Time or Maybe Not

John W. Pinkerton


Time may not exist, at least not as we’ve always thought of it.  In our thoughts, time is as real as mass and energy.  Not so fast!  Maybe time does not exist as a reality in the world.  Of the present, past, and the future, perhaps only the present, the now, actually exists.  This would certainly give a new significance to carpe diem.  Maybe the only realities are mass and energy, not time.  In fact one physicist describes the world as a series of snapshots  of nows.  This could possibly throw a monkey wrench into the concept of time travel, and it seems that the math of physics works pretty  well without time. 

However, we are all keenly aware of the “nonexistent” time.  Well, as rational beings we would surely be schizophrenic without the concept of time.  We wouldn’t know if our actions or our reactions to them came first.  We need the concept of time to live our lives in a rational manner.

Perhaps time does not exist as a reality, but our minds, apparently pretty clever machines, came up with the concept of time in order to make sense of our world.  Of all the animals, man seems to have the most refined concept of time.  Dogs can’t seem to be able to distinguish whether their masters have been away for five minutes or five days.  On the other hand, rocks and other inanimate objects have no concept of time.  For rocks, the only time that exists is now.

It seems that we’ve always measured this nonexistent element time.  Men probably first measured time by the Sun’s passage from horizon to horizon.  The Egyptians around 1500 BC used a T-square shaped device to measure this movement of the sun in terms of time.  Then, of course, the sun dial was developed based on the same principle. 
Water clocks were developed which could measure time even during the night.  The hourglass, which uses the flow of sand, was used extensively aboard ships.  Incense sticks and candles were used to measure time particularly in temples and churches. In the 11th Century, mechanical clocks were developed.   The mechanical clocks have been driven by gravity, springs, and various forms of electrical power.  The most accurate clock is, of course, the atomic clock which is used to synchronize clocks around the world.

Calendars, which measure the passage of days and years, were first based on the moon having either 12 or 13 cycles within  a year.  Months within a year, which because it’s hard to divide 325.24 days (the length of time between solstices and equinoxes) by either number, 12 or 13, have arbitrarily resulted in 12 months of various lengths.  The calendar most of the world recognizes today is the Gregorian calendar.  Calendars don’t prove that time exists: it is an arbitrary way for man to divide their concept of time in a sensible way.

Clocks divide the days into 24 hours, the hours into 60 minutes, and the minutes into 60 seconds.  How did this happen?  Well, the Egyptians used duodecimal (base 12) and sexagesimal (base 60) numerical systems.  They first just measured the 12 hours during the day which varied in length depending on the time of the year.  Based on astronomical observations, they divided the night into 12 parts.  A fixed length for hours only came into common employment with the invention of mechanical clocks.  The Babylonians used sexagesimal (base 60) for their astronomical calculations.  Minutes were not used to divide hours until near the end of the 16th Century.

We do have internal clocks: our internal clocks are called circadian rhythms.  All animals have such clocks.  These clocks regulate the production of proteins.  The levels of these proteins rise and fall according to these internal clocks.  The day for a circadian clock is about 24 hours and 20 minutes.  This regulates sleep, awakening, body temperature, heart activity, hormone secretion, blood pressure, oxygen consumption, metabolism, etc.  That’s a pretty complex clock.  Another internal clock operates on the millisecond level which controls movement and speech.  It operates too quickly for us to even notice.  Also, there seems to be a “middle” clock which allows us to integrate information and respond in a timely fashion.

Maybe the physicists who say time only exists now and that life is just a series of nows are correct.  But man conceiving the concept of time is pretty remarkable.  We record our personal histories in our memories: of course, some record our past nows are better than others.  Man records his history, past nows, in verbal histories passed from generation to generation, by the written word recorded in books and newspapers and magazines and on the internet, etc., in pictures, drawn or recorded on canvas or paper or film or tape or disk.  If we are wise, we use the recording of the past nows to assist us in predicting the future nows.  Perhaps, we do all this without time even existing, other than now.  If there are no real pasts or futures, only nows,  we are the fathers of time, a concept created by man to make it possible to understand our world in a rational fashion. 

Time, in the traditional accepted sense, may not actually exist, but we need the concept of time: past, present, and future.  It’s pretty useful.


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