Gobar Times
Cover Story

Talking Time

Why talk about ‘Time’ in a cover story, someone asked. Why not, we replied. After all, this is one entity which has no tangible physical presence, but which seems to govern and dominate our lives so completely! Isn’t that intriguing? How do we perceive it? What is Time? Is it a concept that really ‘moves’ and ‘flows’ and ‘passes’, or does it ebb and stand still, while it is we humans who do all the moving? Does Time really ‘slow down’ during emergencies and dangers? And does it zip away too fast when we are happy—or are these tricks that the mind plays on us?

Imagine a life without time. Without clocks or watches, or parents telling us to do this and do that at specific times. Without the steady ticking of our clocks, do you think things will run smoothly? We will get late for our appointments or for our school, and may not have a clue about when to tumble off to sleep! We could end up missing trains and flights, or forgetting to catch that episode of our favourite serial on TV. It would be as close to a state of chaos as we can imagine, don’t you think?

What is this Time, which exerts so much power on us? Where did it come from? We say time is a concept created by us. Some thinkers and experts who have considered the subject long and hard say time is a linear concept—a series of events that have a beginning, a present and an end. Others point out that it is cyclical —circular and repetitive (as in the wheel of time or kaal-chakra).

To some scientists, Time implies moving forward, a progression – and hence a change in the physical sense (such as people getting older). These scientists and thinkers have been called ‘relationists’. Then there are the ‘absolutists’—Albert Einstein was one of them—who believe Time has no relation to the physical world. It will exist even if the universe was not there, and we were not there. A third group of scientists says Time exists in our minds! Time is, because we are conscious of it…. All this is like a maze, is it not?

Quite apart from these theories, the question that we often ask is when and where did Time really begin? Stephen Hawking, the British physicist and cosmologist, says time began with a Big Bang. About 14 billion years ago, the Universe was a hot and dense bubble. Then one fine day, it suddenly exploded. The Universe as we know it now was born and so was Time.

Early humans took notice of daytime and night time. These were the first variations of Time that they perceived. Gradually, they observed that the sun was dividing the day into smaller periods—morning, afternoon and night. At night, the movement of stars gave them an approximate idea of Time; man noticed that as night passed, different groups of stars became visible. In fact, for early humans, the sky was like a giant clock.

The idea of the month could have come from man’s observation of the changing shapes of the moon, which grew big into a full moon over 15 days, and then reduced in size over the next 15 days. Similarly, changing seasons might have triggered the concept of a year – the cycle of winter, spring, summer, monsoons and autumn followed a 365-day period. As human beings progressed, they came up with innovations and machines which could be used to tell the Time (see boxes on these pages).

How we have told Time through the ages…

Sun dial: The shadow clock or sun dial was the first clock to be used by humans. The hour lines were placed on the sundial to mark the changing movement of shadows. For example, when the shadow moved from one number to another, it indicated an hour. A day was divided into 12 intervals. The sundial was first used in Egypt in 1500–1300 BC. But it had a shortcoming—it indicated time only when the sun was shining. How would one keep account of time at night or on a cloudy day? The clock that didn’t depend on sun or a cloudy day was the water clock.

Water clock: In this, water seeped in slowly from a vessel with a hole at the bottom. A period of time was measured from the moment the water moved in and out of the vessel. Just like water was used here, the flow of sand was too used to measure time. The Greeks used this in 400 BC.

Hourglass or sand glass: It showed passing of an interval of time, when fine sand passed from the top funnel to the lower one.

Candle clock: Tall, thin candles were used to measure time. Candles had evenly placed lines and numbers for each hour on them. When the burnt candle reached a particular number, it indicated what time it was. Alfred the Great, the Saxon king, used burning candles to measure time.

Oil-lamp clock: Oil was put in a glass reservoir on which intervals of hours were marked. The built-in lamp was lighted. Gradually, as the oil in the reservoir was used up, it indicated the rough estimate of time. The early clocks had a disadvantage—they could measure time for a few hours and then they had to be rearranged.

Clocks with gears and pendulums: Gears made it possible to change the movement of the clock. By the 14th century, clockmakers began to make small clocks with gears driven by a spring. In the 16th century, Galileo observed the property of the pendulum, but it was the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens who was responsible for introducing pendulum clocks in 1657. These clocks were accurate to even measure the smallest measurement of time.

Electric clocks: In the 20th century, electric clocks came in. They were more accurate than the other timepieces, and were powered and regulated by electricity.

Bytes from the history of Time

In 1714, the British Parliament offered a cash reward to anyone who could invent a clock accurate enough for use in navigation at sea; pendulum clocks did not work at sea. For every minute lost by a clock, it meant that there would be a navigational error of 15 miles, and sailors died because they were lost or smashed against rocks because they were unable to figure out their exact position.

Then, in 1761, after 4 attempts, John Harrison finally succeeded at inventing a small clock accurate enough to use for navigation at sea. This tiny pocket watch lost only 5 seconds in 6 and ½ weeks.

In the early 1800’s, one of the most important events in clock making occurred. Eli Terry developed machines, patterns, and techniques that produced clock parts that were exactly alike, so they could be mass-produced and interchanged from one clock to another.

This drove the price of clocks way down, and allowed common people to own at least one, if not many, timekeeping devices.

At the dawn of the 20th century, only women wore wristwatches. No self-respecting "real man" would wear one. However, in World War I, soldiers wore wristwatches because taking out a pocket watch to check the time was difficult or impossible in battle. After the war was over, it was considered "socially acceptable" to wear wristwatches, and they became popular.

In 1884, twenty-five countries accepted Greenwich, England, as the prime meridian (0 degrees longitude). The prime meridian gradually becomes the basis for time throughout the world.

Source: Various online resources, including www.time-for-time.com

It’s all in the mind, actually…

Let’s now take a peek at some perceptions of Time. People often say that Time seems to go slow or even stop when they are in a dangerous or unhappy situation. For instance, if you are skydiving, the actual Time spent doing it might be just a few seconds, or minutes. Your own opinion of it could be very different—you may feel that Time has stood almost still, and that the skydiving feat was taking too long.

But is that true? Are our minds really processing more information in these seconds or minutes in which Time seems to stretch?

Take the case of a more common every day event—like when you are in school. Don’t you tend to keep a closer watch on Time when you are in your class (or at a tuition) than when you are at home relaxing or playing? Does it appear as if the Time is not moving fast enough when you are in school?

There is also the opposite case to consider. When we are having fun and everything seems hunky-dory, Time seems to fly, doesn’t it? For instance, if you are visiting a friend you really like, you find that the Time to say goodbye seems to inch closer at a much faster pace!

Scientists say that these are tricks that our minds play. In the former case, we remember the Time as longer because our minds record much more of the experience in its minutest detail. At the same time, the mind wants to escape from the experience—so it also gets drawn to Time and the clock to guage how much longer will it have to endure it.

In the second case, it is again a mind warp: basically, people perceive Time differently depending on their mental state and the activities they are engaged in. If they are having fun, the focus lies completely on the object or subject of this fun; they do not worry as much about Time —the concern about Time having flown faster usually comes only after the experience has passed.

Researchers who have studied Time have made some interesting findings lately. For example, not all enjoyable time flies by at the same speed. Researchers believe that simply being happy and content will not necessarily make time seem to pass more quickly.

However, if you’re engaged in an activity that is focused on achieving a goal, then time really does fly by as you’re having fun. Researchers believe that the excitement generated by the active pursuit of a goal is what causes us to perceive time passing quickly.

Let’s close this discussion with an experiment. All of you might be doing things which seem to drag on forever—Time just does not seem to pass when you are doing them. Why don’t you try and make them fun and ‘force Time to pass more quickly’ during those moments? For instance, if cleaning up your desk is a task you abhor, put on some music that you like while you are at it. You will feel the difference immediately.

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Talking Time