IT'S ABOUT TIME
"Time!" The coach of the Lakers has just called time out after the Blazers player
has made only one of his two free throws. The TV breaks for commercials. There's
2:05 left on the game clock, so there's plenty of time to go make a sandwich,
grab a cold drink, and still get back to see the end of the game. With all
the time-outs and free throws, the game will likely last another 20 minutes
or so, and many plays will be squeezed into the 2 minutes and 5 seconds left
on the game clock. Coaches and players are often criticized or praised for
how well they manage the clock in those last few minutes of a game.
This is one of the distortions of modern timekeeping: There's game time; and
there's the actual time elapsing on your wristwatch. A new statistic is even
kept comparing the time a star sits on the bench for a rest with the time run
off the game clock.
So which is the 'real' time? To the players and the coach, the time on your
watch is irrelevant. The only time that counts to them is that which gives
them more opportunities to score. If you are at the game, you may be fretting
about the time you're going to have to pay for the babysitter. These are two
very different concepts of the passage of time for two people in nearly the same place.
Picture another scene: A toddler has ventured off the curb into the street.
A passing jogger sees the child, and also sees a large truck approaching him
at 40 miles per hour. The jogger veers into the street, grabs the child, and
dives out of the way of the truck as it brushes past with its tires screeching.
Afterwards the jogger says that time stood still for her - everything seemed to
go in slow motion. There was never any doubt that she could get the child safely
out of danger. The truck driver, on the other hand, says it all happened so
fast that she can't recall any of it. She saw the child in front of the truck
and slammed on the brakes, but she knew she couldn't stop in time.
Again two people involved in the same event have two very different experiences
regarding the time that elapsed during the event. And the actual time involved
was only a few seconds.
What is time? How real is it? Can it be so variable as these subjective
experiences suggest? Can we control how we experience time? Is time travel
possible? If so, can we go back to ...?
Let's call on the bards for some hint of the essence of time. Take Shakespeare's
"Ruine hath taught me thus to ruminate:
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weepe to have that which it fears to lose."
Or perhaps Omar Khayam's Rubaiyat can spell it out for us:
"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor shall your Tears wash out a Word of it."
The one expresses the onward rush of events, with no holding them back.
The other says that history is immutable, there's no going back to rewrite it.
One says that time flows uniformly on; the other says this flow is only one direction.
Maybe there's some light on this subject in the writings of the Greek philosophers.
Aristotle believed that time is cyclic, that what has passed will occur again.
Writing in his Physics, he states "there is a circle in all other things that
have a natural movement and coming into being and passing away. This is because
all other things are discriminated by time and end and begin as though conforming
to a cycle; for even time itself is thought to be a circle." To modern Western
concepts this notion of repeating events seems unacceptable.
Plato, who taught Aristotle, distinguished two aspects of time, Being and Becoming.
Being is a real, intelligible concept, always the same; Becoming is the state of
coming to be, never fully real, and is completely unintelligible. These concepts
seem separated from the real world; this realm of ideas is the favorite area of
study of the Greek Golden Age.
So not much help from the Greek philosophers. Maybe the great Isaac Newton can
enlighten us. In 1666 he wrote in his Principia that time "... flows equably without
relation to anything external." Therefore, time is just part of the background of
events, as is the space in which events occur. Given some initial state of a body
and the forces acting on it, one can calculate both the history and the future of
Let's leave it there for now. We'll get back to some concepts of varying time
frames in future discussions. You can learn some more about the
development of clocks.
Check back soon for the Complete Story!