It governs every facet of our lives, from our work life to our social life to our sleep and wakefulness and to the way we operate within the framework of our surrounding culture. Time is the constant by which we function in society, serving to determine when we eat, sleep, work and play. And yet, time is even more than that. It is, quite literally, universal. Time and space are central pillars to the entire universe that serve as authorities to all existing matter within it.
Of course, most of us don’t really think about time in those terms, nor do we need to. For the vast majority of us, time is a 7:00am alarm clock, a 45-minute commute, a 9-5 work day, a 7:00pm dinner, a 10:30pm bedtime and, eventually, a two-day weekend at the end of the week. Rarely do we ever consider why time is structured as it is or how it came to be that way. The farthest we ever seem to get is to briefly muse about why we are turning the clocks back or forwards for Daylight Savings, before reacting with shrugging acceptance that it’s simply a thing that just happens twice a year and probably has something to do with farmers.
With our relatively limited comprehension and appreciation for the far-reaching implications of time, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot that we don’t really know about it. Here are 15 stunning facts that few outside the scientific community have ever really considered about time. If, you know, you have the time for them.
RUSSIANS TRIED TO IMPLEMENT A FIVE-DAY WEEK
In an effort to expedite production, facilitate economic growth and diminish the impact of religion, the Soviet Union under premier Joseph Stalin briefly tried to institute five-day weeks in the early 20th century. From 1929 to 1931, Stalin introduced a structure whereby workers would adhere to shifts that would ensure regular production was taking place uninterrupted at all times.
In short, it didn’t work. The destruction of social life in Soviet society as families struggled to find any windows of time to spend together contributed to an unhappy, stagnant workforce. The five-day structure essentially broke society up into fifths, with only 20% of Russians operating within the same time frame. This fragmentation not only broke down the family unit, but it also alienated people and led to widespread disenfranchisement. Needless to say, it didn’t last long
WE RECENTLY HAD A “LEAP SECOND”
With the slowing of the Earth’s rotation, the time it takes to go through one full cycle doesn’t quite jive with our consistent 24-hour day. Any continuous alteration to our daily construct would represent an over-adjustment and would put things even further out of alignment. So what is there to do?
The solution to the problem has already been put into practice. A sporadic “leap second” has been introduced by the International Earth Rotation Service, the body that governs and regulates astronomical time. This corrective measure is applied whenever a global team of scientists deems that an adjustment should be made. Most recently, a leap second was added on June 30, 2015 to bring things roughly up to speed. This peculiarity will continue to exist forever, although few will ever really notice the difference.
WE’RE PRETTY NEW HERE
The planet that we live on and the solar system that it resides within have been around for a whole lot longer than we have— this much we know. But just how new are we in the grand scheme of the universe? Very. The 200,000 years that we have roamed the Earth in our modern form is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the 13.8 billion years that the universe has existed.
To illustrate our ‘new kid on the block’ status, scientists have placed the history of the universe into the comparative framework of a single year. Within the compression of this ‘cosmic calendar’, the Big Bang occurred in the very first second on January 1st. From there, the dinosaurs would have been wiped out on December 29th and modern humans wouldn’t arrive until 11:54pm on New Year’s Eve. The voyage of Christopher Columbus would sneak in at just one second before midnight.========== ===========
CULTURAL BACKGROUND CAN AFFECT OUR PERCEPTION OF TIME
Allowing for differences in time zones, all across the globe we are governed by the same construct of time in which a day is broken into 24 hours that are each comprised of 60 minutes. And yet, how we perceive that structure of time can differ dramatically across borders. Scientific studies have shown that most Americans conceptualize time as broken down into five minute increments. Meanwhile, Middle Easterners will generally interpret time in 15-minute increments.
This cultural phenomenon was tested by psychologist Lawrence White, who had different groups of people study a complex diagram for exactly 47 seconds and then estimate the amount of time that had passed. Americans were significantly more likely to frame their estimate within a five-second increment (as in, 55 or 60 seconds) while Estonians and Moroccans would typically present their answer in 15-second increments (45 or 60 seconds).
TIME HASN’T ALWAYS EXISTED
It stands to reason that so long as the universe has been around, so, too, has time to help shape and organize it. Sensible as that may be, it simply isn’t true. According to the theory of relativity, time and space only came into existence following the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Prior to that, those two seemingly universal constants did not exist and matter was packed together in a tiny ball.
Hard as it may be to imagine or even comprehend time not existing, it is a force measured by the presence of motion in space. It also becomes evident through motion. Without the moving cosmos that it governs, time can not exist.
TIME IS SLOWING
Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there were a full 370 days in a year. The gradual dwindling of days to 365 means that those who wish for more time in a day are getting their wish, albeit very slowly. The spin of the Earth is slowing down, stemming from a slight drag by the gravitational forces on the moon. As a result, days are growing approximately 1.7 milliseconds longer each century.
Now, you might be asking yourself, how can scientists possibly know this about a geological era that existed 70 million years ago? Studies of both fossils and banded deposits in sedimentary rock have revealed shell growth that correspond to the lunar calendar, kind of like the rings on a tree. By counting the number of bands, scientists can work out the number of days in a year and, therefore, the number of hours in a day.
TIME IS DIFFERENT ACROSS THE GALAXY
It isn’t easy to step outside our own mental understanding of time and imagine any other structure by which every day life is organized. Chances are, however, that any life forms that might exist elsewhere in the universe operate within a very different time-based reality than the one that we Earthlings currently occupy. Based on what we know about planets outside of our own, time can be drastically different across the solar system, depending upon how quickly alternate planets revolve around the sun and rotate on their axis.
In fact, a day on Mercury lasts about two Mercurian years long, or 176 Earth days. It is daytime for one Mercurian year and then nighttime for another, requiring that much time to go through one full rotation. Sounds like Mercury isn’t a bad place to spend your weekends, but you probably don’t want to be there on a Monday!========== ===========
“NOW” DOESN’T EXIST
It’s a popular adage and, for some, even a life mantra to live “in the now”. This suggests that one must seize life by living for the present rather than taking the safe and calculated approach of making decisions that emphasize future benefit. But what if there is no ‘now’ to live in?
As far as physics is concerned, space and time are forever fluid, affected by gravity and one’s own speed. Therefore, any sensory data that we are absorbing is already old and outdated by the time we perceive it. For instance, our visual perspective of the moon on a clear night actually reflects its appearance from 1.25 seconds earlier, or the time that it would have taken for light to reach Earth from the moon. As Albert Einstein, who originally theorized that there is no now, puts it, “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
THE ODDBALL EFFECT
The mind is a tricky, complicated thing that can be manipulated, even by time. Some time periods seem longer to us and some seem shorter, even if they occupy the same amount of physical time. Interestingly, what seems like a fluky coincidence seems to have some degree of scientific legitimacy behind it. The “Oddball Effect” posits that time actually lengthens in our minds when we’re in phases of enjoyment and compresses during monotony and stress.
The theory, borne out of experiments wherein subjects were shown computer images that were both repetitive and unique in nature and asked which appeared longer, holds that new experiences will seem longer to our brains than those that are familiar to us. It helps explain why time can feel as though it’s going by faster as you get older. Where childhood stretched out our brains as they were continuously exposed to new stimuli, those new experiences grow increasingly less regular as we age.
The higher you are, the faster time goes. Although scientific analysis of time typically operates on a large scale, such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, minor changes in time have also been proven to exist on a smaller scale. In fact, researchers used extremely accurate atomic clocks in order to prove that even a height difference of a foot will cause measurable changes in the passing of time. This means that so long as you are standing up, time actually goes by faster for your face than it does for your feet.
That being said, the passage of time being calculated here is still rather microscopic in nature. Even heights that stand as varied as the top of Mount Everest versus sea level would only produce a time difference of approximately 15 microseconds over the course of a year. But if it makes short people feel more youthful, then more power to them.
DAYS ARE SHORTER THAN YOU THINK
We learn in grade school that a day is based around the 24 hours that it takes for the Earth to rotate around its own axis. However, that 24-hour figure that has come to define our culture through 24-hour news cycles, 24-hour fast food restaurants and even the phrase ’24/7′ isn’t entirely accurate. The length of time the Earth needs to rotate is actually 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.2 seconds.
The reason that we measure our day out as 24 hours from sunrise to sunrise is because the Earth moves further in its orbit around the sun each day. That change in position then lengthens the day ever so slightly. The shorter span of rotational time is known as a sidereal day, which can be distinguished by about four minutes from what is known as a solar day, which is our familiar time measurement.========== ===========
“JUST A SECOND”… NOT QUITE
We have been understanding seconds wrong all this time. What we believe to be the measurement of 1/60th of a minute is actually recognized differently in scientific circles. The scientific definition of a second, which has been in practice for the past 50 years, is actually “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom”.
Doesn’t that make things so much simpler? Okay, maybe not. But although the layman definition may suit our needs, it doesn’t hold up scientifically because it doesn’t apply at all altitudes and in all environments. Prior to the development of extremely accurate atomic clocks, the definition of a second— as a 1/86.000th fraction of a ‘mean solar day’— was more reflective of our own definition, since there are just over 86,000 seconds in a day.
EVEN THE SPEED OF LIGHT HAS ITS LIMITS
We have come to understand the speed of light as being an almost impossibly fast pace that is largely imperceptible to the human eye. But even the fastest of speeds still take time, and light is no exception. The time it takes between, say, the flick of a light switch and having an illuminated room is instantaneous, but that can be at least partially attributed to the close proximity between the switch and the bulb being lit. Even the speed of light will take more time to travel a further distance.
Take our considerable distance to the sun, for instance. Since light will take some time to travel that far, the vantage point we have of it is actually an outdated one. At any particular time, the sun that we glance at through our window is eight minutes and 20 seconds old, which covers the amount of time needed for the light from the sun to hit us. The light from our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is even further and is actually four years old.
WE’VE DISCOVERED SOME OLD STUFF
Even within our limited understanding of the world and universe around us, we have managed to uncover some remarkably old artifacts that help frame the history of all that is around us. The oldest known object in the universe is a galaxy known as “z8_GND_5296”, which is estimated to be 13.1 billion years old. That would make it only 700 million years younger than the universe in which it resides.
Keeping things a little closer to home, the oldest known object that exists on our planet is a 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal that was found in the Jack Hills in Western Australia and dates back to the era of our moon’s formation. In fact, it is estimated as being just 160 million years younger than Earth, itself. This 2014 scientific discovery also points to Jack Hills as being one of the oldest still-existing place on Earth.
“PLANCK TIME” IS SERIOUSLY SHORT
The scientific community paid tribute to German physicist Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, by naming a standard measurement of time after him. But you could be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of— or didn’t necessarily have a use for— “Planck” time. The smallest known measurement of time, Planck time is the time required for light to travel, in a vacuum, for one Planck length, a short unit of distance that was also named after Planck.
How small is Planck time? One quick blink of the eye takes about five hundred and fifty thousand trillion trillion trillion units of Planck time. While it would likely never be needed to measure anything within our typical, everyday life, Planck time comes from dimensional analysis and represents a rough time scale at which quantum gravitational effects are likely to become important.