A Few Thoughts On Time

Time is a very interesting concept. It has captured the attention of some of the greatest minds in history. Imagine for a moment you live in the ancient world. Today we have formal think-tanks where smart people combine their perspectives and effort to analyze and solve large problems in society. In the ancient world formal think tanks did not exist, but those with aptitude and opportunity found themselves working to improve society and tackle its largest problems.

One of those problems was the measurement of time. And one of their solutions was the water clock.

Water clock technology has been found in Egypt, Babylon, India, China, Persia, Greece/Rome, Medieval Europe & Islamic world and Korea. That’s a huge stretch of history and a huge stretch of the world. Behind each of the archaeological artifacts are a body of great thinkers and engineers.

One might think that at some point we stopped thinking about time. Surely the great minds of our era have moved on from a subject that is so well trodden. You would be wrong. Time is still a hot topic.

Today we talk about time in different terms, but it’s still a subject occupying the best minds of our generation. Some of those who’ve recently addressed the concept of time were those who created the GPS system. A large number of our devices today use that system to share their perceived time with us.

Arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th and into the 21st century was Stephen Hawking. Stephen addressed many subjects during the course of his lifetime, one of them was the study of time. His book A Brief History of Time uses time as its theme to introduce the readers to concepts that span the breadth and history of the universe.

Countless

I reviewed and wrote a lot of annual performance reviews over the years. One of the formulaic things I’d see is the classic so and so spent countless hours doing something to improve the organization. This automatically triggered a re-write by anyone who put this on my desk. Didn’t matter how late it might have been. The word countless triggered a do-over.

Why?

There’s no such thing as countless hours. Every hour of every day can be counted. Now we don’t always track our time using an app to see how much time we’ve spent on any particular thing. That would be silly. But we can calculate via estimates in retrospect. When Steve Carell’s longstanding figure in The Office leaves the show they sing a song based upon how much time he spent working there. 9,986,000 Minutes. They didn’t start counting the day he got there. They estimated based upon his tenure of service.

You’re not here for a countless amount of time on the earth. Your time is finite and at a minimum I can estimate any part of it. Countless is laziness when it comes to time.

An Incoherent System

Our system for understanding time is virtually incoherent. Why? Because it has so much history. We happen to use 60 as a base for minutes, hours and seconds. 60 is a nice round number. The ancient mathematicians weren’t constraint to think of numbers in 1-10. They didn’t think in base-10. Numbers were more abstract. 60 is a wonderful number in the abstract and physical world.

60 is evenly divisible by 1,2,3,4,5,6. Divide 60 by 2 and you have 30 minutes or a half hour. Divide it by 4 and you have 15 minutes or a quarter hour. We still use these terms today. Typically though, we don’t talk about 60 as being divisible by 3. At 41 years old I don’t remember anyone ever talking about a third of an hour–but it is entirely possible we will someday. Or it’s extremely possible I will just to see the reactions of others.

60 is good when you’re talking about time in one place and for a localized group of people. 60 doesn’t work so good when you start expanding it outward. When we do, we go from 60 minutes to 24 hours. 60 and 24 may share base numbers (1,2,3,4), but it also adds to the confusion.

Once we have the hours of the day we need a system to track days. Could anything be more weird than our current calendar? Sure, it works. But it’s so complex. February and March match as long as it’s not a leap year. 30 days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, except for Grandma. She likes pizza.

For most people that poem ends differently. In our house it ended with Grandma and pizza.

I could just imagine the ancients. Getting all the people to adopt 60 minutes/seconds must have been a huge win. Getting people to adopt the months was something that was forced on society by various governments over time. We still have some of their smear campaigns about the calendar as modern day traditions–April fools anyone?

Then someone invented time zones. It was a great idea, but we’ve seriously outgrown it. We don’t need the sunrise to match 6 am. In fact we don’t even need it to be close.

The Great Denominator

Regardless of the system or how perfect or imperfect it is we use time is still one of the great denominators. It is half of our true existence. Because of this it’s no wonder that so much attention has been spent on it throughout the course of history.

The most brilliant modern and ancient minds have looked at this subject since man became. Any discussion on time today is well-trod soil. As is the conversation on the next great denominator… Liberty.

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