Headlines Menagerie

Horology, relativity, and you

Continuum: a continuous extent, succession or whole, no part of which can be distinguished from adjacent parts.  One such phenomenon that constitutes a continuum: the curious, ambiguous matter of time.

Since the dawn of their race, human beings have sought to study the measurement of time.  The fascination began as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago with the Ancient Egyptians, long before the first time-measuring tool was even created.  These Egyptians observed the sun’s more or less reliable movement, before eventually utilizing what could be considered as that era’s cutting-edge technology – obelisks and sundials – to measure time passing.  The first sundials were divided into 10 parts with two twilight hours, akin to the 12-hour clock face we have today.

Despite its stance being the first timekeeper, the sun was not the only heavenly body used to measure time: stars were also studied as a means of keeping time when the moon was out.  The first astronomical tool, the merkhet, was used to mark a north-south line called a celestial meridian in the sky.  As certain stars crossed it, this line was then used to measure time.

Moving on to more familiar devices later in history, we note its successor: the hourglass, a timepiece used for centuries.  Its mechanisms are similar to that of the clepsydra, otherwise known as a water clock, which was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Both worked by measuring a substance that moved from one container to another – for the clepsydra it was water, whereas for the hourglass it was sand.

Finally, there are our generation’s very own timekeepers: clocks.  First utilized in Europe in the 1300s, a system of weights and springs – these clocks had no hands or faces yet – were responsible for making a bell chime on the hour, marking each as it passed.  When the pendulum was created, then our familiar mechanical clock came to be what it is today.

But time has been measured through more than just days.  The calendar has been given just as much attention as any clock, and for good reason.  In the old days, and up until now, the calendar’s main purpose has been to reckon past and future, and to show how many days an event takes place.  Calendars were based on seasons or the moon, noting down certain events that were significant to the people living in specific areas.

Most of the oldest calendars were based on the lunar cycle, or the time interval from one moon to the next.  The Egyptian calendar was based on seasons, creating the notion that there are 365¼ days per year.  The leap-year, however, was established in the Roman era, when Julius Caesar based his calendar on the solar year.  Building up on this was the Gregorian calendar was established by Pope Gregory XIII, and is the calendar that most countries continue to use today, although other traditions, as in Islam and East Asian countries, maintain use of the lunar calendar to track the passing of years as a base point for other ceremonial events.

In light of all this, humans have always held a fascination with keeping time, but has anyone ever questioned why this is so?  What makes us want to measure time?  Is it merely a way for us to do things at certain intervals and to have a sense of order, or is it meant to satisfy a need for control?  Intrigued, The Menagerie took some time to look into the matter – and realized there’s more to time than meets the eye.

Off the top of our heads, we could probably name many reasons as to why we measure time.  We need it for planning, for one.  But there are also some reasons we don’t often think to consider.  In Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s book The Time Paradox, these two Stanford-based psychologists say that we actually measure time unconsciously to give order, coherence, and meaning to events.  We divide the flow of time into frames, or, in layman’s terms, moments.  These frames reflect either cyclical patterns like births, birthdays and deaths, or uniquely significant and personal linear events that don’t repeat.  This helps us encode, store and recall our experiences: it touches our memory, perception and imagination.  Beyond this, The Time Paradox discusses the importance of time as an economical asset, a relative concept, and, with a more personal touch, a new psychology.

Calendars and clocks remind us that time is a scarce resource: it can’t be reused once it’s past.  The more rare and usable a resource is, the more valuable it gets. Time, however, cannot be possessed like jewels or gold. The fact that time is always ticking factors in when making investments, as time factors in projections and computations as to the present and future values of money, rates of return, and other financial and economic information.  This also leads to the economic concept of opportunity cost, which refers to the benefits one gives up every time he or she makes a decision.  However, there is no way to know what benefits you give up because of time – and unlike money, there is no way not to spend time. This is why the popular saying, “time is gold,” makes a world of sense – except it’s even more precious.

We’ve created all sorts of ways to measure time; however, it is still relative.  While this is congruent to and based on Einstein’s theory of relativity – in a gist, the theory states that we all have our own ‘time’ – there is a concept of “psychological time” that nowadays has become just as significant as physical time: our perception of time is affected by our emotions, perspective and environment.  Psychological time explains why “time flies when you’re having fun”, why waiting in line seems to take forever, and why a three-hour exam can feel like three minutes under pressure.

Finally, the new psychology of time introduced by Zimbardo and Boyd in their book studies the tendencies of people to be past-, present-, or future-oriented, and how this affects their behavior.  Interestingly, it is said that future-oriented people become more successful professionally, yet less willing to devote their time to others.  Present-oriented people seem more eager to help others, while less able to help themselves.  As for past-oriented people, it all depends on the events that they dwell on, as every story plot we’ve read, seen or witnessed has established the past as a powerful motivator.

This is all noteworthy information, but the core reasoning behind time measurement and why it matters is this: our time matters.  As spoken by Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker, there is a general fear of the reality of death and a universal denial of our own end.  Zimbardo and Boyd capitalize on this and emphasize that if we keep denying death and live as though life is infinite, we can never fully appreciate time as more precious than gold, more personal than memories and more important than anything else we have.  Therefore, the measurement of time is more than a guide to events and occurrences – it acknowledges that time is short and answers a need that we as human beings have for living the most out of our lives.  After all, who wants to waste time?


The LaSallian

By The LaSallian

Belle Justiniani

By Belle Justiniani

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