On the nature of Time

Globalization and Time: Humanity’s relationship with Chronological Progression

There is perhaps no subject studied and analyzed as often or in greater depth than the subject of time.  To say that time has fascinated man since the beginning of recorded history is a bit redundant, yet nevertheless, man has been captivated by the idea of time since it’s conceptualization.  Many views and ideas about time have been held throughout history, with the accepted framework for time changing and evolving through the ages.  From ‘absolute time’ to the Special Theory of Relativity, theories involving time are numerous and diverse, with some being more accurate than others.  Today, time permeates nearly every aspect of our existence, and is a crucial cornerstone of our society.  Our current idea and use of time varies greatly from archaic notions, and recognizing these differences will allow us to better appreciate contemporary theories and applications.  Firstly, one must consider the history of man’s relationship with time, and to better understand the present, one must examine the past.

Ancient records and artifacts indicate that mankind may have been measuring time as early as 20,000 years ago, yet it is the ancient Egyptian society that is credited with the first use of a three hundred and sixty-five day calendar around 3100 BCE(Before the Common Era). (NIST.gov, ancient calendars)  These early civilizations used the motions of the planets and stars, often called ‘Celestial’ or ‘Heavenly’ bodies, to calculate the passage of seasons, months and years.  The ancient Aztec peoples were seemingly obsessed with time, creating massive temples and pyramids with dimensions and measurements related to their calendar.  The ancient Greeks were known to have two different perspectives on time: Chronos, which was their numeric measurement of time, called Chronological time; and Kairos, which was viewed as a metaphysical or ‘divine’ time referring to an ‘opportune moment’.( Chiaravallo Interview, pg1) Yet it was not until much later, more within our recent history, that a definitive scientific description of time was established.

The definition of time was first stated explicitly in 1687 when Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, considered by many to be the single most important work ever to be published within the physical sciences. (Hawking, pg 4-5)  Within this work, Newton established not only the laws for motion of objects, but also the idea that time is ‘absolute’, and unalterable.  Time was the same for any observer, at any location, at any speed, and indeed under any circumstances one wished to consider.  The topic of the beginning of time was still in contention, as Immanuel Kant displayed with his work Critique of Pure Reason.  Kant said that if the universe had existed forever, there would be an infinite period of time before any event, which he considered absurd.  He went on to say “If the universe had a definite beginning, there would exist an infinite amount of time before it, so why should the universe begin at any one particular time?”(Hawking, p 8)  The Newtonian idea of ‘absolute time’ would remain the prevalent theory of time for over two hundred years, until a humble Swiss patent clerk changed the world forever.  His name was Albert Einstein.

Unfathomably brilliant, Albert Einstein was arguably the most revolutionary theoretical physicist in the twentieth century.  Taking nothing for granted, he went ‘back to the drawing board’ with the most basic of concepts, including distance, space, and time.  His groundbreaking work culminated in another of physic’s treasured manuscripts, Relativity: The Special and General Theory.  Published in 1920, Relativity took Newton’s archaic laws of motion and showed their inadequacy in describing an accurate picture of reality.  One of the main points of Einstein’s work was that time was not an independent, immutable construct, but a subjective, personal measurement.  On page twenty-three of Relativity, he summarizes the concept thusly: “Every reference body (coordinate system) has it’s own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in the statement of the time of an event.”  What Einstein is describing here goes completely against the formerly established idea of ‘absolute time’, saying instead that time differs from person to person, place to place, and cannot be the same for two moving bodies.  He illustrates this concept beautifully with one of his classic thought-experiments (an experiment conducted purely in the mind, as a hypothetical framework for physical theory).

In his book, Relativity, Einstein describes for the reader a train which is moving at a constant speed in a straight line, and an observer watching the train from an embankment.  Einstein goes on to say that he is aboard this hypothetical train, and that he drops a stone from out of the window, without throwing it.  To Einstein, the stone falls straight down, taking a certain amount of time to do so.  To the observer, the stone falls in a parabola due to it’s lateral motion, traveling a greater distance.(Einstein p 9)  This discrepancy in distance also can be translated to a discrepancy in time.  Time then, is a personal concept, varying depending on who is measuring it.  This small variation in time can be calculated mathematically, and has become an integral part of much of our modern technology.  This difference in time has been observed and confirmed experimentally in particle accelerators worldwide.  As an object approaches the speed of light (which is a constant, often referred to as ‘c’) the difference in time for the object compared to one at rest increases dramatically.  This effect is called time dilation. (SLAC.stanford/theory/relativity)  The results are astounding: a particle that ‘should’ disintegrate after a certain distance is observed to travel twenty times further than expected!  The particle is traveling at a speed very close to c, and as a result, time for the particle moves much more slowly then it does for the scientists observing it.(SLAC.stanford/theory/relativity)  The conclusion drawn matches that of Einstein: the faster a body is traveling, the closer it’s velocity is to that of light (c), the slower time passes for that body.  This was one of the many new important ideas about time that emerged during the twentieth century.

In 1967, the National Institute of Science and Technology redefined the second.  Instead of measuring a second in terms of the Earth’s motion, NIST used the oscillation of the cesium atom to calculate a second’s worth of time.  This was found to be 9,192,631,770 cycles of the cesium atom’s resonant frequency.  The exactness of this result caused the second to become the physical quantity most accurately measured by scientists of the day.( NIST.gov, atomic)  It was due to this new, extremely accurate measure of time that a new standard time system could be constructed, and on January first, 1972 the Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, system took effect internationally.  So it was that time was no longer measured by the motion of the Earth, which can vary by minute amounts, but by the resonance of atomic particles. (NIST.gov, general/time/world)

Today we require a precise exactness when measuring time because so much of our world’s infrastructure depends on it.  The educational system is rigidly adherent to time, scheduling different classes and activities for students on a daily basis.  Time is important for the workplace as well, as any worker reprimanded for tardiness will attest.  Cell phones and computers allow for nearly instant communication regardless of distance, facilitating the rapid proliferation of information.  This ease of information exchange along with our global standardization of time allows business to operate on an international level.  Transportation, communication, financial transactions, manufacturing, electric power and a myriad of other technologies are all contingent on an accurate, standardized system of time. (Chiaravallo Interview, p1)  A popular application of this standardization is the GPS, or Global Positioning System.  GPS units operate by sending and receiving highly accurate time measurements from satellites in orbit to an earth-bound vehicle.  The satellites know the positions of one another, and use the minute difference in their time measurements to calculate the position of the vehicle.(gpsinformation.net)  These GPS units must account for the difference due to relativity as well, or their resulting location determinations would be inaccurate.

Despite the radical advances in science that have revolutionized our idea of time, research into more accurate definitions and measurements of time continue.  Philosophers continue to speculate as to what time means for mankind, and how it relates to each of us.  The mysteries of time continue to elude us, as they did St Augustine when he said in book eleven of his Confessions “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know.  If I wish to explain it to one who asketh, I know not” (Chiaravallo interview, p1)  The seductive intrigue of time will surely continue to captivate mankind as it has throughout history.  Though much has been learned about time, many questions continue to plague today’s scientific and philosophic minds.  How we will view time thirty years from now?  Will travel through time ever become possible?  What would it mean for our society if it did?  What does the future hold for our concept of time?  Speculation on such matters is rampant, yet only time will tell.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap