Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Time's face

The Depiction of Time

Psychologists have been more concerned with estimations of time than with its depiction. Humans are poor timekeepers. Living on a fast rotating, slightly tilted planet our ancestors had no need to count the hours. Diurnal variation did the job nicely. Dawn to dusk, our nearby star guided us with dependable regularity. Carving daylight into measured segments made no sense. The question of time was answered by the sun’s position in the sky, and the night was for sleeping.

Calculating planting seasons away from the equator was more difficult, but just counting the days was enough for a first approximation, and the moon gave monthly help, though its cycle was not exactly in step with the solar estimates. Calendars became necessary, and intellectual elites grew up to do the calculations. Eventually it became necessary to measure the passage of time more precisely, even if only because the eternal panoply of the stars seemed to spin round at night, and it began to be important to time sightings of planets.

The whole history of timekeeping is fascinating, if only for its intellectual challenges. The devices were clunky: water filling cups, candles burning down, sand falling through the narrow aperture of an hour glass. Not till Christiaan Huygens invented it in 1656 did the pendulum bring its harmonic oscillating order to chronometry, and held supreme until the 1930s. Not a bad run for one man’s mechanical device, though Galileo had done the conceptual groundwork in 1637. In 1927 the oscillations of quartz provided the Holy Grail: no-one has needed better day to day precision ever since.

Once time could be measured down to fractions of a second it became very apparent that humans did not think like stopwatches. Filled “engaged” time passes quickly, dull “empty” time slowly, terrified time not at all. Time stands still when we are about to die. Even aside from threats of imminent death, patients recounting their traumas in an unlimited therapy session in a quiet and peaceful consulting room (in which a whole afternoon and evening are set aside for them) totally lose track of time, and will often estimate that the 4 or 5 hour session took about an hour, or an hour and a half.  Anyway, Einstein’s comment to his secretary Helen Dukas as to how she should answer lay enquiries about the meaning of relativity catches the main findings perfectly: “An hour with a pretty girl on park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on hot stove seems like an hour”.

This is not to say that we completely lack any internal clock. Left in a dark cave away from all zeitgebers (external cues to the time of day) human rhythms follow a 25 hour cycle.  It is not clear why we are one hour too generous, but it seems that rough approximations are good enough.

A consequence of the pendulum controlled, rotating drive shaft was that time was depicted as a dial, a clock face with equal segments, noon at the top, where the sun should be, but absurdly telling only half the story, since in this configuration the clock must rotate twice every day. We have gained precision, but 12 hour dial time has lost us our connection with real time. Clocks have become a device for dark places, the anonymous non-world, windowless airport rooms. We have become coordinated with each other, and not with the heavens.

Some pioneers have moved Into this conceptual gap, making 24 hour wristwatches. For example, Bjorn Kartomten’s solar lunar timepieces, in a weighty chunk of a chronometer, reveal daylight and night, and moon rise and set and phase, for every point on the planet.  Emerald Sequoia invent imaginary timepiece apps, many of astronomical time, providing grand complication watches for fractional cost, though on iPhones and not yet wearable on a wrist. Perhaps as all these new watches gain popularity we will stop living by the fast, insistent, atomic clock coordinated seconds hand, and ignore even the insolent minute hand, but glance every now and then at the single hour hand that rotates slowly through light and shade and connects us again to the sun and moon, from whence time began.

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