The Puzzle of Time

By S.K.Ram

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have debated on the nature of time for centuries. St Augustin, famous ancient philosopher and theologian, made the following comments about time in the 5th Century – ‘What is time? If no one asks me I know but if I have to explain it, I know not.’

Since his appearance on our planet, the human race has been fascinated by natural phenomena related to astronomical events. The history of time started with the creation of Universe some 13.7 billion years ago and is not independent of space; Stephen Hawking, eminent astrophysicist, postulated that time is combined with space to form an object which he called ‘space-time’. The notion of time was probably first experienced by our ancestors – Homo sapiens. Was it a figment of their fertile imagination?

The intelligent man who possesses a highly developed brain has never stopped his quest for knowledge. His inquisitiveness has led him to find many answers to the riddles of nature.

The movement of the celestial bodies and their influence on mankind have been a current theme for thought by philosophers and scientists of past and present. The sun, main star of our galaxy, has been an object of veneration by all ancient civilisations due to its crucial influence on our planet. Its rising at a specific time heralds the beginning of the day which characterises a period of activity of the majority of living organisms. The setting of the sun announces the onset of the evening and the beginning of the night, the time for the recovery of our strength after energy expended during the day. This cyclic pattern has been followed since time immemorial.

The moon must have been an object of great curiosity to primitive societies by its mysterious appearance and disappearance. Its different phases at specific periods causing moonlit and dark nights must have puzzled them and has been the origin of the lunar calendar. Man has always relied on his exceptional intelligence to further develop his natural skills. At a stage when there were no time measuring instruments, primitive man observed and memorised the occurrence of different natural phenomena and the periodic movement of planets. Agricultural tribes associated the sowing of seeds and harvesting of crops with weather changes which determine the seasons. They designed solar and lunar calendars to memorise the succession of days, months and years. The poetic description of these astronomical events and their relation to pleasant or tragic experiences could have been the origin of festivals, myths, traditions and religious activities, some of which have survived from earlier times.

A period of time can be expressed in years and is related to the rotation of the earth around the sun as demonstrated by Galileo in the 17th century. A day is a period of 24 hours, the time it takes for the earth to make one revolution on its axis. This explains the illusion of the rising of the sun in the East and its setting in the West. The smallest unit of time commonly used is the second which can be further split for more accurate measurements.

Man’s fascination with time has led him to invent time-keeping devices. Sundials, sandglasses and water clocks were the first time pieces invented. A rudimentary mechanical clock was invented by the Chinese in the 11th century. Digital evolution brought further technical advances in recording time.

Time has become a crucial factor in the functioning of modern society. It is omnipresent and pervasive. Our daily activities are controlled by clocks and watches. Time is money as far as financial transactions are concerned. Astrological charts are designed according to our time of birth. We have become modern slaves of time. The positive aspects of time are undeniably impressive and legendary. It promotes the healing of wounds and mends broken hearts. It is a healer ‘par excellence’. It mellows our attitude, forges friendship and enlightens our mind to forgive and erase unhappy memories. It has ordered the world. Without time, society would collapse. Order would devolve to chaos.

“There is an appointed time for everything and there is a time for every event under heaven.” This citation from the Old Testament conveys a realistic view of the influence of time on our lives.

Time is viewed differently by cultures and civilisations. In Hindu philosophy, time is described as cyclic. It has neither beginning nor end. It is a repeated cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth. Hindus consider that if harmony is broken between past, present and future, the continuity of life may be destroyed. The Greeks and Egyptians also believe in the circular nature of time which they defined as eternal, whereas the Christian concept of time is linked to the creation of the Universe. It is linear and moves irreversibly forward.

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have debated on the nature of time for centuries. St Augustin, famous ancient philosopher and theologian, made the following comments about time in the 5th Century – ‘What is time? If no one asks me I know but if I have to explain it, I know not’.

This is a revealing statement about the concept of time. It confirms its complex and mysterious nature. It does not form part of the tangible world but can only be experienced. It is a concept that combines mythology, theology, philosophy and science and is expressed according to a period in relation to the present. The past is the seed that was sown, the present is the growing tree and the future will be the fruits that it will bear. The omnipresence of time and its appreciation at different stages of life is illustrated in the following poem by Henry Twells:

For when I was a babe and wept and slept
Time crept.

When I was a boy and laugh and talked

Time Walked.

When the years saw me a man

Time ran.

But I as I grew older

Time flew.

Time can be wrongly appreciated by a person who is under influence of factors that may affect the functions of his brain such as medication, drugs or alcohol. The sense of time may also be impaired in some people with neurological disorders or brain degeneration due to senility.

Time has contributed to the evolution of human species. How is it going to save the destiny of Homo sapiens? Will his unequalled power of thought and his fruitful imagination be able to solve the riddle of time?

“Only time whatever that may be will tell,” says Stephen Hawking.


* Published in print edition on 15 June 2012

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