7 Fun Things About Time

Time is a funny thing. It is one of the most important commodities we have, and has been so since the industrial age began (at the very least). Yet, somehow, it seems so malleable, fluid, ungraspable. And so, I wanted to share with you some fun aspects of time that intrigue me, in no particular order.

The Incan Empire

When you learn about history, it’s often broken up geographically, so it’s hard to really tie two areas together. Like, the Incan Empire. It’s often seen as an ancient civilization. I mean, look at Machu Picchu. It looks like it’s at least a thousand years old.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, Martin St-Amant – Wikipedia – CC-BY-SA-3.0

But it’s not. It was built around 1450, making it 560 or so years old. The Incan Empire is only a little bit older.

There’s another institution that was founded well before then that is still alive and healthy today.


Yup, Oxford University. Apparently, the foundation date of Oxford is lost in the mists of time, but they have been educating there since at least 1096. That’s almost 400 years older than the Incan Empire. Really puts the “ancient” Machu Picchu in perspective.

Time Passing Faster as You Get Older

Now that I’m in my thirties, I have been noticing that the years are seeming to go by faster and faster every year. It’s kind of fascinating to think about the brain working like that. After all, it’s not like the time is actually moving any faster for us here on the Earth’s surface. So why does time seem to fly by quicker and quicker every year?

There’s no certain answer yet, but the Scientific American Mind blog has a great post that summarizes the current theories:

  1. There are less memorable events day-to-day in some periods of your life rather than others, so those periods seem to have taken longer (like 4 years at college versus 4 years of your daily career)
  2. A year to a child seems longer because it is a much larger portion of that child’s life than a year is to someone in their 40’s
  3. Our biological clocks slow down as we get older
  4.  The passage of days gets less attention as you age. After all, we’re not all counting down the days till Christmas with nearly the level of attention that a 6 year old does.
  5. Stress makes time seem to be in short supply and we are more stressed as we get older. So, since we’re more stressed, there seems to be less time the older you get.

Time Capsules … IN SPACE!

I listened to an audiobook recently called Cryoburn, which involves a lot of cryogenic freezing. The book is great (it’s written by Lois McMaster Bujold and is part of her Vorkosigan Saga, if you’ve heard of it), but it got me curious about cryonic freezing. With current technology, people can be cryonically frozen in the hopes of being reanimated later, usually to cure whatever killed them in the first place. However, no one has figured out how to reanimate a full animal from cryonic sleep, let alone that we haven’t made major advances in curing the medical conditions that motivate someone to use cryonics in the first place.

It occurred to me that there’s another way to achieve the same objective, but requires only physics and engineering rather than insanely complex biology: relativistic space travel. One consequence of the law of Special Relativity formulated by Einstein is that time goes slower as your speed increases. It’s not really noticeable at slow speeds, but if you get up to like 80% the speed of light, time moves one-third slower (2 seconds pass for every 3 seconds on Earth). If you are at 90%, time moves at half-speed (1 second for every 2 seconds on Earth). And so on. If you can get fast enough, rather than freezing people, you could just throw them into a space ship, send it out for what would seem like a year on the ship and come back many, many years later, hopefully to a cure to what ails them. And no freezing!

Time as a Part of the Space-Time Continuum

Physics is, in a word, strange. As a species, we’re still working on our understanding of the universe, but one of our best theories on the nature of the universe is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. General Relativity has an interesting premise: space and time are two parts of the same thing. They are unified and inseparable. And every test we’ve thrown at this theory confirms it over and over again.

Created by User:Johnstone using a 3D CAD software package and an image of planet earth from NASA's Galileo spacecraft. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under General Relativity, the gravity of a planet warps space so that things fall toward it. But, because space and time are one and the same, the gravity of the planet also affects time the closer you get to it. The stronger the gravitational pull, the faster time goes. The gravity of black holes is so strong that, if you were falling into one and looked up away from the black hole, you could watch the entire life of the universe as time for you would have sped up so much.

Time Zones

Such an integral part of our lives as time zones would seem to be as old as the country itself. Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Nope, the United States did not have standardized time zones until March 19, 1918. That’s just eight months shy of the end of World War I and it hasn’t even been 100 years since then. These babies are practically brand new on the world stage.

Granted, railroads did have their own time zones set up as early as 1847 in England and the early 1870’s in the United States. But those weren’t standardized even among the railroads for long periods of time.

The Weirdness that is Daylight Savings Time

Ahhh, spring forward, fall back. I do hate losing that hour of sleep in the spring, but it sure is nice to have that extra hour of sleep in the fall.

Daylight Savings time shift

Daylight savings time started in the US at the same time standardized time zones did, in 1918. The initial justification for it is that it provides more daylight at the end of the day which benefits retailers and allows for more exercise outdoors, etc. Other justifications include increased energy savings, reduced car crashes, and health benefits. But almost every single one of these justifications is either debatable or offset by a myriad of other problems caused by daylight savings time, including adverse economic effects on farmers and several other industries, disruption to the lives of those who live by the sun, increased risk of heart attacks and decreased sleep.

The Timing of Communications

The time lag of communications has been a problem throughout history, really only starting to be overcome in the past hundred years or so with the development of radio, telephone and the internet. For all the lives of me, my parents and my grandparents, nearly instantaneous communication across the oceans has been rather accessible. But in the 1800’s, a message had to be sailed across the ocean, which could take a couple months. Heck, even in the US itself, a piece of mail might take several months to get from one side of the country to the other. This is an almost unthinkable amount of time delay in communications now.

Sometimes, the reverse situation is true, though. I keep thinking of an episode of Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, but I cannot remember which one, where he talks about an ancient invasion, most likely a barbarian invasion of Rome. Because of how difficult it was to move armies and how slow moving they could be, you could learn about an oncoming invasion well in advance of the army itself arriving. Imagine how paranoid and bad things could get in a city when you knew an army was coming for you, but might not arrive for months. That would be insane. Hell, it’s bad enough nowadays when people learn that a winter storm is coming.