Our subjective concept of time

The Big Bang, cosmos, and string theory – there are a surfeit of books that delve into wild ideas about the deepest mysteries of our universe. This caused astronomer Adam Frank to ask himself a question late one night in his fifth month of writing his book, About Time: “Who cares!? ” Save astronomers, physicists, and theologists, does cosmology matter on a day-to-day scale for the rest of us? His answer is yes … but not in the way one would expect.

Dr. Frank’s recently delivered a talk titled About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang as part of the Benjamin Dean astronomy lecture series at the California Academy of Science.  Cal Academy has no shortage of fascinating talks by prominent speakers, and this particular talk included immersive visuals to illustrate Frank’s points, planetarium style.

According to Dr. Frank, cosmology shapes the human experience through one important connection: time. Each cultural era has had its own concept of what time is, or “time logic”.  Time, therefore, is an invention that serves the current needs of humanity. To demonstrate this point, Dr. Frank asks, “What time is it?”  Everyone in the audience found the answer quickly, 7:48 pm, but the abstract concept of 48 minutes after the arbitrary hour of seven would have made no sense to someone living before minute hands were added to the invention of a clock.  For example, a thousand years ago people gauged the time of day by the placement of the sun and the length of the shadows (in Ancient Rome, noon occurred when the sun lined up between two prominent buildings), but there was no metering of time in increments as small as a minute.

In our current culture, we not only understand minutes, we feel minutes, and we live by them.  Through train schedules, meetings, punch cards, T.V. shows, classes, and innings, we have been absorbed by our culture’s time logic, and organize our entire day by the minute.  Increasingly, the creation of the “simultaneous now”  is also affecting our time logic; the time it takes to travel between two places has been drastically shortened, so it is necessary to synchronize time between once distant places.

Time is now an abstract commodity that can be divided, filled up, and expanded by time-saving devices. Lewis Mumford in his book Technics and Civilizations states:

When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day …  Abstract time became the new median of existence.  One ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.

Looking beyond our daily lives, our changing conception of time has provided new frameworks for looking at the cosmos. Einstein in particular studied clocks in arriving at his theory of relativity. Today, cosmology is moving into the territories of quantum gravity, parallel universes, string theory, and even a universe with no time at all.

For in-depth explanations of  these new (and old) visions of the universe, I suggest reading About Time.  What theory will prove true in the long run, and what new time logic will arise from this?  Only time will tell.

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  1. “Abstract time”. Beautiful. Particularly the notion that we eat when we are “supposed” to eat based on a clock. Intriguing for a layperson like myself.