Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Do You Define Time?

I read on other writer blogs about the need to manage time or advice on how to steal time to write (maybe with cleverly done photoshopped pictures that include the names of great people who somehow managed to write with all of the things going on in their lives). Then usually there is some snippy quote that says, "They have the same amount of time per day as you...what is your excuse?" And I start thinking... this is so not true.

How do you define time? Einstein was the first to propose that space and time were interconnected and that time is simply how objects interact with each other with respect to their position within relative space. And this is absolutely true. There are atomic clocks in Boulder, Colorado right now that are the most accurate in the world. They work by measuring the precise oscillation of certain atoms within a vacuum and only lose a second of time every 3.5 billion years or so. When one of these clocks was raised off the ground by several feet, it fell out of sync with the other clock. The reason is that gravity effects time. By moving one clock off the ground, it was further from the center of the Earth, and therefore time passed a little faster for it than for its neighbor that sat next to it in the same room. At the center of the Milky Way and in billions of other galaxies are these super massive black holes that eat millions of solar masses per second where gravity is so incredibly powerful, that time in the singularity is warped infinitely. Mathematics cannot explain it. Physics essentially fails.

Then there is the matter of time dilation (I break out some math here but it isn't complicated. It is only a square root and I'm sure that you writers out there can handle a square root). I had to make this into a photo on my scanner because the equation editor of Microsoft Word doesn't paste into blogger:
Time dilation is also very real. M.I.T. discovered this in the decay of muons when they measured how many decayed at the top of a mountain and how many decayed in their laboratory on campus (essentially at sea level). The closer you get to the speed of light, the closer T prime will get to 0 so that at exactly the speed of light, no time would ever pass for you while it continued to pass for everyone else not moving at your velocity.

What happens when you snap your fingers? You hear a sound, you see it happen, and it appears instantaneous. There is a slight delay in the processing of this information to your brain so essentially, everything that we say or do has a slight lag to it. We never experience the actual "now" that we think we are experiencing. Everything that we do takes place slightly in the past. Neurosurgeons are starting to talk about the possibility that lesions or scarring of the brain can "unhinge" a person from time so that there is no clear perception of past or present and that things can become all mixed up.

In my own life, I think schizophrenia has robbed my mother of the ability to process "time". She becomes so confused...sometimes she thinks that I still live in Idaho, at other times she has no idea what day it is or how long it has been since I visited. But then she starts speaking French, remembers flashes of her childhood, thinks that people who are dead are alive again and that she's speaking to them. Some people call this crazy...but I'm not so sure anymore. I think that lesions on her brain have caused her to become unhinged in time. It makes me question if time even exists or if we create it with our minds as our bodies track motion through space and interpret actions such as sight or sound which are then uploaded by our brains to our consciousness. If you think of a car accident or other traumatic event, time seems to slow down, and details of the crash become burned into your memory. Doctors are now saying that this is due to your mind laying down dense layers of information which in effect...slows down the perception of time for you. People that smoke pot or use drugs can make statements like, "how long have I been standing here?" because the drug prevents their brain from creating anchor points by which you can measure the passage of time.

In writing, it makes sense to me, especially in fantasy, that creatures might perceive time differently. Dragons with enormous lifespans could sleep for thousands of years because to them, a day would be a small percentage of their immortality. Humans...who only have a lifespan of 80 years or so...experience time and its passing much differently. A day is far more precious because it is a larger percentage of your total life span. However, the longer you live, the faster a day is going to seem to pass because your lifespan reduces a day within the totality of your existence.

How do you define time? The more I think about it...the more I cannot wrap my head around the concept of this thing that dominates our lives. "All you do in this life, echoes in eternity" --Honor by August in the song, "Found".


  1. Time doesn't really exist, it's just a way for us to measure things in a convenient way, but it's then dependent on our perception of it. I don't think gravity affects time, it affects the things we use to measure time.

    If everything in the universe that moved was frozen in place, would that freeze time?

    (this is just something I wonder, I don't know, I'm just asking in case you have the answer I'm looking for).

  2. Moody: Gravity absolutely affects time. We've proven it in the laboratory using atomic clocks. Space and time are irrefutably tied together in a fourth dimension called space-time. What we perceive as gravity is simply warping of the space-time continuum that is caused by objects that have measurable mass.

  3. Hmmm... there's sort of two kinds of time. The one is basically measured by the sun...

    Then there's the other one, the time we can't understand. We can't have a true concept of time, because we don't know how much time we have. Except that it isn't really enough time. I guess that's why we're always rushing.

    LOVED the song, by the way.


  4. @Michael - that's not what I meant. If you have a watch and you hit it with a hammer it will tell you time has stopped. Does that mean hammers affect time?

    (again, i'm at the limit of my own understanding so not making statements as much as wondering aloud)


  5. Moody: Okay, so again it goes back to how exactly you define time. If you're defining it by some kind of measurable and known event (such as the oscillation of a particular atom in a vacuum) or the known radioactive decay of another type of atom, then these things are indeed affected by gravity. But the ticking of a man-made clock is again based off of a physical oscillation (in this instance it has to do with a pendulum) which is far less reliable than that of known atoms. So, if you don't define time in something that can be measured...I'm at a loss on how you can even have a concept of what time is. If you agree that time does pass from second to second, then gravity can affect it...period. Just look at what the definition of what an actual second is.

  6. Yes, exactly, time isn't a real thing, it's a man-made concept to structure our perceptions. We try to make it fit like other measurements but there's no 'thing' to be measured. It's an indirect measurement. We try to make it fit our normal idea of measurement, even create tachyons in scifi stories, but it doesn't really work that way. It's a bit like infinity, we can make sense of it on paper and with numbers, but we can't comprehend it in any real way.

    As usual, all guesswork.

  7. Our own perceptions constantly impact our time.

    Those time warp shows always boggle my mind ... but what if ...

  8. Heard of a book of short stories by Alan Lightman, called Einstein's Dreams?

    It's a wonderful little collection of stories about time.

    I can't think about this time dilation stuff. It's like staring up at stars.

  9. I try to find a gravity well when I write.

  10. Ah yes, time. What is time? Fascinating subject.

    From time to time (sorry, no pun intended) there are interesting programs on Discovery or TLC about the nature of time. Your post made me think of this one where they took some guy, dropped him from a great height, and proved that time "slowed down" for him while he was falling. Great stuff.

    Of course, I saw this a couple years ago, so I don't know where a link to it is (I'll look for it later).

  11. If you really want to warp people's mind, we could talk about the different sizes of infinity. Infinite space is not all created equally.

    I use some of this time distortion theory in my book, by the way.

  12. I went on a weekend retreat in high school to place that had no electricity for three days. Time goes by incredibly differently without clocks hounding you to be productive. The day seemed to go by so much smoother and things took as long as they needed rather than fitting into little segments of half hour, hour etc.

  13. A few weeks ago my six year old niece asked me if I had a hammer. I asked her why she needed a hammer and she replied, "I want to smash the whole worlds clocks. I'm tired of it being 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, time to go to home, time to to bed..." Even my niece knows that "clocks" are a man made vehicle of control that cannot begin to encompass the reality of time.

  14. A very good question. What is time? All I know is that I have allowed myself to be a slave of time. I think that the only way I will free myself is when I die because whenenver I tried to do anything outside schedule, I feel guilty.

  15. First, "Einstein's Dreams" was a wonderful book.

    Second, I can't resist: "Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so." -- Ford Prefect.

    Michael, you're dead on about your review of time. But it gets worse: our perceptions of time are altered by the fact that nerve impulses travel at different rates in our bodies, which means that what we experience as "living" is actually a little movie our brain is constantly piecing together, and the movie is not necessarily accurate.

    That's why time "slows down" in emergencies -- your brain is paying more attention at those times -- and why summers seem longer in your memory; it was because as a kid you paid more attention.

    I touched on this here:

    And it all comes from a brilliant New Yorker article about David Eagleman, who not only studied how we experience time, but also wrote a book about it himself that's on my wish list.

    I bet you'd like it. Here's the link: