The Suspension of Time

Prompted by the changes of the clocks going back an hour to coincide with the official end to the summer season, I reflected this week on the notion of time and how we define time. Why do we change the clocks and what purpose does it serve?

The practice of putting the clocks forward in March and then back again in October dates back nearly 100 years. Germany pioneered the practice during World War I and it was in the 90s that the dates for changing the clocks became enshrined in European law. As with so many other practices in the UK, we are out of sync with the rest of Europe. The question whether we should permanently move the clocks forward by an hour to bring us in line with Central European Time is as old as the practice of changing the clocks itself. One of the many benefits would be that we would work during the same business hours as other European cities.

So why did it all come about in the first place? One of the motivations was that it would give farmers more daylight in the mornings to gather their dairy herds, plough fields or take their produce to market. However, according to the various farming bodies this practice is perceived as fairly redundant. Not only have the changes in technology made life easier for farmers to cope with winter but also farming is not as important to British economy as it once was.

The changing of the clocks got me to think about the nature of time and most of the sources I consulted concludes that one thing we can be certain about is that time defies definition. Anyone would be happy to say that they know what time is. However, we do not have an in-built mechanism with which to perceive or sense time. We tend to associate time with the fact that changes are periodic. As we are reminded of this week, seasons come and go and are part of a wider system of change in which these patterns are repeated.

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning whereas the medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe as having a finite past with a beginning, such as the big bang theory. Changes can therefore be thought of as small deaths and rebirths. We tend to think of time as a fraction of our overall expected lifetime and if our lifetimes were infinite, then all finite spans of time would be so small in comparison that we would probably not have the sense of time in the way that we do. This raises an interesting question. If we did not have a sense of time, would time therefore actually exist? Does time have an existence independent of our minds? These big questions have been part of philosophical debates for a very long time. This brings us back full circle to the question of what is the nature of time in the first place?

However, you may ask what have all these discussions about time got to do with the writing of my tribute to Eugene and Pieter? As I am nearing the end of completing and publishing my book, the reflection on time is very relevant. The thought came to me that for the duration of writing my book I have in fact suspended time and even turned the clock back. The process of reliving and reflecting on my memories of Eugene has turned back the hands of time and allowed me to relive the times we had together. I have been able to freeze time by keeping Eugene in a state of suspended animation. However, as the writing of my tribute draws to an end, I will also have to let go not only of time, but also of Eugene and step into a future time of which he will never form a part.

I was comforted by a quote from Einstein, the master in understanding the nature of time, who put it to a friend who had recently lost a loved one, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Why mourn someone who lives?


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