I was in my Austin Healy Sprite when she ran the stop sign and t-boned me. My car slowly slid counter-clockwise. I was transfixed as the crack in my windshield gradually grew into a spider web of fractured glass. It all happened in slow motion. “Now” seemed to last forever. It was over 50 years ago and I remember it as if it were yesterday. Time slowed down. Or did it?
What is time? We talk about it all the… um, all the time. Time is, in fact, the most commonly used noun in the English language. It’s either on our side or not. We find time, we lose it; sometimes we don’t have any at all. We save it, waste it, spend it.
How, though, do we measure time? How long does “now” last? Does time exist in the mind alone? Or is it real, physical? Does it pass more quickly as we age, or does it simply appear to? These are a just some of the questions Alan Burdick explores in his interesting, often entertaining and occasionally mind-numbing book, Why Time Flies.
Time, which didn’t even exist until the universe began about 14 million years ago, was measured for eons from one sunrise to the next. Fortunately, pretty darned accurate clocks tick inside us and helped keep us on track. Gradually, though, we needed to break those sunrise-to-sunrise days into more manageable units: hours, minutes and seconds.
As technology advanced, time management became increasingly important. In 1862 there were nearly 100 time zones in the United States alone and more, or none, in the rest of the world. Imagine the chaos. In 1883 the government officially reduced our nation’s time zones from dozens to four. Today, knowing the current time is critical to our way of life. Satellites give us readings that allow our clocks, watches, computers, iPhones and countless other devices to coordinate with each other.
Why Time Flies explores almost every facet of and question about time that you can imagine. Does time literally and measurably move more slowly or quickly in different places? The answer is yes. Do we perceive events around us in “real time?” Not always.
I awaken every single work-day morning at 5:30 without an alarm clock How does that work? What happens to your built-in circadian clock in a land of constant light? Or for months at a time in a dark cave? Does your clock function differently, or even at all, when you fly across time zones, work the night shift, fly to Mars?
All complex behaviors involve time. Our brain responds to some of these complex behaviors and structures in surprising ways. You hit a fly ball. The sight of the bat hitting the ball travels quickly to your brain. But the tactile feel of the bat making contact travels more slowly. The brain receives the two messages separately. Yet you perceive both happening simultaneously. Your brain stores the light until it can process the tactile response and feeds you both at once. The difference is slight, but measurable and meaningful. Time isn’t all it seems to be.
We have ears that allow us to hear, eyes with which to see; we have organs for tasting, smelling, and touching. But there is no receptor, no organ, for experiencing time. That’s what makes this book so interesting and thought provoking.
I encourage you to read Why Time Flies. You’ll never think about time the same way again, guaranteed. And remember: time does seem to crawl when you’re bored, it flies when you’re having fun. So find one thing to do this very day that makes time fly for you.