Too Much Time Thinking about Time

Time. It’s a concept that we spend a lot of, well, time, thinking about – even when we aren’t.

Most of us have a routine, which is nothing more than an allocation of how we spend blocks of time. We sleep, eat, work, and relax at the same general time of day, week, or year. We plan celebrations around it, we schedule things based on a generally accepted notation of it’s passing. We measure everything we do by increments of time: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, lifetimes, eras, eons…

Yet time alludes us, constantly. And we’re fascinated by it. Books, movies, TV shows, even a small child’s imagination, use time travel as a plot twist or main theme often enough that the majority of us no longer consider time travel intrinsic to just science fiction. Countless songs have been written about time; it’s passing, what happened when, or how we would like to change it. Scientists are constantly trying to measure and quantify time more accurately, manipulate it, and simply understand it better.

Yet time still confounds us regularly.

We run out of it, yet it’s continually flowing.

We never have enough time, yet it’s everywhere we are, it’s always with us.

We can’t see it, smell it, or touch it, yet we regularly mark it’s passing. We use charts, graphs, and numbers to notate the invisible.

Time doesn’t pass in a consistent manner, some days last forever, some are over before we even realize we’ve never brushed our teeth and are still in our pajamas. We reach milestones in our lives before we think it’s possible, yet other events seem to take much longer to happen.

We’re continually aging, yet we only notice after long stretches of time has passed. Old age seems to far off to notice when we’re young; and when we are older, our younger days feel like they just happened.

And the really odd thing, to me, it that humans aren’t the only creatures who pay attention to time. Plants know when it’s the right time to sprout, bloom, grow or be dormant. Wild animals know when to hibernate, migrate, hunt, sleep, reproduce. Domesticated animals know when it’s time to eat, when the caretakers leave/arrive, when to sleep, and when to play or head out to pasture.

Sure, some of that is instinct or nature, but when it happens over and over again, like the daffodils blooming every Spring, you have to admit, there’s a certain rhythm, a certain timing to it. Same with migration patterns. Sure, we can tell the weather is changing, and I’m sure creatures have an even more innate ability to sense the changing of the seasons. But again, there’s a certain timing to it; they know when to move, and when is a time based word.

It’s easy to understand how the idea of time came to be. The earliest humanoids probably noticed the difference between day and night. That’s easy, one is dark, and one isn’t. Habits and routines probably developed around this – it’s easier to hunt, cook, make tools, see berries are ripe, and perform tasks, when you can see. Every creature needs rest, and it’s easier to sleep when it’s dark and you can’t see very well. From there it doesn’t seem to be to far of a leap to “We’ll move to the river in 3 sleeps. Start gathering the berries.”

Then they may have started to notice that some sleeps were darker than others. And that the animals travel at the same time the weather changes, and that when the weather changes, it doesn’t stay that way, but changes back again. One can see how early humanoids would start to note these changes, and eventually move them from chance to regular occurrences – even if they couldn’t explain the why behind the occurrences.

From there however, we’ve made quite the jump. We can now measure time down to the nanosecond. We mark not just the passing of days, but we’ve grouped them into larger blocks of time, weeks, months, years…

And as mentioned time and time travel is one of the fundamental themes of science fiction. Lately, I’ve been wondering how one would tell time when NOT on Earth; and what sort of confusion this might cause. Are we going to need to create a set of “universal” time designations? Seconds, minutes, hours – they seem like they should be standard, but are they? What about years? Months? Weeks? Days?

Our months and years – even our chronological age – are all determined by the number of times the Earth rotates around the closest star, the Sun. With space travel looming in the near future, will we need to start using “Earth Years” as an actual measurement? How will colonists on Mars designate their age? Does it even matter? Will we start measuring time by some other factor, like how fast, or slow, the Sun, rotates around it’s axis or orbits the Milky Way?

I’m not really sure it matters, this idea of “Earth Years” and how we will measure time in the future. But I’ve been watching, and reading, a lot of space travel, other world, and time hopping fiction lately. And the concept of measuring ones age, or how one would measure time when not on Earth, keeps swirling around in my brain – not unlike the orbit of a planet; drifting far away from the center of my thoughts, then slowly returning and moving closer as I pay attention for a bit, until it begins to orbit away from my thoughts again.

Will we end up measuring time in some generic form, some odd not yet describable unit based on something currently unfamiliar? Will we have to recalibrate the way we track events? Will we have to reformat how we explain history? Will we make up new words or re purpose old ones; “The building stood for hundreds of SRUs (Sol Revolution Units.)”

And then there’s the question of human physiology. We sleep when it’s dark. Some of us cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder every Winter due to lack of sunlight. Our bodies are mostly tuned to function in a 24 hour day. What happens when a day has 32 hours? Or 15? Or when we’re somewhere with 2 stars illuminating the habitable planet? Would we adapt? Or are we destined to remain in our Solar System simply because we can’t function in the timeless place of space?

I don’t honestly see any of this being a problem anytime soon. But it is something I think about way more often then I should – often at 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon when I should be getting things done around the house, but instead am on the sofa with an eighty-five pound lump of fuzzy dog laying across my lap; or just after finishing the last episode of some sci-fi space travel show. Sometimes the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

And don’t get me started on time travel and the butterfly effect… maybe I’ll save that for another day, after all, I can loose a lot of time, and sleep, wondering about that. And we all know, you can’t get lost time back.