What is Time and How We Measure It
What is Time
To many people the question ‘What is Time?’ is obvious. They say: ‘Time? It’s an hour which divides into minutes and seconds, or it is a day which divides into hours and minutes,’ etc., etc. To so many of us, the nature of time as a physical and philosophical phenomenon is a black cat in a dark room.
As we all know, Time waits for no one flowing ahead on its invisible course, and we try to get pace with it with clocks and calendars. Yet it defies usual means of exploration, like microscope or surgical table. What we can say with certainty is that time seems to relate to change which is evident to us as we are aware of motion and forces acting on things at macro as well as micro level. What makes things worse is that what we call ‘presence’ seems to be just a fleeting infinitesimal ‘scan’ of ‘what is here and now’ which cannot be measured to any practical purpose, while what we call ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just an illusion.
One philosopher of the past took some time to study time. What he found was that our perception of time is for the most part an illusion. Another important lesson he drew was that historical events when told by historians or writers or even in encyclopedias are but fiction stories in nature, suggesting that past events are largely a ‘memory’ of the then ‘present.’ To really appreciate it you need to compare it with a ‘point in fact’ recording of a past event on a CD or computer hard drive.
According to the General Theory of Relativity, space, or our universe, came to existence in the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. It is at that point Time began to flow. Before the Big Bang there was no time, so any reference to events and alike were just irrelevant. Strictly speaking, we can’t even say ‘What was before Big Bang?’, as it does not make sense.
The best perception of time we can master in presence is already past most of the time. The present is but a fleeting split of a second; whatever is happening right now (present) is confined to an microscopically narrow point on the time line separating us from what we term as ‘past, and what we term as ‘future’. A good description of the present is the notion that it is our mental awareness of our memory being written onto our brain.
“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Interestingly, a person can go to a sports event but fall asleep and miss the event completely, so that event basically does not exist in his past. We can rely only on an event that we are conscious about that it may enter our past memory. Events which we do not directly perceive are part of other people’s memories or other recording devices like books or videos. Weathering effect on aging buildings or rocks is another form of natural recording.
Recording Devices and Durations in Time
While the present is just like the cursor that is blinking on my screen as this text is being typed, the past and future are measurable easy enough. Past events are written in our memory just like words in a book. We could say that the past is a collection of books in some huge library, whereas the future is a tabula rasa to be filled in with whatever people see fit.
Very often, the future comes as a mental projection created by our mind drawing on our past experience it helps itself from our memory. Interestingly, the thing which seems to have every right to be called real. the present, is in itself not quite measurable (if we leave aside any error of measurement because it can take us well outside the scope of this article ) while the past and the future which are not at all ‘tangible’ can be measured. This again corroborates the idea above that our perception of time is but an illusion.
What are We Measuring?
We cannot measure present on a timeline since, as we have just established, it has no duration of its own. We can use a stopwatch to measure passage of time through the present. This looks just like measuring walking distance with steps or using the speedometer in a moving car. There is a great difference though. We can freely move back and forth along a road but not in time. What is similar is the fact that in both cases we measure something moving. Is time really moving? Hardly. What is moving is things around us, each move making them more distant from their temporal ‘double’. The physicists suggest that we should forget about time separate from space, and rather look upon the universe as a space-time continuum.
Measuring time appears to be related to motion. As a car moves from A to B we can say: ‘The world has become older just as much as it takes the car to get from A to B.’ In the case of a car, distance becomes a measure of time, due to the fact that time is a function of distance and speed.
When nothing moves, such as inside a windowless room, we can still ‘feel’ time as we look at the ageing wallpaper. The very sight as a faculty of our body is due to the perception of incessantly flying photons the light consists of, that is to say, so much for there being anything not moving at all in this world.
Luckily, for most purposes of our life time can be measured easily enough whatever we mean by it. As a wise man said once: ‘Life is hard, but if think too hard about it, it passes.
Motion at micro and macro levels seems to be related to time, or, more precisely, the change we observe through the motion that all things have as their inner property. Present is but the cursor on a computer screen, everything else is either past or future. Presence is not measurable, but time can be captured once it is past now. Both past and future are durations that can be taken down but they cannot be touched. This seems to suggest that our perception of time as past, present and future may be but an illusion created by our mind in its effort to make ends meets in the circumambient world.
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