Sometimes it seems as if life is passing us by. When we are children, time ambles by, with endless car journeys and summer holidays which seem to last forever. But as adults, time seems to speed up at a frightening rate, with Christmas and birthdays arriving more quickly every year.
The time has come again when many of us switch our clocks from summer or daylight-saving time back to winter time. And the usual confusion sets in, is it an hour forwards or back? Why do we need to change the time at all? Indeed, EU member states have been asked if they would like to simply skip daylight saving time.
The Scottish geologist James Hutton made a proposal in 1788 that, at the time, was extraordinarily controversial. He described Earth as a “beautiful machine”, constantly subjected to long-term decay and regeneration, that could only be understood over many millions of years. This may not sound that contentious, but the challenge this posed to humanity’s sense of time was substantial. Popular contemporary estimates of Earth’s age, such as Bishop Ussher’s calculation that it was created in 4,004 BC, were dwarfed by the magnitude of what Hutton described.
Our lives are ruled by time; we use time to tell us what to do. But the alarm clock that wakes us in the morning or the wristwatch that tells us we are late for supper are unnatural clocks. Our biology answers to a profoundly more ancient beat that probably started to tick early in the evolution of all life.
There’s no denying that we’ve seen some absolutely staggering accomplishments in physics in the past year or so, particularly in our ability to measure space and time with unprecedented levels of detail. But being a lifelong “Whovian” excited about Doctor Who returning to our screens once again, I wondered how these accomplishments stacked up to those of the fictional Time Lords.
How short is an “instant”? Is it a second? A tenth of a second? A microsecond? You might think all of these qualify. What about 100 years? That certainly doesn’t seem like an instant, and to a human being, it isn’t, since we’d be lucky to have a lifespan that long. But to a giant sequoia, say, 100 years is no big deal. And in geological terms it’s practically nothing.