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Throughout most of history, the passage of time was registered by familiar regularities such as day and night and the phases of the moon, or more accurately by the apparent motions of certain stars. The second was defined by the ancient Babylonians to be 1/84,600 of a day. Modern calendars are still based on astronomical time using the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582, in which the year is defined as 365.2425 days.
Until the scientific revolution and the ages of exploration and industrialization that followed, most people had no need for accurate clocks. Farmers and fishermen measured time in relation to familiar processes in the cycle of work and domestic chores. Labor took place in the natural period from dawn to dusk. The sundial was widely used to tell time during the day. The great advance in the accuracy of household clocks came about in the mid-seventeenth century with the application of the pendulum, which had been introduced into scientific experiments by Galileo in 1602. English clock- and watchmaking became dominant in 1680 and remained so until competition from the French and Swiss caught up about a century later.
In 1759 John Harrison produced a clock that could keep exact Greenwich Mean Time (the mean solar time of the meridian of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, used as the prime basis of standard time) at sea, enabling mariners to determine their longitude on the globe and making accurate marine navigation possible for the first time. Today the primary time standard is provided by a Cesium Fountain atomic clock at the National Institute for Standards and Technology laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, which will not gain or lose a second in more than 60 million years.
With the rise of science, the second has undergone several redefinitions to make it more useful in the laboratory. The most recent change occurred in 1967, when the second was redefined by international agreement as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine energy levels of the ground state of the Cesium133 atom at rest at absolute zero. The minute remains 60 seconds, the hour remains 60 minutes, and the day remains 24 hours, following ancient traditions. The day is still taken to be 84,600 seconds, as in ancient Babylonia. Modern calendars need to be corrected occasionally to keep them in harmony with the seasons because of the lack of complete synchronization between atomic time and the motions of astronomical bodies.
Nothing seems so ubiquitous—so absolute and universal—as time. Yet, in his 1905 “special theory of relativity” Albert Einstein showed that the times measured on clocks are different for clocks that are moving with respect to one another—an effect called “time dilation.” This called into question some of the deepest intuitions of time. No moment in time can be labeled a universal “present.” There is no past or future that applies to every point in space. Two events separated in space can never be judged to be objectively simultaneous. The whole notion of cause and effect has to be carefully rethought.
Unless one is making highly precise measurements with atomic clocks, time dilation is important only when the relative speeds of clocks are near the speed of light, so there are not noticeable effects in everyday life. However, Einstein’s theory has been confirmed by a century of experiments involving high-energy particles that move near the speed of light, as well as low-speed measurements with atomic clocks. Although it is not necessary to take into account the relativity of time in the social sphere, it is important not to draw universal, philosophical, or metaphysical conclusions based on notions related to time that are inferred from normal human experience.
Philosophers and theologians have introduced alternate “metaphysical times” more along the lines of common experience, but these have no connection with scientific observations. Scientific models uniformly assume that time is, by definition, what is measured on a clock and that time is relative.
- Davies, Paul. 1995. About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Price, Huw. 1996. Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sobel, Dava. 1995. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Walker.
- Stenger, Victor J. 2000. Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Stenger, Victor J. 2006. The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Thompson, E. P. 1967. Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Past and Present 38 (December): 56–97.
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