The Power and Mystery of Time


Time is really an all-powerful trap from which nothing can escape. All living things must age, and die when the time comes. After they die, decay takes over until they are eventually turned into dust. If not, they may be fossilized on the rocks with some traces left behind.

Non-living things are no different. They are subject to the wear and tear of time. Iron looks like the easiest to disappear due to rusting. Radioactive materials have their own decay time tables imposed by Nature. Even the Sun in our solar system will burn out eventually.

What about ideas and conventions? Some can stand the test of time but many crumble as time passes. One example is one man one vote. Now it has become one person one vote as women gain voting rights in many countries.

Time is not a physical thing for we cannot see, touch, smell, hear or taste it. We only have an idea of its passage by observing living things age and die, non-living things wear and tear, and old ideas fade away.

According to Professor Stephen Hawking, time has a beginning and an end based on his Big Bang theory. The universe was created about 14 billion years ago by the Big Bang. It was an unimaginably powerful explosion of a single point called singularity. From that explosion, both time and space were created simultaneously. Time has continued to pass while the universe has continued to expand. It follows that the reverse may happen someday. It is called the Big Crunch but nobody can predict when it will start to happen. The whole universe will reverse its direction and contract, eventually arriving back to its original point of singularity. By then time and space will vanish simultaneously. This sounds both horribly fascinating and fascinatingly horrible.

Despite all its powers and mysteries, humans have found a way to utilize time and keep good track of it. The crudest way is to follow sunrise and sunset for daily routines. They invent the definition of speed (distance traveled within a time period) as a universal standard. The factories and offices open from nine to five to keep people working together. They invent the longitudes for mapping the world and dividing it into time zones to synchronize the world into a standard time frame.

The way people keep track of time is an interesting story. In modern days, we take the clock and the calendar for granted. In the old times, people living in different places had their own unique ways to keep track of time. Some relied on the sun. Some waited to hear the cock crow. Some used an hourglass. It has taken a long time before the adoption of the standard global convention such as the calendar and the clock where an hour is divided into 60 minutes and 3600 seconds. Imagine how hard it is to switch from one airplane to another if there is no global time standard.

Even if we have a global time standard, no two mechanical clocks in the world run equally at the same speed because they work independently of one another. They all differ by some amount of time. That is why the world needs a standard timepiece for all other clocks to adjust accordingly. The Big Ben in London used to be one standard. Now it has been replaced by the master atomic clock maintained by the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The atomic clock is vastly more accurate because it is based on the vibration of the atom rather than on a system of moving mechanical parts.

October 2014

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