10 Things You Never Knew About Time

Suggested by SMS

It’s something that we all live it. It rules our schedules, dictating when we work, play, eat, and sleep. We think about it constantly, but it still sneaks up on us. What is this “it”? It’s time. And even though time is engrained into our daily lives, most of us probably don’t know too much about it beyond reading clocks and making itineraries. When you stop to think about the logistics of time, however, you begin to realize one thing: a lot of weird stuff goes into making up what we think of as a cold, hard fact. The following 10 facts are some of the strangest time tidbits out there.

10. Horology, the study of time devices


Yes, there is a specialty field devoted to timekeeping devices–it’s called horology. And, in fact, it’s very popular throughout the world. Horologists study everything from sundials to atomic clocks. Actually, anyone interested in time devices can be called horologists, so the field includes people like watchmakers and collectors in addition to scholars of ancient time measuring techniques. Horology is often thought of as a very intellectual field of study. In fact, horology museums and libraries devoted to timekeeping devices, especially clocks, are common the world over.
There are also many horological societies around the globe, most of which boast large memberships. A few of the biggest groups include the Antiquarian Horological Society in the United Kingdom and The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, an American organization. Maybe you’re an horologist too. If you have a big watch collection or are just really interested in time keeping, you qualify.

9. Some Philosophers Consider Time to be Unreal


Throughout history, there have always been a few outlying thinkers who decide that time doesn’t exist. They’ve said that time is a measure invented by humans or an illusion of the brain. In general, philosophers who think that time is unreal recognize it as an object independent of the human mind; they tend to disregard the reality of anything not rooted in the mind, hence the belief that time is made up. “Unreal” time, then, is based more on an argument about what is real and what isn’t, rather than a discussion of time’s qualities.

The unreal argument all started with Antiphon, an ancient Greek teacher and philosopher. Antiphon declared that time and reality aren’t the same things; he said that time was a concept, not to be confused with the real world. Later, another Greek philosopher, Parmenides, said that time is just an illusion. The time-is-an-illusion idea caught on; later in history, some factions of Buddhist monks adopted the same theory in their philosophy.
The most famous of the time-is-unreal philosophers is probably Immanual Kant, who, in A Critique of Pure Reason argued that time is not a substance but an element of a systematic framework used to shape human experience. Some more modern Western philosophers adhered to the illusory time idea as well, but it mostly died out after the advent of modern physics.

8. Time Travel isn’t Just a Fictional Idea


H.G. Wells popularized traveling through time in his 1895 novel, The Time Machine. But although it is a common plot device in fiction, time travel may not be confined to the world of make believe. In fact, traveling in time is a hot topic for many physicists, and most agree that forward travel, at least, is theoretically possible. Einstein’s theory of relativity makes it seem very likely that we could travel forward in time if we could find a way to create a high enough velocity.

As far as traveling to the past goes, physicists are stumped. Some say the past time travel could be possible, but that direction is far more problematic. Theoretically, accelerating space faster than time would result in backward time travel, but philosophers aren’t sure if that would be possible. To travel backward in time would mean to violate the laws of cause and effect, and scientists don’t know if the laws of physics would allow it. The theory of time travel remains unproven. We just don’t know if we could move in time or not. But, for now at least, the possibility is still out there. The experience of time travel, however, is better left for fiction.

7. It’s all in our Perception


Most people think of time in terms of past, present, and future. But although this concept seems like an undeniable truth, it’s actually culturally related. The Hopi people of the American Southwest originally had no words for time as we know it. They thought of time as circular; in that view, there is no past or present because the circle of time has no end. As we move through life, we experience many ages, all of which repeat for other people as they go through their own lives.

Other cultures also subscribed to the circular time outlook, including the Mayans, ancient Hindi speakers, Buddhists, and the Incans. Interestingly, these cultural groups were some of the first to invent calendars. Could it be that they were onto something?

6. The Power of Cesium


Cesium is one of the most important elements in your day-to-day life, but you’ve probably never even heard of it beyond looking at its box on the periodic table. What’s so great about this element? It turns out that the unchanging transition period of a cesium atom is exactly equivalent to one second. Since 1997, cesium has been the standard for measuring time. Unlike solar or lunar-based measurements, cesium seconds don’t change with latitude or altitude. So nowadays, the official time all around the world is measured according to cesium atoms. Who knew that this little element was responsible for so much?

5. Saeculum


We’re all familiar with standard time measurements like minutes, hours, days, years, etc. But you’ve probably never heard of some of the less common time measure words. Some time words, like fortnight, have just fallen out of use. Others have always been obsure. For example, “saeculum” denotes a length of time in which the population of a given place is renewed. If a big event were to happen in a country, one saeculum would have passed when everyone alive for that event had died. To put it in context, we’re almost near the end of the 19th century saeculum. Soon, no one alive in the 1800s will still be living. Saeculum was first used by the Etruscans and became popular in early Roman times, but it’s not used often it’s such a relative term.

Another time word you probably haven’t heard: shake. A shake is an informal measure word that’s equivalent to 10 nanoseconds, and unless you work in physics, you likely have no need for this term. You probably don’t use “jiffy” very often in a precise context either. For most people, jiffy just means fast. But the term does have specific meanings too. In physics, jiffy is defined at the time it takes for light to travel one Fermi, or about 3×10-29.

4. Daylight Saving Time doesn’t Really Save


In the map above, the blue areas use Daylight Saving Time, the orange areas no longer use it, and the red areas never used it.

Although it was developed to save energy on incandescent lighting, daylight saving time doesn’t really do much in terms of conserving electricity. In fact, some studies show that DST causes greater energy consumption. The idea behind DST is that adjusting time to take advantage of daylight hours would reduce the need for residential lighting in the evenings. But as it turns out, most homes’ lighting use doesn’t depend on the sun. And since the onset of more modern lighting technology, DST’s theories no longer apply very well. Daylight saving time does do some good, however. Some studies have shown a decreased number of car accidents during savings months. And retail stores generally fare better with more afternoon daylight too.
If daylight savings doesn’t save us energy, why, then, do we still use it? The practice remains controversial, and there really is no clear reason why it’s still in place. Most likely, countries continue to use DST because people are used to it. Also, many people prefer the light schedule associated with DST, even though it’s somewhat inconvenient to switch clocks. Still, some countries have switched from using saving time. And within, countries, time usage will vary from place to place. For example, in the United States, Arizona does not use DST, although all other states do. The same is true for Manitoba in Canada; although most other provinces use Daylight Saving Time, Manitoba, the central province, does not. All the variation around the world can be extremely confusing, especially for people travelling from place to place on a quick vacation.

3. Time is Old, but Clock Technology isn’t


The concept of time dates back as far as recorded history, probably longer. But measuring time is a newer invention. Sundials and water clocks were the first measuring devices, but both of these were inaccurate. Mechanical clocks made their debut in Europe in the Middle Ages; many of these transferred technology from water clocks onto the new weight-based design. Clock making boomed in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries as clocks were built into buildings in many cities. Most of these clocks only used an hour hand, and many of them told time according to ecclesiastical needs. Not until the pendulum was invented in 1656 were clocks close to accurate.

2. It’s Five Minutes to Midnight on the Doomsday Clock


The “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” Since its inception, the Doomsday Clock has been on the cover of every issue.

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphorical measure of time that estimates how close humanity is to self destruction, represented by midnight. The Clock was first set in 1947, and it is maintained to this day by the board of directors under the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. Originally, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight and represented the threat of nuclear war. Nowadays, however, the Doomsday Clock is directed at the possibility of self destruction by global climate change. The clock is adjusted every so often to reflect the changing times; the last change took place on January 17, 2007.

The current position of five minutes to midnight seems catastrophic, but it’s actually not as close to destruction as the clock one read. During the height of the Cold War, from 1953 to 1960, the clock was set at two minutes to midnight. The farthest it ever was from midnight was 17 minutes from 1991 to 1995, when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Agreement ending the Cold War.

1. Time is Different Everywhere you go


People notate time differently all around the world. And, although we follow a standard time for world business, the time in a country is variable. It doesn’t really equate to solar time, especially during daylight saving time. Time zones were created to tell time according to each area’s own “noon,” or time when the sun is highest. But due to political boundaries and DST, the sun isn’t always at its peak when the clock reads noon. Some places keep their clocks as much as three-and-a-half hours ahead or behind solar time!
Alaska is a particularly good example of a place where solar time and clock time never match. Alaska is a huge state, spanning more than one idealized time zone. But to keep time uniform there, the U.S. decided to have the whole state follow “Alaska Time.” In Nome, Alaska, a very Western city in the state, is more than three hours ahead of the sun in the summer time. The same is true in China. All of the massive country follows the same time zone, so the solar noon can occur as late as 3 p.m. in some Eastern areas.