WHEN THE NOON SIREN went off on Tuesday, I was inspired to look at the ways in which we measure time, and I went on to write several pages on the subject. I’m taking another online writing course, Blueprint Your Book, led by Minal Hajratwala; and again, I am overwhelmed by how much I am learning already (and how far behind I already feel).
The first week was all about Time. You know I love writing about time. Week 2, which we’re just wrapping up, is about Place. I’d love to share some of what I’m learning with you, but rather than go back to last week’s lessons and risk playing catch-up for the duration, I’ll kill two birds with one stone and focus here on the connections I drew between time and place or space. There’s a lot to say, so I’ll split it into two posts.
Looking back at what I’d written Tuesday, I could see that the two dimensions are intertwined in many ways. It’s so interesting to me how much our measuring of time depends on space, the amount of distance traveled or space taken up (as with the sand in an hourglass, for example) being a measurement of the time that has passed.
All of our most basic markers of time—days, months, years—are based on the movement of our planet in relation to the sun and moon, and everything else derives from that: the ¼-year seasons; the smaller bits—hours, minutes, and seconds—all easily divisible (no prime numbers here); and the larger ones—decades, centuries, millennia—all multiples of 10. Only the week is somewhat arbitrary—why 7 days? (Our friends at Wikipedia have a lot to say about this. Who knew the Soviet Union dispensed with the 7-day week for a while last century?)
Most of us have a hard time imagining the distance our planet travels through space in its orbit around the sun; we can more easily measure the angle of the sun as it traces its arc across the sky, how slowly or quickly it climbs and descends depending on our place on the planet and the time of year, how the moon looks different to us over the course of a month. One can say that Earth is not the center of the universe, but it really depends on your point of view.
(Which reminds me, once on Jeopardy! they asked whether the planets rotated around the sun in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Think about it. Totally bogus question.)
So, time is distance covered. As the length of shadows approaches infinity, night falls. When my train arrives at the station, or I get off my bike, or I finish walking from one room to the other, I know that a certain amount of time has passed that corresponds to the distance (and speed) traveled. Distance ÷ Speed = Time. Speed × Time = Distance.
When we read a watch or a clock (the old kind, not the digital ones), we tell time by measuring the distance the hands have moved. I know it takes a cigarette 7 minutes to burn. You can use a cigarette as a clock. I recommend you use a stick of incense instead. Same principle.
Have you ever stared at a clock for a long time? I have. We’ve all experienced time speeding up and slowing down. Like all things, time is a function of our mind. The hands on the clock speed up and slow down; hours and days go by for everyone at once, yes, but we all experience the time differently.
There is probably a lot I could say right now about the space-time continuum, but I won’t. It’s an absolutely fascinating topic that I, quite frankly, have a hard time wrapping my head around; but I encourage you to figure it out and report back to me.
The flow of time: We measure waterfalls by how much water flows over them per unit of time. We can know ahead of time when the flooding river will crest in much the same way we measure the time it takes for something, anything (a piece of wood or spilled radioactive waste or ourself in an inner tube or the water itself) to move a set distance down a river; for a message in a bottle or a dead body to wash up on the shore; for glass—which I was recently told is technically a liquid—to move in a windowpane.
Nature is full of examples of how time can be measured spatially. We can track it by the growth of grass (as one of my classmates said so poetically last week) and the height of crops, which will also tell us something about the season; by measuring the size of giant trees, or by cutting them down and counting the rings. We know how far away a storm is by the delay between, as Bob Seger would say, the time we felt the lightning and waited on the thunder.
There are a million other examples of how distance or space measures time—I’d love to hear your favorites! I’ll continue this post in a couple of days with examples that turn to some of my own personal areas of special interest: the body, records, writing, maps, travel, dating, and love. See you there…or then…or…