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Posts Tagged ‘time

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”*…

There’s history… and then there’s deep history. C. Patrick Doncaster, a professor of ecology at Southampton University has created “Timeline of the human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” Starting with the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago) it marks significant events in Earth’s development, the evolution of life, and the development of human culture (science/technology, economics, politics, and art) all the way up to 2021.

It concludes with a trio of handy analogies…

Following the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, time passed two-thirds of the way to the present before the formation of the Sun 4.57 billion years ago. Rescaled to a calendar year, starting with the big bang at 00:00:00 on 1 January, the Sun forms on 1 September, the Earth on 2 September, earliest signs of life appear on 13 September, earliest true mammals on 26 December, and humans just 2 hours before year’s end. For a year that starts with the earliest true mammals, the dinosaurs go extinct on 17 August, earliest primates appear on 9 September, and humans at dawn of 25 December. For a year that starts with the earliest humans, our own species appears on 19 November, the first built constructions on 8 December, and agricultural farming begins at midday on 29 December.

Timeline of the Human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” (via @Recomendo6)

See also: “How We Make Sense of Time.”

* Marcus Tullius Cicero


As we prize perspective, we might spare a thought for James Hiram Bedford; he died on this date in 1967. A psychologist who wrote several books on occupational counseling, he is best remembered as the first person whose body was cryopreserved after legal death. He remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.


“Time and tide wait for no man”*…

The week both arranges and imposes on our time…

Among many collective discoveries during the pandemic confinement of 2020, Americans learned just how attached we are to our seven weekdays. As complaints about temporal disorientation mounted that April, we focused not on the clock – the classic metonym for the power and experience of time – but rather on the calendar, and specifically the weekly one. A Cleveland news station affiliated with the Fox Media network entertained viewers with a daily feature, much circulated on the internet, entitled ‘What Day Is It? With Todd Meany’ – the answer to which was always a weekday, not a Gregorian calendar date…

Weeks serve as powerful mnemonic anchors because they are fundamentally artificial. Unlike days, months and years, all of which track, approximate, mimic or at least allude to some natural process (with hours, minutes and seconds representing neat fractions of those larger units), the week finds its foundation entirely in history. To say ‘today is Tuesday’ is to make a claim about the past rather than about the stars or the tides or the weather. We are asserting that a certain number of days, reckoned by uninterrupted counts of seven, separate today from some earlier moment. And because those counts have no prospect of astronomical confirmation or alignment, weeks depend in some sense on meticulous historical recordkeeping. But practically speaking, weekly counts are reinforced by the habits and rituals of other people. When those habits and rituals were radically obscured or altered in 2020, the week itself seemed to unravel…

The history of weekly timekeeping, which is only about 2,000 years old. Although taboos and cosmologies in several different cultures attached significance to seven-day cycles much earlier, there is no clear evidence of any society using such cycles to track time in the form of a common calendar before the end of the 1st century CE. As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles. The weekly calendar, from the moment of its effective invention, reflected a union of very different ways of counting days…

The crucial formation of our modern experience of weekly time took place around the first half of the 1800s, with the rising prominence of… the differentiated weekly schedule…

The week is the most artificial and most recent of the ways we account for time, but it’s effectively impossible to imagine our shared lives without it: “How we became weekly,” by David Henkin in @aeonmag.

See also Jill Lepore‘s characteristically informative review of Henkin’s book on the week: “How the Week Organizes and Tyrannizes Our Lives” (source of the image above)

* Geoffrey Chaucer


As we mark time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that John William Draper took a daguerreotype of the moon (the “governor” of months, while the sun determines days, seasons, and years); it was the first celestial photograph (or astrophotograph) made in the U.S.  (He exposed the plate for 20 minutes using a 5-inch telescope and produced an image one inch in diameter.)   Draper’s picture of his sister, taken the following year, is the oldest surviving photographic portrait.

An 1840 shot of the moon by Draper– the oldest surviving “astrophotograph,” as his first is lost


“One cannot walk down an avenue, converse with a friend, enter a building, browse beneath the sandstone arches of an old arcade without meeting an instrument of time.”*…

Frieze on the Tower of the Winds in Athens, an early public clock

Time has ordered human life for millennia….

The Tower of the Winds, in the Greek city of Athens… is one of the best-​preserved buildings from the ancient world. This octagonal marble tower, sited close to a busy marketplace at the foot of the hill of the famous Acropolis, rises forty-​two feet into the air and measures twenty-​six feet across, and it was an astonishing sight for the people of this crowded and vibrant city. The external walls were covered in brightly colored reliefs and moldings representing the eight winds, with each of the eight walls, and a semi-​circular annex, carrying a sundial. Inside the ceiling was painted a stunning blue color covered with golden stars. At the center of the imposing interior was a water clock, which was fed from a sacred source high up on the hill of the Acropolis called the Clepsydra, a name which became synonymous with all water clocks. The clock is believed once to have driven a complex mechanical model of the heavens themselves, like a planetarium, orrery, or armillary sphere.

Nobody is quite sure when the Tower of the Winds was built, but it was probably about 140 bc. As with the sundial at the Roman Forum, we can think of it as an early public clock tower, giving Athenians the time of day as they went about their daily business at the market and elsewhere, and giving order to their lives. It was also symbolic of a wider order. The gods of the winds, depicted on its decorative panels, were allegories of world order; the stars inside, together with the water clock and its mechanical replica of the heavens, were symbolic of a cosmic order. Certainly, it was an astonishing spectacle.

But, also like the sundial proudly installed by Valerius in Rome, the Tower of the Winds may have carried a further message. If, as some historians believe, the structure was built by Attalos II, king of the Greek city of Pergamon, to commemorate the Athenian defeat of the Persian Navy in 480 bc, then it could serve as a vivid peacetime reminder of the military strength of the state—​and the discipline needed to maintain it…

In empires around the world, the sight and sound of time from high towers had begun to organize the lives of the people, and project a message of power and order.

It is tempting, in the twenty-​first century, to feel that we are the first generation to resent being governed by the clock as we go about our daily lives; that we are no longer in control of what we do and when we do it because we must follow the clock’s orders. During our long warehouse shifts, sitting at our factory workstations, or enduring seemingly never-​ending meetings at the office, we might grumble that the morning is dragging on, but we cannot eat because the clock has not yet got around to lunchtime. But these feelings are nothing new. In fact, while the public sundial was new to Romans in 263 bc, it had been in widespread use long before that in other cities around the world; the first water clocks date back even further than sundials, more than 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.

It is easy to think that public clocks are an inevitable feature of our lives. But by looking more closely at their history, we can understand better what they used to mean—​and why they were built in the first place. Because wherever we are, as far back as we care to look, we can find that monumental timekeepers mounted high up on towers or public buildings have been put there to keep us in order, in a world of violent disorder.

Public time has been on the march for thousands of years: “Monumental Timekeepers,” an except from David Rooney‘s (@rooneyvision) About Time- A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks. Via @longnow.

* Alan Lightman


As we watch the clock, we might send timely birthday greetings to George Alfred Leon Sarton; he died on this date in 1956. A chemist by training, his primary interest lay in the past practices and precepts of his field…an interest that led him to found the discipline of the history of science as an independent field of study. His most influential work was the Introduction to the History of Science (three volumes totaling 4,296 pages), which effectively founded that discipline. Sarton ultimately aimed to achieve an integrated philosophy of science that connected the sciences and the humanities– what he called “the new humanism.” His name is honored with the prestigious George Sarton Medal, awarded by the History of Science Society.


“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”*…

A new kind of matter?…

In a preprint posted online… researchers at Google in collaboration with physicists at Stanford, Princeton and other universities say that they have used Google’s quantum computer to demonstrate a genuine “time crystal.” In addition, a separate research group claimed earlier this month to have created a time crystal in a diamond.

A novel phase of matter that physicists have strived to realize for many years, a time crystal is an object whose parts move in a regular, repeating cycle, sustaining this constant change without burning any energy.

“The consequence is amazing: You evade the second law of thermodynamics,” said Roderich Moessner, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, and a co-author on the Google paper. That’s the law that says disorder always increases.

Time crystals are also the first objects to spontaneously break “time-translation symmetry,” the usual rule that a stable object will remain the same throughout time. A time crystal is both stable and ever-changing, with special moments that come at periodic intervals in time.

The time crystal is a new category of phases of matter, expanding the definition of what a phase is. All other known phases, like water or ice, are in thermal equilibrium: Their constituent atoms have settled into the state with the lowest energy permitted by the ambient temperature, and their properties don’t change with time. The time crystal is the first “out-of-equilibrium” phase: It has order and perfect stability despite being in an excited and evolving state…

Like a perpetual motion machine, a time crystal forever cycles between states without consuming energy. Physicists claim to have built this new phase of matter inside a quantum computer: “Eternal Change for No Energy: A Time Crystal Finally Made Real.”

See also: Time Crystals #1 (source of the image above).

And for a not-altogether-apposite, but equally mind-blowing read, see “Scientist Claims That Aliens May Be Communicating via Starlight.”

* Albert Einstein


As we push through purported paradoxes, we might send accomplished birthday greetings to James Bowdoin II; he was born on this date in 1726. A successful businessman who was a political and intellectual leader during in the decade after the American Revolution (for a time, as Governor of Massachusetts), he was also an important experimental scientist. His work on electricity with his friend Benjamin Franklin earned him election to both the Royal Society of London and the American Philosophical Society. He was a founder and first president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to whom he bequeathed his library. Bowdoin College in Maine was named in his honor after a bequest by his son James III.


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