Q: What is time?
A: This was not a question posed directly to me. It is a question posed by the 2013 “Flame Challenge,” an international kid-judged science contest sponsored by Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y., and actor Alan Alda. More information is here: http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/
In my own studies of creativity, I came to the conclusion that creativity, along with time, space and energy, is one of the four fundamental attributes of the physical world. It was important for me to define time, space and energy in order to give substance to my ideas on creativity. I feel that most of the published definitions we find do not correspond with our current knowledge, and therefore wrote the following description. The contest called for 300 words, but I found I needed over 400. Partly, this is because I found it necessary to define space, energy, physics and even reality in order to describe time. The contest also called for being a scientist or science teacher, so I did not need to worry about the length of my description for the contest.
Time, along with space and energy is one of the three measurable attributes of the physical world. Measurement, in turn, is a mathematical language based on predictable patterns and changes observed in space, time and energy. These three measurable attributes are not themselves part of the physical world. It is the patterns they form together that give the appearance of reality, and it is these patterns and their transformations that can be measured. The measured description of these patterns is important for working in the physical world and understanding it, but it is important not to confuse the mathematical description with reality itself.
Physics, which is the quantitative study of energy, space and time, defines each attribute by comparing it to the other two. Energy is described in terms of its patterns and actions in space and time. Space is measured by light years, which are movements of energy in time. Time is a measure of changes in energy and space. Historically, time was measured by the rotation of the earth and its path around the sun. Today, the measurement of time is based on the radiation emitted by a particular atom. Both of these methods use predictable changes in energy and space to measure time.
In the physical world, time has only one dimension. We think of time as being composed of the past, present and future, but only the present exists in the physical world, the past and future do not. Albert Einstein said, “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”. When we listen to music, we have the sensation that it is travelling continually through time, but in reality we are remembering the sounds that came earlier and anticipating the sounds that will follow.
Nature, like music, creates patterns in time. The seasons, the beating of the heart and the hours of the day repeat themselves like rhythm in music. Cause and effect move nature forward with variations that are forever new and surprising, like the melody line of a symphony. When we look at nature we can see an infinite number of causes and effects impressed upon the face of the physical world. On a beach pebble we see the actions of a million waves. In the mountains we see the grand movements of the earth and in the evening stars we see the effects of untold millennia. In the eyes of a child we see the whole history of life along with its future possibilities. In this sense, time is the mark of eternity upon the moment.
Here, by the way, is the winning entry by Nicholas Williams of Livermore, CA.
What is time?
Have you ever heard your parents say to you that it’s time to go to bed or time to get up, time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that, and on and on. Our world runs on a time schedule, and the schedule is so tight that there are schedules for everything we do throughout the day and clocks that tell you what time it is so we can do those things at the correct time. Time is so obvious in our lives that no one questions it. It’s just there, we have to live with it, and so we accept it. All activity on earth is based on time, and this time is what happened a second ago, a minute ago, an hour ago, days ago, and years ago. Well, now we have an important question. What is it?
Time has a lot of definitions; like time is history or time is age. But, have we ever considered a good definition? I have. Here’s my definition. And no, I did not get this from some book or online. It’s just something that makes sense to me. I think of time as Forward Movement. Think about it! Everything moves forward, from the universe to every second of your life. And because everything moves forward, man developed a way to keep track of this Forward Movement and called it time. Man also invented clocks to keep a precise log of this Forward Movement in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even parts of seconds. I’ll always continue to think of time as Forward Motion. I’ll also think of it as a Forward Motion that will never change, will never stop, and can never be reversed.