Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2018 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's About Time

          We here in the United States shifted to Daylight Savings Time last month.  If you aren't familiar with this ritual, what occurs is that every spring we move the clocks ahead an hour, and every fall, we move them back.  I think the idea is that if you have more light in the evening, and nice summer weather to go with it, then you'll go out more, and spend more money.  That does seem to drive pretty much everything, but that isn't what this particular post is about (but excuse me a minute while I write that in my "upcoming subject" book).  Rather, having observed twice a year for my whole life the havoc this seemingly innocuous change wreaks on my body, I've decided to examine the whole concept of time, and how we perceive it.
          Time is what it is, however, measurement of its passage is a uniquely human product.  For millions of years, all the proto-humans wandering the veldts and forests had to know about time was how to estimate how long it was until dark.  Obviously, it was paramount to their survival to be back in the cave with their homie-nids before the nocturnal predators came out to hunt.  Ten thousand years ago, give or take a millennium, we began to indulge in agriculture, and from that point on, we began to change how time worked to suit our needs.  A glance at the sky would no longer suffice; now we had to know when to plant and reap, and all the other things a farmer has to do that are driven by season rather than hour.  Methods of determining solstice and equinox came into being, great annual clocks were constructed, along the lines of Stonehenge, and rituals perfected to make sure nothing went wrong, and to give thanks when it didn't.  Rituals create a class of specialists whose contribution is keeping that knowledge, and hitherto unknown classes of artisans, priests and historians among them, come into being.  All because of our need to measure time in a new way.
          The classical civilizations knew the sundial, the hourglass has long been in use, but along about the middle of the second millennium, the mechanical clock is invented.  Are we back to counting hours again?  Almost literally, as the earliest clocks only had an hour hand.  They gave their owners a general idea of what point the day had reached, which was handy for a farmer when it was overcast (Two hours of daylight left.  Better start cleaning up.), shopkeepers meeting to conduct business, priests needing to conduct rituals at the right time of day, etc.  Not long into it, the minute hand was added, which was a prestige item for a clockowner, sort of the sixteenth century equivalent of the latest and greatest i-phone app.
          It became the custom for a town to have a clock, often on a bell tower in the town square, which became the standard for all the town's business to run by.  Your town set its clock to noon when the sun was straight up (hence the expression, used to this day, "straight-up noon"), and it was normal practice for the town over the next hill to keep a time that was ten or twelve minutes different from yours.
          Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century came a development that changed the fundamental way we look at time forever.  If you have ever arrived at work to be greeted by a boss snarling, "You're thirty seconds late, you deadbeat!  I'm docking you an hour's pay!" thank the railroads.  See, when you're trying to coordinate the movement of cargo and passengers across the length and breadth of a good sized country, or even a continent, "about noon" no longer cuts it.  Once the railroads grew from playthings for the wealthy to the engines that moved the commerce of nations, they needed to know what time it was in every town they serviced, and governments responded with the time zones we know today.  That one word, "railroads," is the explanation for why it is always exactly one hour later in Tallahassee, Florida than it is in Chicago, Illinois.  It also explains why there are places where you can walk across a street and find that you need to reset your watch.  Not a perfect system, but one that has served us well for two hundred years.
          Okay, before I address the impact of the chaotic human mind on all this mathematical precision, I offer this disclaimer:  I am not a mathematician, a theoretical physicist, or any other sort of scientist who thinks so far ahead of Joe Everyman that he can't really communicate on his level.  I am Joe Everyman, an ordinary guy with a blog who likes to think outside the box.  I watch Nova and Discover, and, prodded by shows I see there, enjoy following the paths that they start me along; I enjoy exploration, and the best frontiers are inside your head, so come along, and let's see if we can clear some brush...
          You have heard, I'm sure, the expression, "Time flies when you're having fun," and you know it to be true.  Conversely, try hand-weeding a five acre lot, or counting the BBs in a 55 gallon drum, and see what time does.  The monks of ancient China recognized this, and learned to reach into their inner chi to make time do what they needed.  I have followed a Chinese religious philosophy all my adult life.  Being aware of the concept and the discipline, I have been able to produce this effect a couple of times.  It is amazing, but beyond that, it causes me to wonder about the "solidity" of this thing we call "time."

The Time Machine
          We have all heard and used the expression, the "flow" of time.  This is used and understood universally, and I can't help but wonder what intuitive knowledge we all tap into to find our way to this term.  "Flow" is what a river does.  A river is a dynamic, fluid liquid in which items can change their position, the speed with which they follow the current, and their position relative to other objects.  We can't reposition ourselves in the stream of time, though... Or can we?  We have already seen how time seems to speed up and slow down depending on what we're doing (or more basically, how boring it is).  We have learned how trained religious aesthetics can make (or as they would put it, "allow") time to behave according to their needs of the moment.  In this age of space exploration, most of us are aware that when things travel close to the speed of light, time slows down for them.  A ship traveling for ten years near the speed of light might return to earth to find that a thousand years have passed, and nothing is familiar anymore.  A theoretical particle called the tachyon is said to only travel above the speed of light.  So, how big a leap is it from these facts to the willful control of time?
Back to the Future
          I'm thinking, pretty big.  Exhibit A:  Where are the tourists from the future, when time machines will be invented, if they ever are?  Of course, maybe their skill is that of remaining undetected.  A footnote:  I used to play a boardgame called Time Wars.  The premise of this game was that the great world-changing entities of history, from Jesus Christ to Lee Harvey Oswald, were agents of some far-future bureaus whose job was to travel back in time and change history so that the outcome was more favorable to their own society.  Each player in the game was the head of his nation's Bureau of Time Management.  Feasible?  Who knows?  If it was going on right now, how would we know?  Right now, we know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who as a consequence, was not around to influence post-Civil War reconstruction.  But what if that had just been done by a time-traveling agent?  If up until five minutes ago we had lived in a world where Lincoln had survived to a ripe old age, and then history had been changed by a time agent, would we know it, or would we have memories of Lincoln's assassination that we had learned from second grade?  More personally, what if you were a time traveler?  What if you went back in time and accidentally killed your own parents, maybe in a simple traffic accident, before you were actually born?  Since you now don't exist to come back and kill them, you will be born, at which time you will come back and kill them before you are born...
          This is the kind of stuff that can make your head hurt; this is the expedition worth taking.  See, the wolf lives by its teeth.  It constantly gnaws on bones and similar items to keep its teeth, the tools of its survival, sharp.  The cat makes its living with its claws.  You can't watch a cat for too long without seeing it reach up and sharpen its claws on whatever surface is handy.  Your survival tool is your big brain, and exploring the dark, overgrown pathways within is how you keep it sharp.  Your mind needs this sort of exercise, and if you don't consciously provide it, it will find its own way.  When the ancient Greeks spoke of Pegasus and the Hydra, these were to them real creatures that they reasonably expected that they might encounter at some point in their lives.  The Victorian Era was rife with ghosts and fairies.  People nowadays are known for seeing alien spacecraft, even being abducted by them for perverse medical experiments.  Look closer.  The Greeks lived in a land of mythology; the Victorians were exploring the world, inventing modern science, and trying to make sense of the diverse and often primitive cultures they were encountering; in modern times we are beginning the exploration of space.  All of these things are the minds of the people in those cultures trying to reach beyond the familiar, the comfortable, the mundane, and get some exercise.  Recreation is neither a luxury nor a waste of time; it is your brain trying to maintain its health; it's a good idea to let it off the leash once in a while.
          So, my conclusion?  It may be disappointing, but I don't have one.  Time travel has long been a staple of fiction.  The two odd devices pictured above are time machines from two movies separated by a generation.  There are many more less mainstream movies, and the subject is an entire branch of the SciFi family tree.  It has an appeal that rivals elves, dwarves, and fairies, and I don't claim to have any answers that are based in hard science; I enjoy it as much as the next guy, though, and invite you to join me here.  If you have views of your own, you want to start a thread, or pose a question for discussion, please, jump right in.  I've got plenty of time...

1 comment:

  1. That's one hell of a blog Jack! Now why don't you tell us now how you really feel? LOL!! Well Jack you were starting to make my head hurt for a minute but the concept of traveling back in time could be useful depending on hoe it is applied. Some ppl would travel back with a sports almanac and hand it over to a close family member so the riches could be passed on once they had made their millions in the gambling pools. Or some would travel back to prevent loved ones from getting killed but that one mean that the spouse would never remarry and have those 6 children that went on to invent the cell phone or find the cure for cancer. Yes we think that it would be a huge benefit to time travel but are we really aware of the aftermath? We might not even know what we are missing because of the changes.You save a life only to prevent one from being born wich will cure cancer and save millions. So now you are responsible for millions of deaths. Was that worth saving the one life?