. Any clock eventually skips a beat, runs backward or seizes up. The only true clock is the universe itself. In a sense, then, clocks have no origin. They have been here all along. They are what make the concept of ‘origin’ possible to begin with.
- George Musser

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2 Responses to Origin of Our Concept of Time

  1. A C says:

    Nobody I know regulates their life by the minute or second when left to their own devices and when not constrained by business or government interaction. It seems that it’s only businesses and governments and other large institutions that care about structuring the use of time by the minute and second. I think probably because, as the saying goes, time is money. But if you’re not spending or making money, what use is a second hand or minute hand? Many cultures have a very different perspective on the importance of time than the importance placed on it by our puritanical American culture. For example: “Jewish Standard Time” and “Hispanic Time”:


    Are minutes and seconds good for us? Minutes and seconds have taken a high degree of importance in our lives only in the last few hundred years. There have always been calendars, and I would say there probably has always been an understanding of “morning”, “noon”, “evening”, etc, as far as necessary for agricultural and religious life. But it’s only been since the industrial revolution that the mass production of clocks and watches has been possible. Clock towers in large cities go WAAAAAY back, but they certainly didn’t have second hands. Many didn’t even have faces. They just had bells.

    Is time even real? This article in Wired is about a guy who says it might be an illusion: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.06/physics.html?pg=1&topic=physics&topic_set=

    Finally, Einstein’s theories of time dilation as velocity approaches the speed of light might have interesting implications if we ever develop the technology to travel at those kinds of speeds. On your spaceship, maybe an hour passes as you travel to a distant solar system. Meanwhile, on earth, 200 years pass. By the time your journey ends, that hour isn’t just an hour — it’s seven or eight generations. During that hour, everyone on earth dies and is replaced by a new population, at least once over. What would time mean, and what would history mean, in a future where the relativity of time has constant implications on our lives?

  2. Papa John says:


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