I had an experience of déjà-vu the other day. For me, that doesn’t occur very often but when it does, especially if it’s particularly vivid, it always makes me think... why does that happen?
Time is a fascinating thing.
It’s a tricky thing to get your head around.
Of course we all believe Time is real and we certainly can perceive it around us, but I’m sure we’ve all had situations arise now and again that make us stop and wonder if maybe there’s a lot more to it than we seem able to grasp.
For example, a lot of us have been in traffic accidents where at the moment of impact, time itself seems to slow down around us. It almost seems as if everything is suddenly moving in slow motion for a moment even though we can’t control or change anything that’s going to happen.
Or the older generations among us, who utter that familiar sentiment that for them time just seems to pass more and more quickly each day, as their lives go by.
Or that period of time when you’re forced to wait in line for something or are waiting for something to begin, that definitely feels much longer than when you’re enjoying yourself at something and it all seems to pass and end so quickly.
These are mysterious moments that seem to suggest something more about time than we realize.
Being the biological creatures that we are and not really much more than simply a part of a greater biological system of this planet, we’ve naturally evolved over time to be very tuned to the rhythm and cycles of our environment. Our planet’s rotations around its axis give us regularly spaced 24-hour days that we tend to take for granted by now. It’s interesting to notice that nearly all of us feel a need approximately every 12 hours or so to wind down and think about sleeping for a while. It’s just an instinct we all have, that we can’t really control... the instinct to sleep. It’s not surprising, that by now this rest cycle is coincidentally in perfect tune with the rotation of the Earth. When it gets dark outside, things slow or shut down and our society sleeps and regenerates.
Even within our own solar system there are planets that rotate around their own axis at different rates than ours. In fact, every other planet beside our own has a different period of time in which it does so.
If we could suddenly be put to live on some strange planet somewhere with quite different axis rotations, I wonder how our bodies would respond. What if we were suddenly immersed within 39-hour days or 42-hour ones? It wouldn’t be as simple as when we catch up on our sleep when we experience jet lag in this age of fast transportation around our globe… no, this would be different. Our cycle of daylight hours to nighttime and back again would suddenly be strangely different for us and we’d find ourselves being sleepy in what would only be possibly half way through the afternoon or even morning on our new planet. The internal clocks inside of us would be totally out of whack with the real world experience around us and no doubt would cause some sort of psychological crisis for us. I really wonder if our internal clocks would re-align after a while or if they are so much a part of our evolution and DNA over millions of years on this particular planet Earth, that it would be a big problem.
Even the human menstrual cycle seems uncannily timed to the lunar cycle of this particular planet for some reason. Do human cycles become tuned to the environment around us because we’ve evolved a more advanced brain than other creatures, that can perhaps translate outside events into events of time in our physiology? Would menstrual cycles in humans be affected in some way after living for a long, long time on a planet with no moon or many moons?
So, is Time a function unto itself in our universe or is it really just an adaptation of observations of natural cycles around us that we’ve somehow compressed into our very own perception of the concept of the passing of time? (That sentence is a mouthful… I know).
Let me say it this way…
Is time really a thing that exists outside of ourselves or do we create it in our minds by perceiving cyclical events around us that focus it into regular units for our minds to trigger on?
This suddenly reminds me of an age-old question that philosophers have often put forth. Would the universe be cycling day after day through its immensely long life if we weren’t here to notice it? Or is the fact that we notice it suddenly give it a function of time to us as well, because our minds work that way? It’s similar to saying, does everything we see in our world and universe have 3 dimensions (length, width and height) because that’s all our human minds and bodies are capable of perceiving or are there in fact other strange dimensions around us that are just as real but we simply don’t have the capacity of seeing or experiencing them due to how we’re designed?
It’s a little hard to understand these questions let alone imagine answers for them but it’s all part of the fun of trying to stretch our normal thinking and maybe even stumble upon something new in the process, that nobody else has realized.
Consider bees and other insects that are attracted to
Recently, due to advancement in electronic technology, scientists have developed cameras that can actually ‘see’ ultraviolet (UV) light. Humans can’t. Our eyes (brains) see only within what we call the ‘visible spectrum’ of light and that’s it. So what these cameras can do is display pictures of the UV on viewers as shades of light that humans can see. When they pointed these cameras at various flowers they discovered that many of them display intricate, symmetrical, beautiful patterns on their petals and leaves that are only visible in the ultraviolet range. Often what appear to us as mono-colored, even drab flowers, actually have swirling or geometrical shaped designs on them when viewed through the UV camera. Obviously there can be little doubt that nature does this for a purpose and we can also be pretty sure that bees and other flower seeking insects can actually see in the ultraviolet range of light and are attracted for whatever reasons to these beautiful ‘invisible’ patterns and designs! This isn’t far from the situation of some animals being able to hear sounds in ranges well above or below our own as well.
So what’s the point?
Well, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that other types of animals might also have the ability to perceive time differently than us as well. It is simply another ‘dimension’ of our existence so if we know certain animals already possess strange abilities beyond our own in other areas, couldn’t it be conceivable that some might even possess different ‘wiring’ with regards to time perception?
Huh? …you say?
Well, think of a fly.
I swipe to grab it as it’s sitting on the edge of my table and invariably, every time, I miss.
It seems to easily jump up and fly away before my hand arrives at its sitting position to grab it. I’ve wondered if part of this perceived speed of the fly on my part is really only a byproduct of how a little fly perceives time.
I know it’s a little kooky but humor me a second.
Maybe what we perceive as ‘seconds’, to a fly seem different. Maybe seconds seem longer to it for some reason. Maybe a shifted sense of time developed in them over the ages, as a natural defense mechanism against being caught.
Maybe what I see as a swipe of my hand is different for the fly.
He’s looking up at me and sees this huge hand start to come towards him. But suppose inside his tiny brain a second looks and feels different than it does for us.
He looks around and notices that the coast is clear above him and while he’s watching the lumbering human appendage making its slow swing towards him, he simply jumps up, flies away and easily avoids being captured. The whole world looks like slow motion to him.
Then why do frog tongues against
flies do so well?
Not sure. Maybe nature evolved the speed of the frog tongue to easily compensate for the fly’s time dilation perceptions so it isn’t an issue?
:) I’m kind of kidding here but it’s kind of something to think about.
Think of Wayne Gretzky (my favorite character for analogies).
Maybe he’s a great hockey player
only because he’s actually –deformed-- a bit.
Maybe his ‘sense-of-time’ didn’t form in his DNA in the same way as most people. Maybe a mutation occurred in his genes. When things get crazy and fast on the ice and the players are zipping and flying all around him, maybe time to him seems slower. Maybe he has a perpetual ‘car accident’ experience that he can slide his mind into and out of at will and everything around him seems to slow down from his point of view. So naturally he can execute things more easily because he actually has more time to do it, from his own point of view.
Or maybe it’s another
Maybe his internal clock actually ’ticks’ at a slightly different rate than everyone else, because of a mutation in his genes at birth. Like a faster ticking watch sitting beside a normal-speed ticking one. As he speeds along the ice with other players and against opponents and as the whole game develops a certain rhythm and pulsing tempo, his perception of its pulsing rate, in his mind, is just a little slower than everyone else because his internal DNA clock is ticking slightly faster than everyone else’s. Consequently, his passes, shots and moves continually catch others off-guard and by surprise because they always happen a micro-second out of step with the standard ‘beat’ of the game and the other players. This causes them to have insufficient time to react and synchronize to what Gretz is doing.
Or, I suppose it could be that he just has incredibly finely tuned reactions, a sharp mind and complete understanding of and instinct for the game… but that isn’t as fun to speculate about is it?
One area that I notice is a problem for most people with regards to time, is trying to get their mind around excessively long periods of it.
I’ve noticed this when I’ve had discussions with people about evolution and we begin talking about incredibly vast scales like 65 million years, a billion years, 1 million years, or even 50,000 or 10,000 years ago. It seems most people simply do not have the capacity to think in those terms. Especially in a way that makes giant periods of time feel tangible and actually register in their ‘gut’.
What exactly do I
mean by this?
Well, I’m talking about the difference between just saying or hearing something is 100,000 years old and really being able to picture the immensity of that period of time in your mind and feel the awesome span of years that it is, within your understanding and cognizance.
Now, I’m just as much a part of mankind as anyone else so my instincts in perceiving time can’t be much different than anyone else, however I’ve wondered if maybe I might be able to describe things in such a fashion as to give others a taste of how it sometimes comes into focus for me — maybe they too can share in the ‘gut’ feeling of the immensity and nuances of time that I often feel.
So allow me to write about a few things and if you find a piece of it interesting, good... if not, that’s ok too.
To understand our current relationship with time you have to dig a wee bit into the past in order to gain a little perspective on how human beings have contrived systems to work with it.
There is a long history of mankind mentally tracking and organizing the various natural occurrences around us and converting them into perceptual time spans that we feel comfortable in using as ‘measuring sticks’ in our day-to-day lives. Things like years and days.
At one time, long ago, some people
didn’t have a heck of a lot to do and would spend a lot of time just
looking up at the sky at night or during the day, studying it.
They’d notice things.
Astute observers soon began to notice that certain features of the heavens repeated their paths of travel across the sky at regular intervals. The Moon for instance, seemed to progressively go through various phases of shadow and light as it traveled its path each night.
No doubt, the first main unit of
time established by humans was probably the ‘day’.
Days are pretty much a no-brainer.
Obviously it was noticed early on that the Sun rose, it was light outside for a while, then it set, it was dark outside for a while, and then the Sun would rise again to do it all over again. Assigning a unit of time to this occurrence called a ‘day’ was a basic thing to do. The length of time it takes for this ‘day’ to occur gradually imbedded itself into our psyche and became second nature to us. People hadn’t yet figured out the Earth was rotating to produce this effect. Instead they thought the Sun actually traveled across the heavens on regular paths as did all the other objects in the heavens. Regardless, this difference in perspective of the Sun’s movement didn’t matter in how time was measured by the event anyhow.
attention to larger groups of patterns, people noticed even more
The Sun’s arc path across the sky got higher and higher each day to a point by summer time when it appeared to peak and the Sun was at its highest point at mid-day than it ever got all year. During the days following, this arc path would start to shrink back down again, lower and lower each day. By winter time every year, they noticed this arc path would reach an ultimate low and the Sun at mid-day was at its lowest point for the whole year. The following days afterwards would see the arc path start to grow once again, higher and higher each day.
They noticed this cycle was repeating and consistent with the changing of the seasons around them. It wasn’t long before they married up this solar event to these Earth changes and created 4 distinct categories of seasons — spring, summer, fall and winter.
On the day the Sun reached its highest peak for the year, it was considered the start of summer — the summer solstice. About ¼ of a year later, the start of fall or autumn was marked on the day the length of daylight equaled the length of nighttime — the autumnal equinox. On days of the equinox, the Sun rises exactly due east of us and sets exactly due west. About three months later, on the day the Sun reached its lowest peak for the year during mid-day, was the start of winter — the winter solstice (around Dec 20th or 21st on our modern calendar). And finally, about 3 months after this, when once again the length of daylight is equal to the length of nighttime (a mirror of the fall event), spring was said to have begun — the vernal equinox.
Humans love patterns so this is why we came to assign 4 seasons to the cycles of nature we observe each year in cultures of people living in the temperate zone of Earth, and not 6 or 2 or 8 or 3. In an era of no clocks or time keeping devices, the Sun was a perfect, reliable, easy mechanism to mark 4 distinct and equal blocks of time in our perception.
However, it gets more interesting…
Even thousands of years ago, sharp individuals noticed that the number of days (mid-day to mid-day) in one solar year (equinox to equinox) wasn’t an even, whole number. Anthropologists and archeologists have discovered early calculations made by ancient cultures that show many of them correctly realized the difference of about a ¼ of day even way, way back in history.
What this means is that the Earth spins around its axis 365 and a quarter times by the time it makes exactly one orbit around the Sun. So 1 year does not equal 365 days exactly but rather roughly 365¼ (actually exactly 365.242199 days ...or... 365 days and nearly 6 hours).
People were also noticing the Moon.
How it waxes and wanes.
They noticed it cycles through a series of different appearances as the nights go by and soon they assigned 5 ‘phases’ to the way it appeared from night-to-night, as these patterns of shadow and light changed and the obvious cycle became familiar:
(I should point out that people back then didn’t think of it as reflecting the Sun’s light but of it somehow producing its own light in various patterns, all on its own. This, however, is irrelevant to timing its cycles).
1 complete cycle of all five phases was called a ‘lunar’ or ‘synodic’ month and it takes precisely 29.53059 days. (this is the time it takes for the Moon to orbit around the Earth).
Over time it was also calculated that the Moon cycled through a lunar month about 12 times each year or more precisely, 12 complete cycles in 354.35706 days. However, this equals nearly 11 days less than a solar year so once again it isn’t a nicely divisible, even measurement that could be grouped into 12 nice round units inside a period of 1 year. (In spite of that, this roughly 12 cycle-per-year occurrence of the Moon is the reason we now have 12 months in our year... and notice the word ‘month’ reflects the word ‘moon’).
All of this leads to one of the quirks of Earth and an
aggravating problem for its human occupants…
The rotation of the Earth (days), the orbit of the planet around the Sun (years), and the orbit of the Moon around the Earth (months) are NOT three evenly corresponding, proportional events between each other. None of them divide into any of the other evenly. This is the kind of thing that drives humans, who instinctively like to find patterns in everything, crazy!
Picture a yearly calendar of no months or weeks but of
Let’s say there are only 365 of them assigned to every single calendar year, never any more or less.
You’d soon discover that you can’t sustain such a calendar over the long term because with that little extra bit of a real ¼ of day that is added to each calendar year (because the Earth’s axis rotations in a year don’t divide evenly into its complete orbit around the Sun), over time this adds up to errors against how you actually perceive things around you, in the real world.
Let me explain…
Let’s say you are an ancient person deciding to set up a calendar for the first time.
On day one you set up your calendar to start on exactly the day of the summer solstice (an easy ‘marker’ to identify each year).
You call this ‘day one’ of your year and it is commonly known as ‘the start of Summer’ between you and your society because the weather is usually the hottest for the year, around this time.
Fine. Everyone’s happy.
But after the first 365-day calendar year it would actually take ¼ of the first day, of the next year, for the Earth to actually reach its solar-year starting position for the summer solstice. After four years of this it would take the whole first day, of the fifth year, to reach this point. In 40 years time it would take the first ten days, of the 41st year, to reach this point.
So to you, this means that summer was starting 10 days later in your calendar-year every 40 years. In 120 years the accumulated error would be 30 days. In 360 years, your ‘start of summer’ solstice would actually occur on what your calendar was saying was the start of autumn! In fact, in the temperate zones of the planet, all 4 seasons would now be occurring a season later in your calendar year than expected.
(The rule is that when you add real days to calendar days, the solar and cyclical-environmental events around you, creep forward in your calendar, each year).
This is the problem that naturally occurs when units of time measurement in one area aren’t wholly and evenly divisible into a different unit of time measurement. A calendar of this sort becomes less and less useful as time passes because the displayed date soon doesn’t accurately reflect the time of year around you in your environment.
The Roman empire, over 2300 years ago, was either unaware of the extra ¼ day in each solar year or chose to simply disregard it as a trivial matter over the short term when they created a calendar and implemented its use throughout their republic. The society needed to track the passage of days and months and years, so calendars based on as close to even numbers as they could be, were designed and used. Months were designed to have 30 or 31 days, 12 of them were eventually assigned to the year, along with, more significantly, 365 equal days!
This was exactly the same type of calendar I’ve just described and it too worked well for a while, until the inevitable errors between the calendar and real-world observation began to come into conflict with each other. By about 50 B.C. the calendar had become totally out of whack and the citizens were noticing and complaining. Festivals and public holidays that were supposed to fall on days of natural occurrences like solstices, or lunar events timed in conjunction with solar events, were no longer doing so. Astrology was also very big at that time (as it continues to be today?) and constellations that were so important to the practice, were scattered throughout the wrong calendar months causing much aggravation figuring out horoscopes of newborns and those already around. The seasons were cycling in the wrong months of the calendar and farmers were confused about when to plant and when not to… on and on.
The Roman emperor of the time, Julius Caesar, decided to fix it and enlisted the help of a scholar named Sosigenes (I always remember his name because it reminds me of ‘sausages’) to figure out a solution. It was soon realized that a ‘leap-year’ (a year with one extra day added to the month of February) inserted every 4th year would add back 1 day of time (¼ X 4) to the calendar and thus help it ‘catch-up’ to real-world observation and circumstance as it drifted every four years.
So the leap-year solution was introduced to society under Caesar’s authority in 46 B.C., the calendar’s days were re-aligned to real world events and everything was easily implemented throughout their society because the Romans controlled most of the ‘western’ world at that time. We know this as the Julian calendar.
But there were problems.
Since the real shortfall between a solar year and the number of planet rotations isn’t exactly ¼ days a year but actually .242 days (slightly less than a quarter), over time a simple leap-year solution also leads to errors, but in the opposite direction and it just takes longer. (Instead of adding real days to calendar days as we’ve seen happens with non leap-year calendars, Sosigenes was now adding calendar days to real days — albeit much more slowly — and the actual solar and cyclical-environmental events around them began to appear to creep backward in their calendar, each year).
By the late 1500s A.D. a deficit of 10 days had developed between real world observations and where in time the calendar said they should be. Centuries old discontent over the issue reached an all-time high. Many people were voicing their unhappiness with the situation.
The ‘western’ world by this time was quite Christian in its religious persuasion and the celebration of Easter was a big thing to the people — in fact Easter was THE biggest celebration of the year (contrary to how Christmas has seemed to have taken that spot since then, especially in North American and European societies). And Easter was no longer happening around the solar and lunar events people were familiar with using to time its onset. The vernal equinox (the solar event used in an equation to calculate the day of Easter) was happening on March 11th by this time and not on the traditional and expected March 21st. In fact, all the festivals and important yearly dates were out of sync with the natural world cycles used to trigger them in the people’s traditions, not to mention the drifting of the actual seasons again.
By this point in history, the Catholic Church had grown to be a huge authority and influence in society. Proclamations and pronouncements (papal bulls) from the office of the Pope were taken very seriously and usually always taken as law by the populations the Christian Church had influence over. So, in light of the confusion and distress the calendar was once again causing, Pope Gregory XIII decided to fix things. As J.Caesar had done nearly 1600 years earlier, he also enlisted the help of a scholar to solve the problem.
This astronomer’s name was Clavius (easy to remember too… it doesn’t sound like sausages) and he saw that the Julian calendar system was based wrongly on a 365.25-day year whereas Clavius calculated a solar year to in fact be 365.2422 (just a wee bit shorter)! He calculated that a calendar based on 365.2422 days, with correcting leap years, would produce a natural error of only 3 days over 400 years.
To deal with this margin of error he calculated and suggested that the new calendar system should indeed continue inserting a leap year every 4th year, providing it met with the following simple rules:
So the year 1600 would be a leap year, the three ‘century’ years of 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not, but 2000 was. Further on, 2100, 2200, 2300 will not be, while 2400 will be one and so on.
With these modified rules to the leap-year calendar system in place, we now find the margin of error between the calendar and a real solar year is less than half a minute over 400 years!
Pope Greg was impressed and he put the new system in place. But there was still that problem of the 10-day accumulated error at that point. The biggest concern among the Church and population was to bring the equinox back in line with March 21st so Easter could be properly calculated again. They weren’t concerned about the equinox as much as they were about Easter. Clavius quickly saw that to bring everything back into alignment with the real world they needed to pull 10 days out of the year. So in 1582 Pope Greg chose to cut 10 days out of October and suddenly Oct. 5 instantly became Oct. 15! The error was fixed and the solution was in place to ensure it wouldn’t stray again for a very, very long time. He chose October because this was the one period during the year when there were the least, if any, religious Christian special days to celebrate. (This probably evolved because most people were farmers and hunters and they didn’t have time to leave end-of-season harvesting, hunting, winemaking, canning, etc. duties to go sing in churches. Even Churches, it appears, know where their bread is buttered).
But comically this isn’t the end of this calendar
People of the societies affected by the Pope’s decision were mostly livid about it. They weren’t too educated and actually believed that when the Pope had taken those 10 days out of the calendar, their own life spans had just been shortened by 10 days! Besides that, some greedy landlords were still demanding a full month’s rent for October even though it was significantly shorter. There were riots and revolts everywhere throughout Europe and Western Asia.
At that time in history the Catholic Church had been split for a long time (since around 482 A.D.). There were two forms of it, the Roman Catholics who followed the Pope of Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church who didn’t recognize this Pope as their head of church (but that’s another story). People who didn’t see this pope as the leader of their branch of religion decided to ignore his proclamation altogether and didn’t make the changes to their calendars. They continued using the Julian one just as it was. England refused to change as well… (remember that whole Church of England/Henry VIII thing?). Despite the obvious logical reasons of converting to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, these various groups didn’t — mostly in spite, so as not to give any appearance of accepting the authority of the Pope. However many of the other Christian countries throughout Europe were compelled to comply whether they understood it or not or wanted to.
More years went by. Gradually the confusion of different calendars in place in different areas was just too much. The errors in these old calendars were becoming more and more exaggerated by the decade and the especially increasing trade between countries on different ‘schedules’ made things difficult — difficult enough to force the stragglers to finally adopt the Gregorian calendar. England and her colonies (the Americas) did so in 1752, for example. Still years later, the Greek Orthodox population and the rest of the world (under the economic influence of the, by then, powerful empires of the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.) finally accepted the Gregorian calendar and converted to it. But interestingly a lot of people kept a lot of their customs and traditions based at points in time where they traditionally appeared in their previous calendars.
Today, the Ukrainian people celebrate their Ukrainian Christmas in early January because that’s basically where it ended up being in the Gregorian calendar on the year they finally switched from the error’d Julian calendar. Similarly, the Chinese people continue to celebrate their New Years Day anywhere in January or February depending on how it shakes out for that year in their old lunar based calendar when held up against the Gregorian one. In fact many, many cultures and religions throughout society, to this day, still observe a lot of their traditional feasts and celebratory days based on how they appear in their previous, traditional calendar systems and not the Gregorian one.
There’s been a lot of confusion for historians
For example, in regards to Queen Elizabeth I. It is commonly reported in older (pre-1900) history books that she died on the last day of the year in 1602. This is technically true because England had chosen to remain on the Julian calendar (they called it the Elizabethan calendar – typical of the naval gazers they were) a few years previous to this, so her date of passing was the last day of the Julian year of 1602, specifically March 24th. (In the Julian calendar, New Years day is March 25th, the Christian church’s Feast of the Annunciation, the closest feast they had to the vernal equinox. This is because very early on, the Church had moved New Years from January 1st to disassociate itself with pagan feast days). But when we convert to the Gregorian calendar and set New Years Day back to January 1st again, her date of death falls inside the year 1603, as it’s commonly known today, but shouldn’t it also fall on a day other than the March 24th that is still commonly reported? Wouldn’t it be translated into April 3rd or 4th ‘gregorian’? This one confuses me.
And there are many discrepancies like this throughout historical records that lead to erroneous accounting of history. It’s hard to know when historians have accounted for different calendar usage in the reporting of their historical events and when they haven’t, especially within the wide swath of ‘changeover’ years that turned out to be as extreme as 1582 right up to 1925, depending on the region of the world.
Sorry to get off on a bit of a rant here about calendars…
But I did it for two reasons...
I want to somehow impress on you that our units of time and our perception of them is influenced very much by our traditions and cultures. For example, some of us are paid by the month today simply because somebody long ago decided that since the Moon went around the Earth roughly 12 times in a solar year, we need to break up that longer span with 12 shorter ones. Totally arbitrary and selective but by now our very society’s rhythms and pulse are steered by this concept, especially economically.
But the other reason is a bit more forthright. For the people embracing ‘creationist theory’ out there (that God created everything virtually instantly and with divine purpose)… you may have noticed that the cycles of things in our immediate environment don’t correlate evenly between each other as I’ve pointed out. We’ve all grown dull to the facts that there aren’t exactly 4 weeks or 5 weeks in a month, that there aren’t exactly 29, 30, or 31 days in all months but selective combinations of each, that we must patch our time-tracking-system every 4 years and then arbitrarily every 100 years to bring it in line with reality. We’ve grown desensitized to the fact that the natural world isn’t as symmetrical and sublime as you’d think it would be if it were designed with exact purpose and intent by a sentient powerful being and with exact purpose directly for us no less!
And so we move on.
Let’s talk about some other interesting developments in the time story.
We sure are enamored with our timepieces these days. You can’t swing a dead cat in a mall without hitting at least a kiosk, shop, or department store that sells a grand selection of watches. Many people have more than one and some women even treat them as pieces of jewelry that they insist must go with whatever selection of clothing they’ve chosen to wear on a particular day. We have timepieces in our cell phones, in our audio-video equipment, at the head of our beds, in our cars and trucks, even on signs or buildings across the street from us while we pause at the traffic lights. The reminder of time is everywhere and thoroughly saturated throughout our society by now.
In fact our very society cannot run properly or at all in some areas, without fairly accurate tracking of time. Work shifts start at times sliced right down to the minute, breaks are regimentally set for 15, 30 or 60 minutes and not a second more, and if someone works even a minute over their required 8 hours in a day, most will feel entitled to some sort of extra compensation for the effort.
We start the indoctrination of Time early in our youth, as we pressure them to hurry to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast and off to the bus stop or car so they won’t be late for school. The whole operation each morning definitely is hung with an air of urgency and importance in respecting those non-stopping ticking seconds of the clock. Even the youngest of children soon learn the clock is the governor of their lives as they sit in various classrooms and wait through lessons for the recess and lunch breaks and then eventually that final bell that allows them to be free of the regimen and to be able to head home again. But only to find that mom or dad says only 1 hour on the computer, or 2 hours of TV, or supper at exactly 6 or 6:30, and it’s bedtime at 8 or 9:00, no questions asked.
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the whole attitude and feeling concerning Time was much more natural and relaxed.
Mankind estimated the time of day by observing the sky. Considering the fastest mode of communication on the entire planet (and only in some areas at that) was on the back of a galloping horse but most of the time it was in even slower lumbering wagons or a person walking on foot, there just wasn’t much need to have an accuracy greater than the sky-watching method in day-to-day life. People worked when it was daylight and a day was mostly divided up in general partitions of morning, afternoon, evening and night. Even though the time of sunrise and sunset obviously changed throughout the year, the rhythms of day-to-day life simply changed right along with them, in a certain feeling of harmony with the cycles of the Earth.
For those odd times when a little accuracy was needed, standard methods were used. For example, almost all wars, for thousands of years, were begun exactly at sunrise because that was the only time of day that a large, spread out group of men could recognize commonly among them, and agree upon. Especially if they happened to camping over a few miles from each other and were sitting and waiting for a synchronized time of attack. Telling everyone to attack at 2:25PM or 3 o’clock would have been meaningless back then.
It’s no wonder to me at all that the equinoxes gained such status and mythical fascination with so many groups and societies. They represented a special point in the year for people very conscious and aware of how their daylight hours began and ended each day.
The urgency to find a more accurate way to track time probably came about as a result of man starting to explore the world in sailing ships, far from his homelands. As these ships began to cross the now known ‘time-zones’ of the world, a greater need for more accurate timekeeping than just relying on measuring a cloudy sky from an often rocking-and-rolling boat deck, became obvious. It’s a simple fact of navigation. You can’t easily determine your east-west position on the globe without having some sort of common reference of time in units small enough to correlate with your travel distance. Many ships were wrecked on rocky shorelines because they didn’t realize they were closer to land than they had calculated. Knowing how many ‘miles-per-day’ you are away from the jagged rocks doesn’t help you if you’re only 5 hours away from them.
This became a new challenge for society and with the coming of the Industrial revolution 250-300 years ago and the climate of invention and discovery that it brought with it, talented people invented mechanical clocks and developed these devices to be more and more accurate so they eventually could track finer and finer parts of the day and hour. Soon it got to a point that a mechanical clock could fairly accurately represent even seconds and best of all, they became smaller and smaller devices that eventually could be carried around in your pocket, attached to the end of a small chain.
This advantage of knowing what time of day it was, with such accuracy, at first was a novelty for landlubbers but it quickly went from a fad to a requirement of life. Commerce completely changed with shops and stores commonly opening and closing at specific times in the day. People making the trip from the country could rely that a place would be open for business when they got there, etc. Commercial industry embraced the ability to run and manage shifts of large groups of people by strictly adhering to schedules governed by the clocks and watches. Not everyone could afford these new devices but factories were more than willing to ring bells or blow loud whistles that could be heard throughout the town, at the times work was to begin, break or end. With the invention of trains, great distances suddenly could be crossed in less than a day, so watches and clocks proved to be integral in setting and managing the many schedules between hundreds of stations peppered across the continents, giving people the ability to know exactly when and where the next one was due to show up or leave.
The whole culture of living by the clock spread throughout all parts of the economy and eventually right into private life. Many modern sporting events are governed by time and not by score, to determine their point of finish. Yearly holidays are allowed so that people can have all the fun they want and recuperate from the stresses of working life — but as long as it falls into the period of 2 or 3 weeks… and people watch the end of their free time approach with dread. Time tracking is now so firmly entrenched in our cultures and by now the thought of living without accurate, synchronized timepieces in our society would be unthinkable.
It reminds me of
I remember going on a short fishing jaunt with an old buddy of mine a few years ago and his fretting at the launch when he couldn’t find his watch. I don’t wear watches but apparently he was rarely without one and in his haste to get ready for this trip he had simply forgotten to wear it. I watched him for a little bit, tearing through his pockets, pouches and bags frantically trying to find it, like watching a cartoon, then asked him if he had something important to get to later. He said no, as he continued to dig away. I asked him what he needed his watch for? He stopped… and thought… and realized he didn’t actually need one. Where we were going and what we’d be doing only needed its peace and quiet and a warm, sunny day… but it spoke to me of how a lot of us have become kind of addicted to tracking time or feel it runs us in some way.
With so much attention to and fussing with such relatively short periods of time, is it really a mystery why most people have a problem with visualizing long periods of time in scales of 100s, 1000s, or even millions of years? Our modern western society’s especial current obsession with youth and being young has led to a culture that pretty much disregards or ignores the elderly and rarely pays attention to the stories and history and tradition that if they did, might help develop a more salient sense of time in people beyond just the immediate and now.
But why is this even
Well, I believe that as we gradually become cocooned in our thinking about time and become less and less able to appreciate its history and scale, we soon find ourselves living within limited mindsets that cannot embrace such concepts as the vast changes of evolution, for example. Or more seriously, we’re unable to recognize the repeating, often cyclical patterns of our cultures over long periods of time in areas of sometimes questionable social behavior that could teach us lessons in life, but that we instead become doomed to repeat because we fail to notice these patterns. Or even being unable to curtail or control our current abuse of the planet or understand that repercussions from our current actions will be very real problems in the lives of generations yet unborn, because it all seems so far off in a future that for us feels insignificant, so we continue on without regard or respect for it. And it all stems from our inability to embrace certain temporal concepts.
Just as space and matter (the fields, countries, oceans, mountains, planets, solar system) is a vast area around us that we should be aware of and embrace, Time also is a vast area around us (the past, present, future) that we need to be aware of and envelop as well.
Humans are ‘visual’ animals. We understand things we can hold and can see a lot better than abstract concepts in our minds. Deep time is so alien to humans that we do best trying to comprehend it through analogies. I like to use the following little exercise to stretch my mind, every now and again, to help me appreciate the vastness and immensity of time:
is thought to be 4.5 billion years old.
That’s a long time.
It’s easy to hear, hard to understand.
Most people say, “Yeah, yeah…that’s a long time.” But it doesn’t really sink in.
Let’s try to picture it...
Imagine a single sheet of paper — just a normal sheet that
you use in your printer or write a letter on.
Imagine a small, single, round dot on that page.
Let’s say that dot represents 1000 years of time. (Also try to imagine that inside of that dot there are also 1000 smaller, tinier dots, each one representing a single year each, that together make up this single dot).
Now let’s put 5000 of these
round dots on the page in 50 rows of 100 each.
5000 X 1000 years each = 5,000,000 years! (5 million).
So one page of 5000 dots represents a period of 5 million years.
Here… I created a page just like this for you.
I would strongly suggest you print it out and have it beside you
as you continue to read this text.
The visual will be stronger for you that way.
There is an or a of the same page.
The PDF file prints a better looking page but if one doesn’t print
properly for you, try the other.
There should be 50 rows of 100 dots…
We now have a physical
representation of a fairly long period of time in our hands. A page of
paper representing 5 million years of Earth time!
5 million years is a very long time but let’s set it up a bit more.
If you printed off
900 sheets of these dots, each representing 5 million years,
you’d have a stack that’s equivalent to the entire lifetime of
900 sheets X 5,000,000 years = 4,500,000,000 years! (4.5 billion)
That’s how long the Earth has been around.
is a stack of paper roughly 3.6 inches thick.
The monotony of the collection as you flipped from one page to the next would quickly dawn on you. Sheet after sheet after sheet of thousands upon thousands of thousand-year dots... each equal in length to the one before it and the one after it.
Suppose you then numbered each sheet in consecutive
order, from 1 to 900.
You’d now have a sort of catalog, a tool that you could use to document all the history of the planet in a visual way.
Let’s have some fun and do some cataloguing…
I may use the following short forms in the text:
MYA = Million years ago
BYA = Billion years ago
Life on Earth began approximately 3.5 billion years ago during what is called the Pre-Cambrian era in the form of simple bacteria. The Earth had been developing for a billion years before these tiny bacterium showed up. If we start on page 1 of our stack of sheets, we need to count off 200 of them to reach this point in time. That’s a bit more than 1/5th of our stack gone before any kind of life appears at all.
At this time on Earth there is basically no oxygen. Bacteria is anaerobic (doesn’t need oxygen to survive) and it happily thrives for a billion years like this, all alone. So count off 200 more sheets of paper from your stack to show this happy life-span.
We arrive at page 400 (2.5 BYA). Here, blue-green algae (protozoa) start to appear in the geological record. These single-celled organisms carry out a new process they’ve developed called photosynthesis, a function that produces oxygen from carbon dioxide, water and light energy. Over the next 2 billion years, the algae organisms come to dominate the planet and the atmosphere gradually fills with more and more of the oxygen they produce.
Then something surprising happens around 540 million
This is the start of page 792.
Maybe it’s because the oxygen level of the atmosphere has reached about 20% and the new life-forms thrive on it, but whatever the reason, there’s a virtual ‘explosion’ of life and most of the competing bacteria, incompatible with the new oxygenated environment that has developed, die off.
This is the beginning of the Paleozoic era and new, more complicated life-forms begin to appear in huge quantities like the first tiny and soft bodied animals that quickly evolve to become the first mollusks, jellyfishes, crustaceans and starfishes.
By page 800 (500 MYA), animals with backbones (fish-like) start to evolve. These aren’t technically fish since they have no jaws and they are rudimentary animals comparatively, but their types begin to dominate the waters of the planet.
Incidentally, we’ve now went through 89% of our stack of paper (800 sheets or 4 billion years of time) and life is still primitive, in the water, and there aren’t even plants in existence yet.
By page 810 we start to see land plants develop. Probably evolving from the algae left high and dry on beaches and rocks when waters in certain areas receded for whatever reason, so it evolved and ‘learned’ to adapt to the open air.
On page 820 we finally reach the ‘age of the fishes’. Recognizable fish with full jaws, gills and fins have evolved from more primitive forms and soon dominate the waters.
9 pages (45 million years) later to page 829 and some of them begin to evolve into early forms of amphibians that live part time in water and part time on land.
From page 831 to 842 we see amphibians evolve into the dominant land animal of the earth. Reptiles develop from these but are generally outnumbered and much smaller creatures until near the end of this period. This is also known as the ‘age of amphibians’.
Then suddenly the biggest catastrophe in the
entire history of the Earth occurs.
This is a very important page in our stack!
This is page 850 or 250 million years ago.
95% of all species on the planet go completely extinct and of the remaining 5%, their numbers greatly decline to near extinction levels.
One of the common theories is that many, massive, Earth-wide volcanic events over a period of 2 million years (the first 20 lines of dots on page 850) were the cause. Probably triggered by shifting land masses and colliding geological plates, they spewed billions of tons of CO2 and sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, poisoned the waters and caused many massive greenhouse events certainly killing off most plant species. Nearly all marine life-forms were severely affected. The billions-year-old species of trilobites disappeared forever at this time, as did most fish and shellfish species. Proto-mammals (early forms of mammals) were mostly wiped out and most amphibian and reptile species disappeared en-masse, forever. Notably, some of the smaller proto-mammal species did happen to squeeze through the crisis and survive for some reason. Had they not, we might not be here now.
Page 850 is an important page in our time-stack of history.
But life is resilient. It bounced back, slowly.
The one thing about periods of mass extinction is that they provide wonderful opportunity for the species remaining to prosper and fill the voids left by the victims.
This extinction marks the beginning of
a new era called the Mesozoic (meaning the 'middle' era).
It starts rather humbly with most of life on the planet wiped out, but as things settle down, what is left over begins to take over the niches left behind, begins to evolve, and thrive.
This rebuilding time of species and life-forms is known as the Triassic period (geologists like to divide long lengths of time like 'eras' into smaller groupings called 'periods', similar to how inside 'years' we have smaller groupings called 'months').
From the middle of page 850 to page 858 things go well. These 40 million years see very warm climate throughout the planet. Reptiles thrive, evolve, and dominate. Amphibians never make a recovery to the levels they previously knew, but they do OK. The proto-mammals evolve into bona fide mammal species that are small, rat-like and live nocturnally, feeding on seeds and insects.
However, it happens
About half way through page 858.
Another extinction event…
This time nearly ½ of all the recovered species on Earth are wiped out through massive volcanic events yet again!
important to understand that when I say a species is wiped out or
extinct, I mean it’s gone! There are absolutely none of its kind
left to recover and regenerate. Its kind is forever lost to history,
never to be seen again, like the woolly mammoths, the saber-toothed
Somehow however, most of the little mammals made it through this one too.
And so we enter the famous Jurassic period
¾ of the way down page 858.
This is the ‘age of reptiles’ or more commonly known these days as the ‘age of dinosaurs’.
From here to page 887 the dinosaurs and pterosaurs (those flying dinosaurs) evolve, thrive and rule the world. Most of them live on plants. A few eat each other’s eggs and smaller creatures. Many grow to enormous sizes and some even develop un-reptile-like qualities like living in social groups. The world is warm and humid and thousands upon thousands of varieties of plants and vegetation evolve and blanket the land as well. Even the oceans are teeming with all varieties of life. Birds begin to evolve from pterosaurs and develop feathers from scales.
The dinosaurs dominate and thrive for an impressive 150 million years or 30 pages of our time-stack!
But at the beginning of page 887 another terrible
It’s another important page in our stack.
The popular theory says that an asteroid slammed into the planet somewhere in the vicinity of what we now call the Yucatan peninsula, by Mexico, about 65 million years ago. The initial impact vaporized everything within a few hundred miles of the event and the shock wave killed everything else within a thousand miles. Some geologists think a chain of massive earthquakes around the Pacific Rim, 6 million times more powerful than San Francisco’s, was triggered. But most catastrophic was the debris that was raised into the atmosphere, causing an unimaginable dust cloud that filled the atmosphere of the planet and blocked the Sun worldwide for years afterwards. Temperatures dropped and plants died. The fossil record shows all species of dinosaur died off, along with many species from other animal types.
It’s debatable as to how long the extinction took because all we have as a record are fossils and sediment deposits in various strata of rock throughout the world, but it is sure that within a few million years all large creatures and most mid-sized ones were gone. It appears that the smallest creatures had the best chance of survival and mammals were fortunate to be in this class of animal at the time. The already millions and millions of years old species of crocodiles, alligators, some snakes, and turtles made it through too, for some reason.
This extinction triggers yet another, new era called the Cenozoic.
Once again, with the extinction of the dominant species of the world, the guys left over suddenly find themselves all alone and able to fill those voids left by the victims. This they do, and prosper.
What is really thought-provoking is the event that killed off the dinosaurs was pretty much a freak occurrence. It is very likely that if the Earth had been able to duck it in some way, the dinosaurs would very likely still be in charge and prolific to this day and mammals, and more specifically primates (us), probably never would have evolved to the point they have.
Anyway, from ¾ of the way down page 887 to page 899 we see the many varied species of mammals slowly evolve over the 11¼ pages (57 million years) and come to dominate the world. Compared to the ‘age of dinosaurs’ the climate of the world becomes much cooler in the Cenozoic era. Reptiles once again recover and evolve but never to their former level of glory. Amphibians, birds, insects and marine animals all evolve from the survivors of the mass extinction and develop along their own species lines. The first primates evolve early on but remain as mostly small, skittish, tree dwelling animals for a long time.
Let’s slide to page 900, the very last page.
There are 50 lines of 100 dots on this page, just like all the rest.
Each line represents 100,000 years… 10 lines = 1 million years.
Let’s drop down 34 lines, past 3/5ths of that page.
This position on the page is approximately when a creature close enough to be called a hominid first appears — Homo erectus (1.6 MYA). He’s an ancestor to us but if you dressed him in a jogging suit and saw him in a train station, he’d certainly be a scary sight. He had large, powerful jaws, a large face, a sloped forehead, a prominent brow bone and was quite hairy all over. They walked on 2 legs but were a bit hunched over when they did. But they weren’t apes and probably wore animal pelts against the cold, used fire to keep warm and cook some of their food and fashioned crude stone tools. They probably even developed speech a few 100,000 years into their evolvement.
Now slide down to the second
last line of dots on the page.
Move across to within the last 15 dots of that line.
This is when Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet — hominids that finally had evolved enough to have essentially the same features as modern humans. They were essentially us.
99.997% of all the 1000-year dots in our planet's history timeline have already went by, by the time we finally show up!
Now go to
the very last line of dots on the page.
We’re now on the very last line of dots on the last of 900 pages of time.
40 dots from the very end is when Homo Sapiens first appear in what is now Europe. It is also the time they first cross over to Australia and become the Aborigines.
About 13 dots from the very end is when humans begin to travel across the Bering Strait on a land bridge into North America, eventually entirely populating both continents. The world’s last ice age is also ending around this time and the giant Mammoth and Mastadons species go extinct for some reason... probably partly due to being hunted by man.
12 dots from the very end and humans begin to crudely harvest wild grains and cereals for the first time.
5½ dots from the very end and the wheel is invented. Pieces of them are found 5500 years later by archeologists.
4½ dots from the end and humans enter the bronze age. Also, the Great Pyramid is built at Giza.
4 dots from the end… The main structure of Stonehenge is built.
2½ dots from the end … the start of the Roman Empire.
The last dot on the end… William the Conqueror invades England in 1066 and becomes king.
½ of last dot… Christopher Columbus ‘discovers’ the new world.
Almost last 1/3 of last dot… start of the industrial revolution.
Last 1/10th of last dot… the 20th century.
there you have it.
A little bit of perspective.
When you sit back and consider some of the time spans
we’ve talked about here, you can’t help but notice the obvious…
Those dinosaurs were around for more than 30 pages of the time-line while modern humans have only been here for basically a line of dots on the bottom of the very last page, and even then only developed more sophisticated societies only in the last 1/3 of that last line or less. It really makes you wonder about our eventual longevity. At the rate we’re going about things, we might be kissing it all goodbye sooner than we can imagine.
Will we even be around by the time there is a page 901, full of dots?
— + —
Sometimes I like to think of the entire life-span of Earth as being equal to 1 year instead.
If that were the case, the asteroid that is said to have wiped out the dinosaurs would have hit sometime at the end of December 26th. The first hominid, Homo erectus, would have appeared at about 2 p.m. on December 31st. The Great Pyramid at Giza would have been built at 30 seconds to midnight, Dec. 31st…and then there’s us here today, squeezed into much less than that very last second… right up against Happy New Year!