Understanding time

Like sand through an hourglass ...

As a child I was fascinated with the hourglasses that sat on my grandparents’ sideboard in their front room. We weren’t really allowed in there amongst the ancient wooden furniture, the stiffly stuffed couch, refracting crystal, and the rarely used ‘good’ china. With grandma busy in the kitchen and grandpa engaged with the cricket my brother and I would sneak in and carefully turn the hourglasses.

We watched the grains of sand as they slipped from the top to the bottom of the glass vials. We turned them over and began again. As we waited for the sand to move from top to bottom, it didn’t occur to us that it represented time lost forever.

Forty years later, today, time has taken on a new meaning. Those hourglasses sit on a shelf in my study, largely ignored by the next generation, who measure time in far shorter increments. No time to watch sand falling these days.

Arrogantly we think time belongs to us. But time is independent and cannot be restrained; we neither own nor control it. We only inhabit its space between birth and death. We need to understand how to live in the present tense. It’s all about this moment.

We should neither kill time nor waste time.

It’s within our power to design and create what we do with the time we have. The first step is to understand time and our role within its flow.

What is time?

While it appears to us that time is moving it’s just not clear how it does so. Time is not a physical object: it doesn’t first exist in one place and then in another. So in that sense how does it pass?

Time can simply be explained as a unit of measurement defined in order to sequence events. We define time with denominations such as seconds, minutes, hours, days. However, these denominations are arbitrary human constructions, and have no bearing regarding the wider, more intricate view of time in the universe.

Humans measured time by observing natural phenomena that occur regularly. Until recently, those natural phenomena were all astronomical events: the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars.

Stephen Hawking proposed that time flows like a river and it seems as if each of us is carried relentlessly along by time’s current. But time is like a river in another way. It flows at different speeds in different places.

Hawking uses the example of GPS. A network of satellites in orbit around Earth reveal that time runs faster in space than it does on Earth.

Inside each spacecraft is a very precise clock. But despite being so accurate, they all gain around a third of a billionth of a second every day.

The problem isn’t with the clocks. They run fast because time itself runs faster in space and the reason for this extraordinary effect is the mass of the Earth. Matter drags on time and slows it down like the slow part of a river. The heavier the object, the more it drags on time.

How much time do we have?

Every year of our lives, we consume 8,766 hours. Every ten years, 87,660 hours. If our lives extend to age 60, we’ve got a total of 525,960 hours at our disposal: to handle priorities, fulfil obligations, meet interesting people, pursue personal goals, travel and do most anything and everything else we wish to achieve.

If we live to 70, we’ll have 613,620 hours to work with. Age 80 brings our supply up to 701,280 hours: surely a sufficient amount of time to live our hopes and dreams; to have a life well lived?

Just a moment, please …

So that’s time. A value initially set by the rotation of our planet. The universe operates on increments of millions of years. We don’t have that long. We have now. What are you doing with your time?

In the next post we’ll look at why time flies and why we can sometimes get stuck in the past.


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2 Responses to “Understanding time”

  1. paulhassing Says:

    Interesting summary, WLB2. Is that a pic of the actual hourglass? I love it when you use your own photos. Best regards, P. 🙂

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