The Equation of Time



Since my birth in 1942, I have travelled through a lot of time. To be exact, 26,665 days. That’s around 640,000 hours. (From here on figures get pretty big). That’s almost 39 and a half million minutes, or 2 and a quarter billion seconds. (Well, you get the idea). So, seventy-three years have rushed by since then, and, to be honest, it all seems to have gone in a proverbial twinkling of an eye.

The problem is that time has no real measure.

An American friend, a retired astrophysicist, pointed this out to me when we were discussing a sundial project on which we were collaborating. “Clock time,” he said, “is an invention we’ve made for practical purposes”. Clock time is exact – isn’t it? It ticks away at a regular rate, doesn’t it?

Be that as it may, it’s still necessary to remind ourselves by constant reference to timepieces. We look at a watch or the screen of our mobile phone many times every day, because its interminable passing is not experienced – not perceived – in any real sense. “Is that the time?” you may ask, surprised at how it has passed without your realising it.

Confident though we may be in its regularity, our measurement of it has not always been so. I well remember my grandmother opening the clock case and switching on the BBC Home Service on the radio to hear Big Ben strike 10 o’clock every night. Her clock, like all others before digital and atomic timekeeping, was several minutes slow (or fast – I forget which), and had to be corrected daily, by reference to a more reliable timepiece. Yet, the plain fact is that even Big Ben runs less accurately with the changing temperatures of seasons, and even today its pendulum requires weights to be added or removed (with old pre-decimal pennies!) in order to regulate it.

Who said clock time was exact?

On the 24 February 1582, history records that Pope Gregory XIII ordered by Papal Bull that the old Julian Calendar be abandoned in favour of the revised so-called Gregorian Calendar, a refinement that was a 0.002% correction in the length of the year based on the old system. In broad terms, it resulted in the introduction of the leap year – without that adjustment, the old system of marking the passage of time would, by today, have been 14 days adrift.

This week, my first ever girl friend contacted me through social media. She was the first girl I ever kissed, so how could I forget her? We were reminded that I was just 16 and it had been 57 years since we’d billed and cooed outside her front door. Time flies – time marches on – tempus fugit, and all that. In a week’s time, my eldest granddaughter will be 18 years of age; she’s a grown woman. Where have the years gone since I held her cupped as a new-born in the palm of one hand? I look in the shaving mirror and my grandfather looks back at me, or would, were it not for the fact that he died at 49 years of age, and I would be his senior by 24 years!

Time is crazy.

There once was an age when people made their appointments at dawn, or sunset and when gunfights were fought out at high noon. These times were judged by the position of the sun, and this was often reflected in the wide-spread of sundials throughout the western world. The passage of seasons would be marked by simple observable events, like the appearance of daffodils, or the falling of leaves. People woke up to the crowing of a cock or the song of a blackbird – these were sufficiently accurate measures for all practical purposes.

Now we have digital time. It may be accurate to the nearest millisecond. But human perception is as it always was. Fugitive, subjective and idiosyncratic.

Personally, I assert that time has passed far more quickly for me than it should have done. I still have an 18 year old boy, alive and well inside my head. (He has a full head of hair and a six-pack). No … it is only the inevitable recurrence of birthdays, which my friends and family insist on my celebrating, and the face of an old man peering back through the shaving mirror, that tell me that I really have travelled through time. In that sense, I suppose we are all time travellers.

See my novel on Time Interventions.

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