When Are You?
By Allan Eastman
In South Africa, one old Zulu sends word to his friend in a village 80 kilometres away that he will meet him by the Upside Down Tree at the Full Moon. His friend sets out, walks for 2 days over the tall hills and through the stony valleys of KwaZulu until he arrives at the ancient Baobao tree by the edge of the plain, its root-like upper branches scratching the twilit sky. The old man settles down on his blanket, lights his pipe and watches the stars begin to twinkle into view. His friend will arrive tonight, or tomorrow or the day after. No worry, he will contentedly wait until their rendezvous is fulfilled.
In Western Europe, the sharp buzz of an alarm clock awakens a woman executive precisely at 0545. Simultaneously, a timer turns on her automatic coffee maker. Finishing a light breakfast, she checks the clock on her Blackberry and starts to gather up her things. Twenty minutes later, in business suit and briefcase, she is standing on the platform as the commuter train pulls in at 0700. Two hours later, she buckles her seatbelt as an airplane pushes back from the gate precisely at 0900. Another two hours on, she steps out of a taxi at the office building of her major client, 400 kilometres away. She checks her Blackberry once again as the elevator rises towards the top floor. She is exactly on time for her bimonthly 11 o’clock sales conference.
Two human experiences occurring on the same day last week here on Planet Earth, two very different attitudes of the concept of Time. The first can be called Traditional, based on the flow of seasons and the endless cycle of sunlit days and waxing and waning moons, the second– let’s call it Modern - on the relentless ticking of billions of clocks, all linked to an agreed upon concept of what time it is anywhere in the World, all calibrated and quantified by the precise oscillations of cesium particles in Atomic clocks safely tucked away in prestigious Scientific Institutes.
In some ways, these two experiences encompass the entire History of the Human Race from our earliest moments of awareness as hunters-gatherers in the prehistoric forest right up to the frantic high tech present that more and more characterizes modern existence on our Planet every day. Each human’s life is deeply affected by Time and its measurement but what do most people really know or understand about Time?
What Is Time, Exactly?
Well, it turns out that for something which we are so intimately involved with for all of our lives, Time is a very slippery subject, indeed - mysterious, even – and the short answer is really that nobody knows for certain.
The most modern thinking concerning the creation of the Universe suggests that Time did not exist before the Big Bang. When that vast explosion occurred 15 Billion years ago, Space and Matter were created and in the first most infinitesimal instant of existence, Time began as well. Axiomatically, Big Bang Physicists suggest that in that unimaginably distant future when the Universe stops expanding and collapses back in on itself again to reform the Creation Singularity, Time will again cease to exist.
OK, that’s putting the subject onto the cosmic scale of things and like most concepts out there on that level, it appears to lead to more questions than to definitive answers. What about something closer to our own human lives?
Most of the answers offered up by the smartest humans throughout our History seem to be kind of evasive when it comes to actually defining what Time is.
The classical Greek Philosopher Aristotle thought that change was the key constituent in human lives and thus defined Time in terms of the change we are constantly coping with, saying more or less, “Time is a number of change with respect to the before and after.” Or more simply, change is dependent on Time and without Time, there is no change. But this answer seems to eat its own tail and tell us more about change and less about Time.
Isaac Newton, the great 17th Century Natural Philosopher and the Father of Modern Science, took a more advanced tack saying that Time is the dimension of the Universe in which events occur in sequence. He believed in an absolute, unchangeable and immutable Time that is essentially a duration, a quantity that humans have come to measure by such concepts as seconds, minutes, hours, etc.
More recently, Albert Einstein – thought by many to be the most intelligent human being ever – has postulated that Time is relative, not absolute, that it changes when effected by other forces in the Universe like gravity and motion. His Theory of Relativity demonstrates that the faster you go, the slower time passes so that to an Astronaut fired out into the Galaxy at near the speed of light, 20 years may pass on the journey while to observers plodding along back here on Earth, 200 years may go by.
Perhaps Einstein’s most useful contribution to the definition of Time we are seeking is the puckish comment attributed to him that “Time is Nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once!”