It seems like a simple enough question. Most of you probably never thought to ask about it because it is the foundation of everything we understand. Just think about all the words that describe or are dependent on the concept of time.
Words like happen, often, event, regularly, scarce, extent, bit, bout, while, span, duration, existence, age, begin, end, endure, instant, interval, juncture, pace- the list goes on.
Time is an integral part of our knowledge, especially in how we communicate with eachother. Even I didn’t think much about it when I decided to write this article.
But after researching it I’ve descended into an existential spiral. A topic this mundane yet this mysterious is truly bizarre.
It’s like pulling a bit of string that popped out of your jumper. Initially you try to ignore it but then you decide to yank it out completely, hoping to return the jumper to normal.
But you find that simply yanking the string is not so easy, it doesn’t snap but instead the string gets longer and longer, unraveling the very structure of the jumper until there’s nothing left. You just sit there afterwards, uneasy and cold.
So if you don’t want that I’d advise not reading this article. Let’s begin.
So let’s break down exactly how modern humans understand time. Ok, so we measure lengths of times in moments or seconds. A second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.
Every sixty seconds counts as a minute, another unit of time. Sixty minutes results in an hour. Twenty four hours comprises one earth day, where the earth makes a full rotation of the sun, Some hours of the day allow you to observe the light of the sun (day) and the darkness as soon as the earth rotates away from the sun (night) daylight can vary depending where exactly you are on earth and what season it is.
Seven days results in a week, this is due to the Babylonians (the inhabitants of Ancient Iraq) who based their calendar on moon cycles. It takes about 29.5 days to cycle through all the moons phases. A week that’s almost thirty days long isn’t practical for people’s lives so they divided the days into four sections, containing seven days each.
The Romans would later build upon their calendar structure by renaming the days of the week in their appropriation of knowledge. For example, Saturday is derived from “Dies Saturn” which is latin for “Day of Saturn” who is one of the roman Gods.
Four weeks results in a month. There’s twelve moths in a year. It takes the earth 365 days to do a lap around the sun, however sometimes it takes around 366 days. This occurs every four years and is known as a “Leap Year” where the Olympics take place. Each month contains roughly thirty days but it varies on the month. There’s a nursery rhyme that sums it up:
“Thirty days has September, April, June and November. All the rest have Thirty One- except for February, it’s the one, which has 28 days clear and 29 days in each leap year.“
…Well fuck, at least it rhymes.
The international calendar is known as the Gregorian calendar. It’s named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. It was a refinement to the Julian calendar involving an approximately 0.002% correction in the length of the calendar year.
Thanks to trade and western imperialism, the entire Earth abides by the same calendar. However some regions celebrate their own New Year’s. The Persian New Year’s is around March, the Chinese New Year takes place somewhere between late January and Late February. If you live in a nation that has it’s own special New Year, let us know in the comments down below.
Ten years is known as a decade. Ten decades is known as a century. Ten centuries is known as a Millennium, which is a thousand years. An indefinite level of time could be referred to as an Aeon. Eternity refers to something that lasts forever. Like the universe, except the Universe isn’t eternal nor is it infinite. It’s just very big and very old.
The Gregorian calendar originated from christian teachings and so the calendar believes that the year is 2018. Thats 2018 years after the death of the Christian Messiah/God/poster Boy/Founder- Jesus “son” of Joseph from Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ. Other religions differ on what exactly the year is. The Jews believe it’s around 5778 cause that’s when Abraham peeled his foreskin off. The Chinese believe it’s around 4715.
They’re all wrong. The modern humans after the agricultural revolution have existed for just about 12,000 years so the year is probably 12,018. Or if you want to say the year started when the first human showed up then its about 100,000 years ago- so maybe it’s the year 100,018. Well our ancestry with apes reaches back to around 1-2 million years ago so maybe it’s the year 1,000,018 or 2,000,018. Then again if we go back to when life began then it would be closer to 3.8 billion years ago, so maybe the year is actually 3,800,000,018. Then again the Earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago so maybe the real year is 4,540,000,018. But the universe began 13.8 billion years ago so the correct year is 13,800,000,018.
…Yeah, fuck it. 2018 is easier to say.
So early humans depended on the sun, the Moon and the Stars to tell the time. The sun moving through the sky would tell you when the day starts and end. The moon going through its cycles would tell you when the month begins and ends. The stars were used to determine the seasons, for example if you were able to see the constellation of Orion then you would be able to determine that winter was coming soon and therefore you shouldn’t plant any crops.
Constellations were very important for agriculture but they were also important to establish basic understanding of the world like the direction you are facing. If you can see the star Polaris (the North Star) then you would know the direction of north. the stars were also important to establish religions via mythological stories, to the ancients the stars were thought of as gods and constellations were their ways of telling you stories. These myths would be passed down in Oral traditions which would help establish tribes of people, then cultures, then communication of religion (a lot of the Old Testament pretty much establishes the laws of the land and gives instructions on agriculture, like when to plough a field) would be passed on to others.
Villages would become towns, towns would become cities. Cities would become kingdoms, kingdoms would become Empires. Empires would collapse and everyone would be forced to work together because in our process to become more civilized we left the stove on and the earth is melting. We all crawl up beside each other and die. That’s us, that’s the world. Or at least the human World.
I’m sorry, I’m trying to phrase this article so that it could be interpreted by aliens so it’ll sound really weird. You’re probably thinking “Des…we know what a century is” but an Alien might have an entirely different unit of time so it’s important to break down the basics.
So as I said before, humans depended on the sun to tell the time. This is why early humans invented objects such as the sun dial (seen above) in order to determine the time. As the sun passes through the sky, the shadow on the dial changes with it. When it’s noon the sun will be directly above the sky so it’ll throw shade on the number 12, which is 12pm or midday.
It’s a pretty handy contraption. I don’t know exactly what they’d do at night time. Especially if its cloudy and you can’t get moonlight. You’d probably have to go to bed.
We’d also have hour glasses, that could measure a small amount of time. Some civilizations used things like “shadow towers” which were just large towers that would cast cast large shadows. The shadow would move as the day went on so you could tell the time. There’s also a lot of water contraptions people like the Ancient Greeks and Persians used to tell the time or use as alarm clocks.
Some people would use candle clocks, in which a candle would be lit and behind it is some symbols such as numbers. As the candle descends you can tell what time it is. I suspect these were mostly used at night.
Clock-towers have been in use since the 15th century. They were often attached to churches or were buildings all themselves. An example of a clock-tower would be the Guildhall in Derry city, it’s been there since the 17th Century.
As mankind became more sophisticated we figured out the mechanics behind devices such as clocks. We were able to build large clocks like a Grandfather clock and small clocks like a wrist watch.
After the industrial revolution, England’s railroad companies spearheaded a drive to unify local times by pegging the time to the sun’s position in the sky as observed from one specific place: the Royal Observatory in London. By 1947, this was designated Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and was the first attempt to come up with a universal marker for time across the world.
Pegging time to Earth’s rotations worked well enough, for a while. But the Earth doesn’t rotate at a consistent rate: It slows by 1.4 milliseconds every century, and tectonic movement introduces additional variation.
These slight rotational inconsistencies became problematic with the rise of commercial flight and other navigational innovations, as they required much more precise timekeeping than trains did.
So scientists developed a technique for measuring time based on the vibrations of the atomic element cesium instead. This “atomic clock” was completed in 1955, and it kept time with astonishing consistency: Over the course of several centuries, it would theoretically gain or lose only a single second.
The National Institute of Standards (which later added “and Technology” to its name) eventually adopted cesium as the standard timekeeping device for the world. They called it Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), and it replaced GMT as the global standard.
This was a radical redefinition of what constituted time. With the NIST’s decision, the unit of a second was defined in relation not to the movement of celestial bodies, but the vibrations of an atomic element.
There was just one problem with UTC: It completely disrupted the navigational techniques used at sea. Sailors calculated their position and direction using a formula that combined traditional GMT with the current position of the sun and stars. Because UTC was wholly divorced from celestial movement, it made sea navigation much more difficult.
When a leap second was added to UTC in 2012, Yelp!, LinkedIn, Gawker and other major websites suddenly crashed. Qantas Airways’ booking system failed, and more than 400 flights were delayed.
Since the Earth’s rotational inconsistency is irregular, leap seconds must be added at irregular intervals — manually. That involves turning off the atomic clock for one second every couple years: If a computer has to carry out an operation during that second, it can crash.
With the media spotlight on the 2015 leap second, there’s been talk of scrapping them. Computer systems are steadily growing more reliant on atomic time, prompting concerns that future “leap-second bugs” could cause security vulnerabilities, flight accidents or stock market crashes.
The growing movement against leap seconds would abolish them and return to unaltered UTC time. This wouldn’t pose the same problems for nautical navigation as it did 30 years ago since most sailors now use GPS, not the night sky, to find their way at sea. It would, however, cause the official time to drift further and further from the setting sun.
Confused? We haven’t even begun to get into daylight savings hour.
Ok, so Daylight savings time is a really dumb shit thing humans do. It was introduced by the Germans in World War One in order to save fuel and somehow it carried on. It was also introduced in other countries so that Humans could experience longer hours of sunshine in the summer. They move the clocks forward in the spring and then move them back in the Autumn. This is so that human activity can correlate with the sun-time, most countries don’t do this.
You lose sleep, it fucks up schedules, car collisions increase and you don’t even save any money. It’s pointless. Completely and utterly pointless.
Now, let’s talk about time zones.
Ok, so we’ve established that a day on earth lasts about 24 hours and that it depends on the planet revolving towards sunlight (which counts as daytime) and then gradually moving away from sunlight (which counts as night time) that’s what a day on earth is like.
Now the Earth is very big (6,371KM or 3,959 Miles) and it’s round so not all of the Earth is going to experience sunlight at the same time. If we had a set international time there’d be a lot of issues for example at 12pm London would experience noon while New York would look as if it were morning and California would still be in the middle of the night.
To solve this issue Scientists in the 1800’s met up in Washington DC and established time zones. They created a map which would dictate the time of certain areas to correlate when they will rotate towards sunlight. The planet is divided up into 24 different time zones, each 15 degrees of longitude wide.
Distance between time zones is greatest at the equator and shrinks to zero at the poles due to the curvature of the earth. Since the equator is 24,902 miles long that means the distance between time zones at the equater is approximately 1,038 miles long.
The imaginary dividing lines (the zero line in the map above) begin in a London suburb called Greenwich (Pronounced “Gren-itch” because for some unfound reason the English don’t like W’s) this is the primary dividing line of longitude called the prime meridian. Longitude is the angular distance between a point on any meridian and the prime meridian at Greenwich.
The time at Greenwich is called “Greenwich Mean Time” or GMT for short. As you move West from Greenwich every 15 degree section or time zone is an hour earlier than GMT. While if you move East from Greenwich every 15 degree section or time zone is an hour later than GMT.
So no matter where you are in the world you’ll be able to experience the correct amount of daylight that qualifies as a day.
I’m not gonna lie, Time Zones are a real bitch- especially when you’re traveling. I recall back in Christmas of 2015 I was in Australia and I was quite annoyed with the time zones. Like, I was talking to this girl and she was eight hours behind me which really damaged our ability to communicate. When it was day for me it was night for her, we’d be sleeping at different times and it was Christmas so we were both fairly busy. I’d go days without WiFi as we’d Travel through the Australian outback.
Time zones suck. Especially at New year’s where different parts of the world celebrate the New Year at different times than the rest of the world. It really points out how weird human beings are, especially Daily Mail readers.
So how we understand time is empirical to how we understand the world around us. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifices because they thought it was required to ensure that the sun moves across the sky.
Time is ultimately a human measurement for change. Because the things we can observe cannot change if they aren’t given time. Time to be born, time to live and time to die.
As I write to you it is now the 13th of January 2018. I am eighteen years old, tomorrow I’ll be nineteen. Nothing much will change. I won’t grow taller or wiser, there will be no profound life altering revelation. It’s just another day, another year to classify my existence on planet earth.
I recall the day before my seventeenth birthday. It was January 13th in the year 2016, I didn’t know it then but that would soon turn out to be the worst year of my life (worst year so far at least) I was waiting for the 212 at the Derry bus centre. A wretched, depressing place in a wretched and depressing town. I was talking to this girl on the phone, we’d been talking to eachother a few months now.
We’d been talking on the phone for well over an hour. I can’t remember what we were talking about. At some point I casually brought up that I’d be seventeen tomorrow. She was upset (well, not necessarily upset- it was more playful) that I didn’t tell her sooner cause she would have done something, I can’t remember what. I remember looking up at the Guildhall and I did a silly voice, she laughed. For some Godforsaken reason she found me funny, I never understood that. I don’t find myself funny. She was tired so we parted ways, picked up the conversation later.
She’s gone now, that’s all I’ll say about the whole morbid ordeal. She was a very sad girl, very beautiful. I can’t remember what she looks like.
So we mark a year on earth as how long it takes the planet to take a full rotation of the sun. Most years it takes 365 days however on leap years it takes 366 days.
Most planets in our solar system have varying lengths in the amount of days it takes them to make a full rotation of the sun. Planets closer to the sun such as Mercury only take 88 days to make a full rotation whilst planets farther away from the sun such as Neptune takes a staggering 165 years to make a full rotation.
So on Mercury a year would last about three Months while on Neptune it would last over a century and a half.
So that’s where time gets a little tricky. Different planets and different levels of space would experience time at a different rate then they would on earth.
There’s also an issue with space time. Say if you’re traveling at the speed of light, time for you will have slowed down. So a second for you travelling through space would be an hour or even a day on earth.
So a moving object would experience time differently than a stationary object. There was an experiment to see if this phenomenon could be replicated on earth. Two clocks were both set at the exact same time, one clock was boarded onto a plane while the other remained on the ground.
The plane flew around for a few hours and when they landed they discovered that the clock in the plane was a fraction of a second slower than the clock on the ground. As both clocks were set at the exact same time the experiment concluded that moving objects experience time differently than objects on that are stationary.
We haven’t even gotten into the effect of Gravity on our perception of time.
So we understand space to be this big void with nothing in it. That’s not true. For starters there’s a lot of clouds that form stars and planets, there’s a lot of dust from this process. Most of it is in space but a lot of it is on earth and other planets (you’re probably surrounded by space dust right now) however most of the universe consists of something called dark energy.
We don’t know what it is but it’s causing the Universe to expand at a faster rate (The Universe is constantly expanding) it’s gravity from something we can’t quite understand or see.
So large objects such as stars and planets have their own gravitational pull due to their mass. In the image above you can see a star bend space with it’s mass (I know it’s hard to imagine space as flat but bear with me) in our solar system all the planets rotate around the star we call the sun. Satellites such as moons and asteroid belts rotate around individual planets due to their own mass.
Different planets experience time differently due to their varying mass. Our solar system is part of a Galaxy we refer to as the milky way, in the centre of that Galaxy is a Super Massive black hole that’s four billion times the mass of our sun.
Supermassive black holes drag clusters of star systems together to form galaxies. Though it’s worth noting that some galaxies don’t have these super massive black holes at the centre of their galaxies while others do.
If you look back up at that image you’ll see the gravitational effect of a star that is collapsing in on itself; a black hole.
That’s not a black hole. That’s an artist’s rendition of what a black hole looks like. We can’t take pictures of black holes yet for a number of reasons, mostly because it’s extremely difficult.
The thing about Black holes is that they were once stars. But they got so big and so old that it’s mass made it collapse in on itself. It’s Gravity sucks in and consumes everything. It’s so strong that it can literally bend light around itself- just look at that image.
Probably one of the most disturbing things about a Black hole is the reason why it’s Black. See, it was once a star. Stars emit photons during fusion, that creates light. Light travels faster than anything in the Universe. But a black hole’s Gravity is so powerful it prevents photons from escaping, it literally traps light.
So picture the affect a Black hole would have on time. In fact there was an episode of Doctor Who on it.
Ok, say if a space ship (about a few miles long) was about to crash into a black hole. At the front of the Ship is the Doctor while at the back of the ship is the assistant. So as the gravity at the front of the ship is stronger than the back of the ship, time for the Doctor would appear normal. However for the assistant (Observing the Doctor via cameras) it would appear as if they were just standing still.
Time appears relatively faster at the end of the ship than at the front of the ship. Ten minutes at the front would feel like ten years at the back.
That’s General Relativity. So space is like the third dimension- that’s why planets, stars and black holes aren’t flat. They’re round.
Time, or Space-time, is referred to as the Fourth Dimension. The speed of light is, from as we currently understand it, constant. Time varies on an individuals speed and their surroundings.
Ok, so that’s how Time works. Now let’s discuss how everything we now understand may be complete horse shit.
This star is called Methuselah, it’s about 14.5 billion years old. Or at least it looks like it’s 14.5 billion years old. If it were really that age then this Star is older than the Universe.
Now Scientists are trying to find out why it looks like this. Perhaps it’s due to issues with the camera, an interfering factor that makes the star look older- we don’t know.
For me there’s two possibilities. Either something or someone added something to this star that made it look older, or we got our calculations wrong and the Universe is far older than we realised.
We definitely know that the big bang happenned because we can observe the radiation that it emitted, we can literally see the stretch marks of the Universe.
This wouldn’t worry me if we weren’t in a race against time. I mean let’s face it, we’re not going to make it to the year 3018. We’d be lucky if we make it to 2150. Which brings us to the Fermi Paradox.
The Universe is very old and very big, so the chances of us being the only intelligent life forms that exist in our Galaxy let alone the Universe is very slim.
There’s a lot of reasons why we have yet to come into contact with Aliens. For starters there’s the possibility that they’ve already tried communicating with us but we weren’t developed enough to receive it. They may have sent a radio transmission to Earth while we were still in the Dark Ages.
Another reason is that like a star, civilisations may get so advanced that they collapse in on themselves. This may result in exhausting your resources or ultimately just destroying yourselves.
So it’s unlikely that we’re alone in the Universe. But it’s even more unlikely that we’ll advance enough before our demise to receive a message, or that other civilisations are advanced enough to receive our messages.
It’s literally a race against time.
We have an idea of how everything started, and we have an idea of how everything will end. These ideas are supported by evidence. I will now tell you these ideas:
Around 13.7 billion years ago, time as we know it didn’t exist. The Universe didn’t exist. We refer to this stage as “The Singularity“. All the known energy of the Universe was held in this tiny space, the size of an atom. It was extremely hot so all that energy had to burst out and expand.
By the first second of its existence, the Universe expanded to over one billion kilometres. As the Universe began to cool down, atoms were able to take shape. The first were Hydrogen atoms.
For 300 thousand years there was no light, this is called the Dark Ages of the Universe. Soon these Hydrogen atoms would form stars that would grow and die producing new elements, new atoms that would produce clouds of gas that would be the building ground for new stars.
Stars are constantly reborn and die. Planets came into formation, creating solar systems which would lead to galaxies. 4.6 billion years ago our own sun was born with the remnants of a giant explosion. Sixty million years later earth would be formed. Bombardment by asteroids containing trillions of tons of Ice lead to the formation of oceans and gained the moon which provided the gravitational support for tides.
Water allowed for life to flourish, 3.8 billion years ago life on earth began with Bacteria. That bacteria would evolve into much more complex organisms over the course of billions of years of evolution.
Around 65 million years ago the Dinosaurs died out, they roamed the earth for well over a 150 million years. A T-Rex is closer to seeing us than it would be to seeing a Stegosaurus.
About 2.5 billion years ago our ancestors Genus Homo evolved, 200 thousand years ago our species Homo Sapiens arrived. Around 12,000 years ago the agricultural revolution commenced which Kick-started Human Civilization, humans went from holding spears for hunting food to holding smartphones for writing on their above average blogs.
We’re at the present now, or at least my present. For me it is presently January 13th 2018 at about quarter past ten. Your present will undoubtedly be different. Now, onto the future.
In one billion years the sun will become so hot that life on earth will not survive. Four billion years later the sun will die, marking the end of the solar system. The Universe will continue to expand at such a pace that galaxies move out of sight of eachother and will eventually break apart themselves. Everything will be so far away it will appear as if there’s no stars in the sky.
A few trillion years later stars will stop producing and die out. The Universe is dark, cold and desolate. The only things present are black holes but after a few more trillion years they too will evaporate into oblivion. After this the phenomenon known as heat death occurs. Nothing changes anymore. Time and the Universe, for lack of a better word, is dead.
…But that’s really far away so you might as well spend your days pursuing happiness.
Watch some TV, earn some money for food and resources, get a pint with some friends, have sex, raise children, fight for justice and equality, record your experiences and what you’ve learned for future generations, do your best to improve the quality of life and finally; die.
Maybe you’ll get another go around the Ferris wheel, you never know.
So ultimately time is a human construct made to initially understand a regular occurrence (a day) which would later develop from the discovery of other regular events (lunar cycles) which would eventually evolve into a way to detect seasons.
Then Civilization began, we wrote stuff down. We made clocks, went to space and discovered that in some areas time doesn’t play by our rules.
Now life is both short and fragile. In a few thousand years we won’t be able to observe any stars outside of our own galaxy. Our descendents will only be able to know of the stars by the descriptions we wrote down. Despite their superior technology, this knowledge will be withheld from them.
An entire chapter in the story of the universe will be ripped out. Which raises the question. What other chapters were ripped out before we could read? What stories have been lost forever?
Only time will tell. But keep in mind the limits of humanity. The Universe is very big and we can only see a fraction of it. The observable Universe.
We can’t see anything beyond this and we, at the moment, don’t have the resources or the leadership to explore this area before it expands too far away and we can’t reach it. If we do make it to 3018, I hope we’ve left the solar system.
Maybe I’ll live to see the end of the 21st century, maybe I could make it to the year 2150, die at the ripe old age of 151. Maybe.
But I won’t live to see the sun die or a black hole evaporate. That takes too long and carbon life forms like myself are far too volatile to survive that long. Time is ultimately the rule of life, the grounds in which everything will be born and everything will die.
It reminds me of this Doctor Who episode called “Heaven Sent” one of Capaldi’s finest performances. He had this great monologue in which he quoted the Brothers Grim, it goes like this: