As we all know, time is money. In this story, Gary Stix tries to explain what is time, and why it's so difficult to define it.
More than 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin coined the now famous dictum that equated passing minutes and hours with shillings and pounds. The new millennium -- and the decades leading up to it -- has given his words their real meaning.
An English economics professor even tried to capture the millennial zeitgeist by supplying Franklin's adage with a quantitative underpinning. According to a formula derived by Ian Walker of the University of Warwick, three minutes of brushing one's teeth works out to the equivalent of 45 cents.
This reduction of time to money may extend Franklin's observation to an absurd extreme. But the commodification of time is genuine -- and results from a radical alteration in how we view the passage of events. Our fundamental human drives have not changed from the Paleolithic era.
Some things changed though: how we measure time. A long time ago, we measured cycles, like days or years. Then came mechanical clocks. And more and more sophisticated devices were invented to measure time more accurately. Check this for example.
A team from France and the Netherlands set a new speed record for subdividing the second, reporting last year that a laser strobe light had emitted pulses lasting 250 attoseconds -- that's 250 billionths of a billionth of a second. The strobe may one day be fashioned into a camera that can track the movements of individual electrons.
But if we measure time more precisely than ever, we still don't have real metrics for it -- and don't know how to define it.
Perplexity about the nature of time -- a tripartite oddity that parses into past, present and future -- precedes the industrial era by centuries. Saint Augustine described the definitional dilemma more eloquently than anyone. "What then, is time?" he asked in his Confessions. "If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know."
The essence of time is an age-old conundrum that preoccupies not just the physicist and philosopher but also the anthropologist who studies non-Western cultures that perceive events as proceeding in a cyclical, nonlinear sequence.Yet for most of us, time is not only real, it is the master of everything we do. We are clock-watchers, whether by nature or training.
Are you scratching your heads by now? Remember it's weekend time. So go to your newsstand, buy a copy of Scientific American, read this article -- and all the auxiliary stories -- and relax.
Source: Gary Stix, Scientific American, August 12, 2002 (September 2002 Issue)