Impermanence… What Is Time?
September 17, 2010
A somewhat strange question, I know… But still… I’m going to ask it, none the less. What is time? How do we define it? Something popped into my head this morning regarding the passage of time, and I just couldn’t shake it off. While lying there in bed, I was meditating upon a spot on the ceiling… And I heard my wrist watch ticking away down by this chest of mine, as my left hand lay motionless on it. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” it uttered in the silent darkness of the early morning. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it was counting… Observe the thoughts coming into to my mind… And they dissipate… Stillness… Awareness… My eyes resting on the ceiling’s spot… Subtle and distinct, it goes beyond words… And then the bizarre, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” murmured back into the gap of mind. “It’s the watch”, I thought… “BUT what is it measuring?” Again the cycle repeats itself, bringing the mind gently back around to observing the thoughts… “Free to come, free to go…” repeat the words of Lama Chodrak as I remember the technique we were recently taught. “But still… What is that sound measuring?”
Up I get… I have no idea how long its been since I went to bed. Was it two hours now… Maybe three… Possibly even four… ? The wrist watch states clearly that it is 3 hours 47 minutes and 32 seconds past in the morning. But ‘past’ what? It’s past midnight… So what? What does that tell me? It tells me that its three hours and forty seven minutes… Oh! It’s now forty eight minutes past the third hour of the morning of the 17th of September, of the year 2010… BUT… So what… ??? It’s just a blindingly stupid social construct to linearise a strange passage of some abstract notion… Some abstract objectification of this essence that we call ‘time’. I know it feels like time is passing by… But is that because time actually exists… OR is because I’ve been conditioned to believe it somehow exists… !?!?
So down to the kitchen I go… I put the kettle on in the chill morning’s still of night. The silence is deceptive… Until the slight roar of the kettle begins… The stars glisten wildly in the clear dark skies above… Everything seems so slight… Jupiter is setting in the west near the horizon, a big white star-like beacon of light in the sky… Only a few hours earlier had I been watching it in the inky sky through an 80mm APO telescope. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” once again broke through the ambient noise as the kettle boiled down to a silent plume of undulating steam that poured wildly forth from its spout… There, in the steam, I saw the same currents of turbulence that were also writhing about over the gas giant’s surface some 900 million kilometres away… Movement… The planet had moved… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
And that’s when it happened… That’s when I realised what time is… I know it might sound somewhat silly… But in that moment I realised that time is not about seconds passing by… Nor is it built from minutes or hours… Even the days fluttering past (or dragging by, whatever they do for you) don’t really make time what it is. Time is about change… It’s change that really matters. Our notions of time give us a linear representation of something that is not linear at all from the point of the observer. What many of us understand time to be i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc… Is not really what time is… I know, I’m repeating myself… But it’s so obvious that it had me fooled for quite a while… It’s like looking at a meter long piece of string… Measuring it and then writing it down on a piece of paper i.e. “it is 1 meter long…” And then forgetting how long 1 meter is… And forgetting totally that “it” refers to a piece of string, which is 1 meter long… Because the notion of time is so abstract i.e. it’s not something we can view directly with any certainty like we can a meter rule, for example… We can take two meter rules and place them side by side and see that they are of the same length… And with a weight we can roughly feel that two 1 kg masses are similar to one another in their pull downwards… However with the notion of time, we cannot see it… It’s hard to define… Thus we simply use a device, like a clock or watch, to measure what it is that we think is a unit of time i.e. a second, or a minute, or even an hour, is… But in this notion of a unit of time, we (well, I did) totally forget what it is that is being measured… And that is the dynamic of material change as it unfolds in the world/universe around us.
So I poured the hot water from the kettle into the big mug that held a Rooibos tea bag in it… And, as I was doing this, I placed my hand around the mug. The cold surface turned from cold to warm, to an almost sudden hot… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” Time passed by in a linear clock/watch like fashion as the energy moved from the hot water in the mug to the ceramic of the mug itself. Change… Energetic change… As I slowly eased my grasp on the mug, I saw the colour from the tea bag diffuse into the clear, hot water around it. As I placed the spoon inside the mug and gently stirred, more colour broke free from the leaves, and the colour became a darker red, which almost resembled a black inky colour under the dim kitchen light that was shinning from the cooker’s fume hood. Change… More change… As I stirred the tea further, and then went to get the milk, I became aware of the vast orchestration of changes that were going on in my body’s biochemistry, all of which effected the contraction of various muscles that allowed me to move coherently across the kitchen, to the fridge, open the door, grab the soya milk, removing it from the fridge carefully, closing the fridge door and then returning to the mug of tea standing, steaming by the hot kettle… My desire for a warm drink had effected a change in my body’s biochemistry… A change that was carried out with a precision that avoided any accidental spillage or vague awareness… All the time, during this change, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
There is a universal dynamic that allows things to move and things to change. One direction i.e. letting the colour and flavour out of the dried tea leaves and into the hot water in a mug, is obvious and easy… But doing the reverse i.e. putting the colour and flavour from the hot water back into the dried tea leaves is obviously a somewhat harder action. There is a natural entropy of cause and effect, whereby what goes in one direction does not necessarily mean that it can go back in the opposite direction with the same amount of ease… Change goes in the obvious direction… From a greater energy to a more diffuse and lower energy state… A state of greater entropy… Thus, there is a crazy direction to this ‘time’ thing… An arrow of sorts, that points to how change can occur in a particular, or given, system. That’s when I realised that someone here had sent me a web link to a lecture on ‘time’… One that I hadn’t yet watched, even though I said I was going to… Cheers Tim!
So I effected another biochemical change as I moved to the living room and sat down with my tea in order to search through my comments here on this website to find Tim’s reference… And there it was. As I played the video I was aware of more change occurring within the code of the computer in front of me… Muffled, and almost inaudibly, it procured a gentle “click, dit, click, dit, dit, click, dit…” of the processor, as the screen colours changed to form one picture to the next – with sound (of course) – of Dr Sean Carroll giving a talk about what I had been previously thinking about…
But before I discuss this video, I’d like to have a look at what we generally perceive to be ‘time…’ How do we – the human race – define what is ‘generally’ known as time… And why do we perceive it thus… Why did I think that time was the passing of seconds… Why did the units of time come to mind before the idea of entropy and change? And for that I want to look to a dictionary in order to initially find what everyone else might discover if they decided to use this common repository of understanding and meaning.
time – noun
1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.
2. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration.
3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a system or method of measuring or reckoning the passage of time: mean time; apparent time; Greenwich Time.
4. a limited period or interval, as between two successive events: a long time.
5. a particular period considered as distinct from other periods: Youth is the best time of life.
6. Often, times.
a. a period in the history of the world, or contemporary with the life or activities of a notable person: prehistoric times; in Lincoln’s time.
b. the period or era now or previously present: a sign of the times; How times have changed!
c. a period considered with reference to its events or prevailing conditions, tendencies, ideas, etc.: hard times; a time of war.
7. a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life, for payment of a debt, etc.
8. the end of a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life or a pregnancy: His time had come, but there was no one left to mourn over him. When her time came, her husband accompanied her to the delivery room.
9. a period with reference to personal experience of a specified kind: to have a good time; a hot time in the old town tonight.
10. a period of work of an employee, or the pay for it; working hours or days or an hourly or daily pay rate.
11. Informal . a term of enforced duty or imprisonment: to serve time in the army; do time in prison.
12. the period necessary for or occupied by something: The time of the baseball game was two hours and two minutes. The bus takes too much time, so I’ll take a plane.
13. leisure time; sufficient or spare time: to have time for a vacation; I have no time to stop now.
14. a particular or definite point in time, as indicated by a clock: What time is it?
15. a particular part of a year, day, etc.; season or period: It’s time for lunch.
16. an appointed, fit, due, or proper instant or period: a time for sowing; the time when the sun crosses the meridian; There is a time for everything.
17. the particular point in time when an event is scheduled to take place: train time; curtain time.
18. an indefinite, frequently prolonged period or duration in the future: Time will tell if what we have done here today was right.
19. the right occasion or opportunity: to watch one’s time.
20. each occasion of a recurring action or event: to do a thing five times; It’s the pitcher’s time at bat.
21. times, used as a multiplicative word in phrasal combinations expressing how many instances of a quantity or factor are taken together: Two goes into six three times; five times faster.
22. Drama . one of the three unities. Compare unity ( def. 8 ).
23. Prosody . a unit or a group of units in the measurement of meter.
a. tempo; relative rapidity of movement.
b. the metrical duration of a note or rest.
c. proper or characteristic tempo.
d. the general movement of a particular kind of musical composition with reference to its rhythm, metrical structure, and tempo.
e. the movement of a dance or the like to music so arranged: waltz time.
25. Military . rate of marching, calculated on the number of paces taken per minute: double time; quick time.
26. Manège . each completed action or movement of the horse.
So there you go… There are quite a few notions of how the word ‘time’ can be used, along with the various subtleties in how the noun ‘time’ can affect another word’s respective definition. The aspect of time seems to remain fairly similar throughout though i.e. it remains closely linked to the idea of a ‘period’ of time… To the measure of time itself… Without any mention as to what it is necessarily measuring. Yes, it mentions events… But what is an event? In its ultimate notion, an event specifies, or even denotes, change… So change is really what is occurring… Not time itself.
But still… That doesn’t explain why I was seeing seconds fluttering by in my mind’s eye, a second hand on a big universal clock that was counting numbers in as linear fashion as possible, while lying in bed listening to my wrist watch… !?!? So perhaps it was the devise that we use for measuring time that had clouded my apparent judgement of what time actually was…
The hands on every watch the world over count in seconds, minutes, hours and even days as they flutter past in our daily routines. Whenever we ask ourselves, “what is the time?” we effectively are asking what time is it in relation to the social construct of time that our human civilisation had forged for itself. Thus seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years spring to mind so prominently. Not once will anyone answer, when asked the question of what time is it, something like, “Well… It’s that time of day just after breakfast, when you’re grabbing your coat and rushing out the door to cycle to work…” Rather they’d automatically say, “It’s half past eight in the morning.” So often we don’t see the change that happens in between asking what the time is… We miss the HUGE elephant in the room!
In this regard it is our over dependence on the clock and watch to visualise the abstract temporal passage of change that blinds us to the change itself… So here I’d like to have a look at these humble and innocuous machines that attempt to allow us to perceive time in a linear fashion… The use of a clock/watch, a devise that is found commonly throughout our everyday lives and which has a sort of sacred place within society, is our crutch to seeing change… To knowing the tricky and “apparently” painful subject of uncertainty… So what exactly is a clock/watch? Well… I’m no expert on the subject, so I’m going to refer to a dictionary’s definition before I proceed any further.
clock – noun
1. an instrument for measuring and recording time, esp. by mechanical means, usually with hands or changing numbers to indicate the hour and minute: not designed to be worn or carried about.
2. time clock.
3. a meter or other device, as a speedometer or taximeter, for measuring and recording speed, distance covered, or other quantitative functioning.
4. biological clock.
5. ( initial capital letter ) Astronomy . the constellation Horologium.
6. Computers . the circuit in a digital computer that provides a common reference train of electronic pulses for all other circuits.
So, again, there appear to be several definitions… However, in this instance I’m particularly taken by the first entry, as it references the machine like devises that I’ve been referring to. But still, this is hardly an adequate description of the instrument that has fooled me for so long… And, with regards to trying to understand what time actually is, it doesn’t remotely touch on why time is necessary to understand. So why were clocks invented? What follows on from this scentence, I’ve borrowed from the Wikipedia website, and describes the history of clocks, along with their uses.
A clock is an instrument used to indicate, keep, and co-ordinate time. The word clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic wordsclagan and clocca meaning “bell“. For horologists and other specialists the term clockcontinues to mean exclusively a device with a striking mechanism for announcing intervals of time acoustically, by ringing a (wendell) bell, a set of chimes, or agong.[dubious – discuss] A silent instrument lacking such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece. In general usage today a “clock” refers to any device for measuring and displaying the time. Watches and other timepieces that can be carried on one’s person are often distinguished from clocks.
The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day; the lunar month; and theyear. Devices operating on several different physical processes have been used over the millennia, culminating in the clocks of today.
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Sundials and other devices
The sundial, which measures the time of day by using the sun, was widely used inancient times. A well-constructed sundial can measure local solar time with reasonable accuracy, and sundials continued to be used to monitor the performance of clocks until the modern era. However, its practical limitations – it requires the sun to shine and does not work at all during the night – encouraged the use of other techniques for measuring time.
Candle clocks, and sticks of incense that burn down at approximately predictable speeds have also been used to estimate the passing of time. In an hourglass, fine sand pours through a tiny hole at a constant rate and indicates a predetermined passage of an arbitrary period of time.
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Water clocks, also known as clepsydrae (sg: clepsydra), along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick. Given their great antiquity, where and when they first existed are not known and perhaps unknowable. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and inEgypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, write about water clocks appearing as early as 4000 BC in these regions of the world.
The Greek and Roman civilizations are credited for initially advancing water clock design to include complex gearing, which was connected to fanciful automata and also resulted in improved accuracy. These advances were passed on through Byzantium andIslamic times, eventually making their way to Europe. Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks（钟）in 725 A.D., passing their ideas on toKorea and Japan.
Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. Pre-modern societies do not have the same precise timekeeping requirements that exist in modern industrial societies, where every hour of work or rest is monitored, and work may start or finish at any time regardless of external conditions. Instead, water clocks in ancient societies were used mainly forastrological reasons. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial. While never reaching the level of accuracy of a modern timepiece, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by the more accurate pendulum clock in 17th century Europe.
In 797 (or possibly 801), the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presentedCharlemagne with an Asian Elephant named Abul-Abbas together with a “particularly elaborate example” of a water clock.
In the 13th century, Al-Jazari, an engineer who worked for Artuqid king of Diyar-Bakr, Nasir al-Din, made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes. The book described 50 mechanical devices in 6 categories, including water clocks. The most reputed clocks included the Elephant, Scribe and Castle clocks, all of which have been successfully reconstructed. As well as telling the time, these grand clocks were symbols of status, grandeur and wealth of the Urtuq State.
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Early mechanical clocks
None of the first clocks survive from 13th century Europe, but various mentions in church records reveal some of the early history of the clock.
The word horologia (from the Greek ὡρα, hour, and λέγειν, to tell) was used to describe all these devices, but the use of this word (still used in several Romance languages) for all timekeepers conceals from us the true nature of the mechanisms. For example, there is a record that in 1176 Sens Cathedral installed a ‘horologe’ but the mechanism used is unknown. According to Jocelin of Brakelond, in 1198 during a fire at the abbey of St Edmundsbury (now Bury St Edmunds), the monks ‘ran to the clock’ to fetch water, indicating that their water clock had a reservoir large enough to help extinguish the occasional fire.
A new mechanism
The word clock (from the Latin word clocca, “bell”), which gradually supersedes “horologe”, suggests that it was the sound of bells which also characterized the prototype mechanical clocks that appeared during the 13th century in Europe.
Outside of Europe, the escapement mechanism had been known and used in medieval China, as the Song Dynasty horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101) incorporated it into his astronomical clock-tower of Kaifeng in 1088. However, his astronomical clock and rotating armillary sphere still relied on the use of flowing water (i.e. hydraulics), while European clockworks of the following centuries shed this old habit for a more efficient driving power of weights, in addition to the escapement mechanism.
A mercury clock, described in the Libros del saber, a Spanish work from AD 1277 consisting of translations and paraphrases of Arabic works, is sometimes quoted as evidence for Muslim knowledge of a mechanical clock. However, the device was actually a compartmented cylindrical water clock, whose construction was credited by the Jewish author of the relevant section, Rabbi Isaac, to “Iran” (Heron of Alexandria).
Between 1280 and 1320, there is an increase in the number of references to clocks and horologes in church records, and this probably indicates that a new type of clock mechanism had been devised. Existing clock mechanisms that used water power were being adapted to take their driving power from falling weights. This power was controlled by some form of oscillating mechanism, probably derived from existing bell-ringing or alarm devices. This controlled release of power – the escapement – marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock.
These mechanical clocks were intended for two main purposes: for signalling and notification (e.g. the timing of services and public events), and for modeling the solar system. The former purpose is administrative, the latter arises naturally given the scholarly interest in astronomy, science, astrology, and how these subjects integrated with the religious philosophy of the time. The astrolabewas used both by astronomers and astrologers, and it was natural to apply a clockwork drive to the rotating plate to produce a working model of the solar system.
Simple clocks intended mainly for notification were installed in towers, and did not always require faces or hands. They would have announced the canonical hours or intervals between set times of prayer. Canonical hours varied in length as the times of sunrise and sunset shifted. The more sophisticated astronomical clocks would have had moving dials or hands, and would have shown the time in various time systems, including Italian hours, canonical hours, and time as measured by astronomers at the time. Both styles of clock started acquiring extravagant features such as automata.
In 1283, a large clock was installed at Dunstable Priory; its location above the rood screen suggests that it was not a water clock. In 1292, Canterbury Cathedral installed a ‘great horloge’. Over the next 30 years there are brief mentions of clocks at a number of ecclesiastical institutions in England, Italy, and France. In 1322, a new clock was installed in Norwich, an expensive replacement for an earlier clock installed in 1273. This had a large (2 metre) astronomical dial with automata and bells. The costs of the installation included the full-time employment of two clockkeepers for two years.
Early astronomical clocks
Besides the Chinese astronomical clock of Su Song in 1088 mentioned above, in Europe there were the clocks constructed by Richard of Wallingford in St Albans by 1336, and by Giovanni de Dondi in Padua from 1348 to 1364. They no longer exist, but detailed descriptions of their design and construction survive, and modern reproductions have been made. They illustrate how quickly the theory of the mechanical clock had been translated into practical constructions, and also that one of the many impulses to their development had been the desire of astronomers to investigate celestial phenomena.
Wallingford’s clock had a large astrolabe-type dial, showing the sun, the moon’s age, phase, and node, a star map, and possibly the planets. In addition, it had a wheel of fortune and an indicator of the state of the tide at London Bridge. Bells rang every hour, the number of strokes indicating the time.
Dondi’s clock was a seven-sided construction, 1 metre high, with dials showing the time of day, including minutes, the motions of all the known planets, an automatic calendar of fixed and movable feasts, and an eclipse prediction hand rotating once every 18 years.
It is not known how accurate or reliable these clocks would have been. They were probably adjusted manually every day to compensate for errors caused by wear and imprecise manufacture.
Water clocks are sometimes still used today, and can be examined in places such as ancient castles and museums.
Clockmakers developed their art in various ways. Building smaller clocks was a technical challenge, as was improving accuracy and reliability. Clocks could be impressive showpieces to demonstrate skilled craftsmanship, or less expensive, mass-produced items for domestic use. The escapement in particular was an important factor affecting the clock’s accuracy, so many different mechanisms were tried.
Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century, although they are often erroneously credited to Nürnbergwatchmaker Peter Henlein (or Henle, or Hele) around 1511. The earliest existing spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Peter the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Spring power presented clockmakers with a new problem; how to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. This resulted in the invention of the stackfreed and the fusee in the 15th century, and many other innovations, down to the invention of the modern going barrel in 1760.
Early clock dials did not use minutes and seconds. A clock with a dial indicating minutes was illustrated in a 1475 manuscript by Paulus Almanus, and some 15th-century clocks in Germany indicated minutes and seconds. An early record of a second hand on a clock dates back to about 1560, on a clock now in the Fremersdorf collection. However, this clock could not have been accurate, and the second hand was probably for indicating that the clock was working.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, clockmaking flourished, particularly in the metalworking towns of Nuremberg and Augsburg, and in Blois, France. Some of the more basic table clocks have only one time-keeping hand, with the dial between the hour markers being divided into four equal parts making the clocks readable to the nearest 15 minutes. Other clocks were exhibitions of craftsmanship and skill, incorporating astronomical indicators and musical movements. The cross-beat escapement was invented in 1584 by Jost Bürgi, who also developed the remontoire. Bürgi’s clocks were a great improvement in accuracy as they were correct to within a minute a day. These clocks helped the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe to observe astronomical events with much greater precision than before.
A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock with a verge-and-foliot escapement, a striking train of gears, an alarm, and a representation of the moon’s phases was described by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in his book, The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks (Al-Kawākib al-durriyya fī wadh’ al-bankāmat al-dawriyya), published in 1556-1559. Similarly to earlier 15th-century European alarm clocks, it was capable of sounding at a specified time, achieved by placing a peg on the dial wheel. At the requested time, the peg activated a ringing device. The clock had three dials which indicated hours, degrees and minutes. He later made an observational clock for the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din (1577–1580), describing it as “a mechanical clock with three dials which show the hours, the minutes, and the seconds.” This was an important innovation in 16th-century practical astronomy, as at the start of the century clocks were not accurate enough to be used for astronomical purposes.
The next development in accuracy occurred after 1656 with the invention of the pendulum clock. Galileo had the idea to use a swinging bob to regulate the motion of a time telling device earlier in the 17th century. Christiaan Huygens, however, is usually credited as the inventor. He determined the mathematical formula that related pendulum length to time (99.38 cm or 39.13 inches for the one second movement) and had the first pendulum-driven clock made. In 1670, the English clockmaker William Clement created the anchor escapement, an improvement over Huygens’ crown escapement. Within just one generation, minute hands and then secondhands were added.
A major stimulus to improving the accuracy and reliability of clocks was the importance of precise time-keeping for navigation. The position of a ship at sea could be determined with reasonable accuracy if a navigator could refer to a clock that lost or gained less than about 10 seconds per day. This clock could not contain a pendulum, which would be virtually useless on a rocking ship. Many European governments offered a large prize for anyone that could determine longitude accurately; for example, Great Britain offered 20,000 pounds, equivalent to millions of dollars today. The reward was eventually claimed in 1761 by John Harrison, who dedicated his life to improving the accuracy of his clocks. His H5 clock was in error by less than 5 seconds over 10 weeks.
The excitement over the pendulum clock had attracted the attention of designers resulting in a proliferation of clock forms. Notably, the longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was created to house the pendulum and works. The English clockmaker William Clement is also credited with developing this form in 1670 or 1671. It was also at this time that clock cases began to be made of wood and clock faces to utilize enamel as well as hand-painted ceramics.
Alexander Bain, Scottish clockmaker, patented the electric clock in 1840. The electric clock’s mainspring is wound either with an electric motor or with an electro-magnet and armature. In 1841, he first patented the electromagnetic pendulum.
The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all. Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of atuning fork, the behaviour of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms. Even mechanical clocks have since come to be largely powered by batteries, removing the need for winding.
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How Clocks Work
The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon‘s shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to repetitive oscillatory processes, like the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal, which were more accurate. All modern clocks use oscillation.
Although the methods they use vary, all oscillating clocks, mechanical and digital and atomic, work similarly and can be divided into analogous parts. They consist of an object that repeats the same motion over and over again, an oscillator, with a precisely constant time interval between each repetition, or ‘beat’. Attached to the oscillator is a controller device, which sustains the oscillator’s motion by replacing the energy it loses to friction, and converts its oscillations into a series of pulses. The pulses are then added up in a chain of some type of counters to express the time in convenient units, usually seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Then finally some kind of indicator displays the result in a human-readable form.
This provides power to keep the clock going.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a weight suspended from a cord wrapped around a pulley, or a spiral spring called amainspring.
- In electric clocks, it is either a battery or the AC power line.
Since clocks must run continuously, there is often a small secondary power source to keep the clock going temporarily during interruptions in the main power. In old mechanical clocks, a maintaining power spring kept the clock turning while the mainspringwas being wound. In quartz clocks that use AC power, a small backup battery is often included to keep the clock running if it is unplugged temporarily from the wall.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a pendulum or a balance wheel.
- In some early electronic clocks and watches such as the Accutron, it is a tuning fork.
- In quartz clocks and watches, it is a quartz crystal.
- In atomic clocks, it is the vibration of electrons in atoms as they emit microwaves.
- In early mechanical clocks before 1657, it was a crude balance wheel or foliot which was not a harmonic oscillator because it lacked a balance spring. As a result they were very inaccurate, with errors of perhaps an hour a day.
The advantage of a harmonic oscillator over other forms of oscillator is that it employs resonance to vibrate at a precise naturalresonant frequency or ‘beat’ dependent only on its physical characteristics, and resists vibrating at other rates. The possible precision achievable by a harmonic oscillator is measured by a parameter called its Q, or quality factor, which increases (other things being equal) with its resonant frequency. This is why there has been a long term trend toward higher frequency oscillators in clocks. Balance wheels and pendulums always include a means of adjusting the rate of the timepiece. Quartz timepieces sometimes include a rate screw that adjusts a capacitor for that purpose. Atomic clocks are primary standards, and their rate cannot be adjusted.
Synchronized or slave clocks
Some clocks rely for their accuracy on an external oscillator; that is, they are automatically synchronized to a more accurate clock:
- Slave clocks, used in large institutions and schools from the 1860s to the 1970s, kept time with a pendulum, but were wired to amaster clock in the building, and periodically received a signal to synchronize them with the master, often on the hour. Later versions without pendulums were triggered by a pulse from the master clock and certain sequences used to force rapid synchronization following a power failure.
- Synchronous electric clocks don’t have an internal oscillator, but rely on the 50 or 60 Hz oscillation of the AC power line, which is synchronized by the utility to a precision oscillator. This drives a synchronous motor in the clock which rotates once for every cycle of the line voltage, and drives the gear train.
- Computer real time clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (usually weekly) synchronized over the internet to atomic clocks (UTC), using a system called Network Time Protocol.
- Radio clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (often daily) synchronized to atomic clocks (UTC) with time signals from government radio stations like WWV, WWVB, CHU, DCF77 and the GPS system.
This has the dual function of keeping the oscillator running by giving it ‘pushes’ to replace the energy lost to friction, and converting its vibrations into a series of pulses that serve to measure the time.
- In mechanical clocks, this is the escapement, which gives precise pushes to the swinging pendulum or balance wheel, and releases one gear tooth of the escape wheel at each swing, allowing all the clock’s wheels to move forward a fixed amount with each swing.
- In electronic clocks this is an electronic oscillator circuit that gives the vibrating quartz crystal or tuning fork tiny ‘pushes’, and generates a series of electrical pulses, one for each vibration of the crystal, which is called the clock signal.
- In atomic clocks the controller is an evacuated microwave cavity attached to a microwave oscillator controlled by amicroprocessor. A thin gas of cesium atoms is released into the cavity where they are exposed to microwaves. A laser measures how many atoms have absorbed the microwaves, and an electronic feedback control system called a phase locked loop tunes the microwave oscillator until it is at the exact frequency that causes the atoms to vibrate and absorb the microwaves. Then the microwave signal is divided by digital counters to become the clock signal.
In mechanical clocks, the low Q of the balance wheel or pendulum oscillator made them very sensitive to the disturbing effect of the impulses of the escapement, so the escapement had a great effect on the accuracy of the clock, and many escapement designs were tried. The higher Q of resonators in electronic clocks makes them relatively insensitive to the disturbing effects of the drive power, so the driving oscillator circuit is a much less critical component.
This counts the pulses and adds them up to get traditional time units of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It usually has a provision forsetting the clock by manually entering the correct time into the counter.
- In mechanical clocks this is done mechanically by a gear train, known as the wheel train. The gear train also has a second function; to transmit mechanical power from the power source to run the oscillator. There is a friction coupling called the ‘cannon pinion’ between the gears driving the hands and the rest of the clock, allowing the hands to be turned by a knob on the back to set the time.
- In digital clocks a series of integrated circuit counters or dividers add the pulses up digitally, using binary logic. Often pushbuttons on the case allow the hour and minute counters to be incremented and decremented to set the time.
This displays the count of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. in a human readable form.
- The earliest mechanical clocks in the 13th century didn’t have a visual indicator and signalled the time audibly by striking bells. Many clocks to this day are striking clocks which strike the hour.
- Analog clocks, including almost all mechanical and some electronic clocks, have a traditional dial or clock face, that displays the time in analog form with moving hour and minute hand. In quartz clocks with analog faces, a 1 Hz signal from the counters actuates a stepper motor which moves the second hand forward at each pulse, and the minute and hour hands are moved by gears from the shaft of the second hand.
- Digital clocks display the time in periodically changing digits on a digital display.
- Talking clocks and the speaking clock services provided by telephone companies speak the time audibly, using either recorded or digitally synthesized voices.
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Types Of Clock
Clocks can be classified by the type of time display, as well as by the method of timekeeping.
Time Display Methods
Analog clocks usually indicate time using angles. The most common clock face uses a fixed numbered dial or dials and moving hand or hands. It usually has a circular scale of 12 hours, which can also serve as a scale of 60 minutes, and 60 seconds if the clock has a second hand. Many other styles and designs have been used throughout the years, including dials divided into 6, 8, 10, and 24 hours. The only other widely used clock face today is the 24 hour analog dial, because of the use of 24 hour time inmilitary organizations and timetables. The 10-hour clock was briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement, and an Italian 6 hour clock was developed in the 18th century, presumably to save power (a clock or watch striking 24 times uses more power).
Another type of analog clock is the sundial, which tracks the sun continuously, registering the time by the shadow position of its gnomon. Sundials use some or part of the 24 hour analog dial. There also exist clocks which use a digital display despite having an analog mechanism—these are commonly referred to as flip clocks.
Alternative systems have been proposed. For example, the Twelve o’clock indicates the current hour using one of twelve colors, and indicates the minute by showing a proportion of a circular disk, similar to a moon phase.
Digital clocks display a numeric representation of time. Two numeric display formats are commonly used on digital clocks:
- the 24-hour notation with hours ranging 00–23;
- the 12-hour notation with AM/PM indicator, with hours indicated as 12AM, followed by 1AM–11AM, followed by 12PM, followed by 1PM–11PM (a notation mostly used in the United States).
Most digital clocks use an LCD, LED, or VFD display; many other display technologies are used as well (cathode ray tubes, nixie tubes, etc.). After a reset, battery change or power failure, digital clocks without a backup battery or capacitor either start counting from 12:00, or stay at 12:00, often with blinking digits indicating that time needs to be set. Some newer clocks will actually reset themselves based on radio or Internet time servers that are tuned to national atomic clocks. Since the release of digital clocks in the mainstream, the use of analogue clocks has declined significantly.
For convenience, distance, telephony or blindness, auditory clocks present the time as sounds. The sound is either spoken natural language, (e.g. “The time is twelve thirty-five”), or as auditory codes (e.g. number of sequential bell rings on the hour represents the number of the hour like the bell Big Ben). Most telecommunication companies also provide a Speaking clock service as well.
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Clocks are in homes, offices and many other places; smaller ones (watches) are carried on the wrist; larger ones are in public places, e.g. a train station or church. A small clock is often shown in a corner of computer displays, mobile phones and many MP3 players.
The purpose of a clock is not always to display the time. It may also be used to control a device according to time, e.g. an alarm clock, a VCR, or a time bomb (see: counter). However, in this context, it is more appropriate to refer to it as a timer or trigger mechanism rather than strictly as a clock.
Computers depend on an accurate internal clock signal to allow synchronized processing. (A few research projects are developing CPUs based on asynchronous circuits.) Some computers also maintain time and date for all manner of operations whether these be for alarms, event initiation, or just to display the time of day. The internal computer clock is generally kept running by a small battery. Many computers will still function even if the internal clock battery is dead, but the computer clock will need to be reset each time the computer is restarted, since once power is lost, time is also lost.
An ideal clock is a scientific principle that measures the ratio of the duration of natural processes, and thus will give the time measure for use in physical theories. Therefore, to define an ideal clock in terms of any physical theory would be circular. An ideal clock is more appropriately defined in relationship to the set of all physical processes.
This leads to the following definitions:
- A clock is a recurrent process and a counter.
- A good clock is one which, when used to measure other recurrent processes, finds many of them to be periodic.
- An ideal clock is a clock (i.e., recurrent process) that makes the most other recurrent processes periodic.
The recurrent, periodic process (e.g. a metronome) is an oscillator and typically generates a clock signal. Sometimes that signal alone is (confusingly) called “the clock”, but sometimes “the clock” includes the counter, its indicator, and everything else supporting it.
This definition can be further improved by the consideration of successive levels of smaller and smaller error tolerances. While not all physical processes can be surveyed, the definition should be based on the set of physical processes which includes all individual physical processes which are proposed for consideration. Since atoms are so numerous and since, within current measurement tolerances they all beat in a manner such that if one is chosen as periodic then the others are all deemed to be periodic also, it follows that atomic clocks represent ideal clocks to within present measurement tolerances and in relation to all presently known physical processes. However, they are not so designated by fiat. Rather, they are designated as the current ideal clock because they are currently the best instantiation of the definition.
Navigation by ships and planes depends on the ability to measure latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to determine through celestial navigation, but the measurement oflongitude requires accurate measurement of time. This need was a major motivation for the development of accurate mechanical clocks. John Harrison created the first highly accurate marine chronometer in the mid-18th century. The Noon gun in Cape Town still fires an accurate signal to allow ships to check their chronometers.
I like the idea that there was a 10-hour clock, which became briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement. And this raised in me a curiosity as to why there are 24 hours in a day… !? Why 24??? Okay, okay… I know… Why not 24… ? But still, there must have been a fairly comprehensive reason as to why 24 hours was chosen… Rather than 20, or 15, or whatever… ? Well, there are several websites that recount reasons as to why this is so…
But ultimately, the purpose of this blog is not really interested in why there are 24 hours in a day… For me, all this seems to demonstrate clearly is mankind’s ability to give meaning to things that didn’t have (or even, really need) any meaning. Whatever “memes” were floating around at that “point in time” i.e. when the clock was invented, gave credence and importance to the number 24 over other numbers… I mean, it’s certainly not the case that some righteous ‘dude’ sat down one day, and feeling the need to divide up the day into smaller units – mainly so that he could allocate his time more equally to specific pursuits that he had/wanted to do – sat there experimenting with 10 hour days, 15 hour days, 40 hour days, etc… and eventually choose 24 hour days, simply because the groove this gave his days felt good. I mean, come on… It’s another one of those social constructs, which apparently allow us humans to function better within the confines of our social conformity, similar to some of those that I’ve already discussed in previous blogs i.e. Imaginez… Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe!
All this 24 hour business shows us is that we’ve chosen to describe – as linearly as possible – the passing of time with 24 equally divided hours. Why is this? Well… When you’re a human being i.e. a big hairless ape-like-creature, creatures who – through memetic evolution – become curious about our own passage through entropy… Oops… I mean time… We begin to notice that ‘time’ can sometimes fly-by (especially when having fun), while sometimes it can crawl along, sluggish and sloth like, dragging the moments out into gruelling hours of torment. So how do we measure it? How can we tell if our perception of its passing is going slowly or quickly? And bang… There’s the devise… A clock springs forth from someone’s imagination.
Here I would like you to take a moment to view the following video on how the perception of time can distort due to certain pressures and/or stresses that are induced within the perceiver.
So… What I’m really curious about is… What limits our perception of time. ??? Even… What regulates our perception of time. ??? Just like the internal workings of watch, which cannot go beyond a certain speed, otherwise the gears and cogs that are integral to its function would fall apart and/or wear out with the increased strain… So too the human body’s biochemical system for perception has certain limitations. For example, neurones can only fire/trigger a certain number of times per second. Mainly as the discharge of ions, along with the re-uptake of the ions, throughout the neuronal structure takes a certain period of time before an action potential can be re-established. The molecules do not teleport themselves into and out of the cell without consequence… Otherwise they would simply bypass the natural order of things and the neurone would not be able to serve any function whatsoever. What is important here, is that this is a system of diffusion gradients. One that is delicately balanced on the genetic blue prints upon which the system is all built… This came about through trial and error… And this trial and error yielded the present structures that we have in our bodies here today on Earth, with their relative sizes and structures that, in relation to the organism and the atom, function in the ways that yield the best adaptive and survival results for organism in question… And that applies to all those organisms found here on Earth presently. These survival mechanisms i.e. the release of adrenaline, for example, can directly affect the complex interplay between the natural workings in the biochemical pathways of perception. Which in turn affect the way we perceive things around us… Such as the passage of time.
Time isn’t some objective quantity like the kilo or mile… The material clocks and watches that recount time’s so-called “passing” throughout our lives – along with their unit of seconds, minutes, etc… – do provide us with a linear idea of how time flows… But still, the passage of time is very intricately linked, even woven, into the fabric of our own body’s bio-mechanisms. Our bodily functions are governed by a vast and intricately array of complex cellular machinery, all of which is regulated by inter and intra cellular processes – a load of feedback loops – as well as a “bunch” of natural physical chemistry, much like those that Jack Szostak discussed in the article “Biologists On The Verge Of Creating New Form Of Life” with regard to the formation of cellular walls. These natural limitations are all interdependent on a vast and long line of cause and effect… A chain of events that allowed Life, as we know it, to come about… And, thus, these present conditions are the very limits to how the delicate systems of our current human physiology and anatomy can function… And at what rates they can function… Thus time is dependent on the environment in which it is being perceived, as well as the mechanisms i.e. our bodies, which are what we use to perceive time’s “passing”, utilising our own internal system of changes (firing of neurones, biochemical pathways eliciting changes in muscle tissue for movement, etc…).
As I’ve said earlier… Time is ultimately about change. Without change, things do not happen. We must understand that change is what drives our need to understand time… And, having seen how our bodies are really one big complex, biochemical reaction that is unfolding temporally, We – the observers – directly affect the viewing/observing of environmental changes that we witness, all through the use of our own internal biomechanical pathways, which – we must realise – can change due to stimulus, and thus alter the way in which we perceive time’s “passing.” Thus time is not objective i.e. like a second or an hour… Why did I even think that!?!? Rather it is a subjective occurrence that, through our own imposed linear division of it, has become a subjective/objective interdependent duality.
Cellular functions are all limited by diffusion gradients within the solutions of our bodily/cellular fluids, which are all at specific concentrations and temperatures, etc… Like the internal mechanisms of an overly strained watch that is running way to fast for its own design, if our bodies ran too fast, things would natural cease to function in the way that they do presently. The nonlinear dynamics of our current state of being would collapse and chaos would redesign us from the inside out. And natural selection would temper those of us hardy enough to continue into better, more functional biochemical machines. Such is evolution.
As I sit here writing this… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” The change in the watch’s internal mechanism makes itself heard… What I am hearing is change within the air pressure… Sonic pulses of rarified and pressured air. Change is everywhere… Impermanence here is important with regards to understanding what time is. We are not permanent beings who never change. Change continually goes on inside of us on a daily basis. Change allows us to perceive events in the forward motion of accruing figures of time, and allows us to develop and modify ineffectual habits with new ways of doing things… So we learn… Change shapes the landscape around us, and the cradle of the universe that our solar system rests in. Change is all important, especially when trying to understand what the “self” is… I know some of our words and ideas seem permanent and fixed… But that is delusion… That is fear of change preventing you from seeing that meaning is empty… Meaning changes… When we cling to something so strongly, we forget that it’s ALL in a constant state of flux… We forget that it is ALL changing… All the time… This is something which I am about to discuss further in a future blog on “self”… Why? Because change allows us to understand what is happening to us on a daily basis, without clinging to solid definitions of apparently real, ultimate, and constant meaning… With this idea we might well glimpse how impermanent things really are. Seconds are not concrete… They flex into and out of standard perceived notion of what a second “should” be… Our perception of these apparently solid units of temporal passing are not concrete… Why do we feel sad sometimes… ? Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with what change really is, and how common it is. I know I had until last night… Or that this morning… !?!?
Whatever it is… Or even was… I know this day will never happen again in quite the same way that it did. Change is all encompassing… Difference continually blooms everywhere… The chaos in this universal system is what makes things worth living for… It’s what drives us forward… Nothing ever truly stagnates… Only the rigid ideas of our egocentric certainty… A permanence driven by pride and self-assured delusion… Prevent us all from seeing this ocean of change that surrounds us… That washes around me… And yet sometimes I will probably still wake up and feel like it’s the same day as it was last week. “Oh, it’s Friday… AGAIN!?!?” But it’s not… Delusion and illusion is so pervasive in our society’s perception of the world that it is really no wonder so many of us here in the UK – apparently 15% in 2006 – suffer from depression. I mean, if you looked at time like I did until recently, I can understand that change is a really dizzying and bizarre concept… One that breaks open the bubble of conformity and certainty… Allowing uncertainty to wash over you on a daily basis… Sometimes the change is so subtle that we barely even notice it occurring through the rigid and seemingly unbending social constructs that we use to define time and other seemingly permanent, well established ideas… And it is for this very reason that I am driven to despair when people look to science for ultimate and unbending truths… “But you said it works like that… And now you’re saying it doesn’t do that anymore… It now works like this!? What’s that all about then… You obviously haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about…” jive that I’ve seen time and again in news reports concerning climate change and other issues… When something is too clear, it becomes hard to see. It is said that a dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner.
Even so… There is still hope… Because ultimately, through these little steps – and with big awareness – we can peer into seemingly obvious notions that we’ve taken for granted for so long, and see something new, something fresh and real… Nothing lasts forever. Not even sadness… Time is testament to this… It’s not about the seconds or the minutes… These seemingly unbendable units of time’s eternal flow… Nope… It’s about change. Even time changes near big gravitational distortions in space time… And when we look closely at things around us, we may discover that even they change.
So… To bring this posting to an end, and to focus on what exactly (well, nearly exactly) ‘time’ is, I’d like to finish this exposé with that video that Tim provided me with a link to… A video that shows Dr Sean Carroll’s lecture on “The Origin Of The Universe And The Arrow Of Time”, clarifying why time moves seemingly in one direction… Why time denotes change and destroys any idea of permanence…
To find out more about Dr Sean Carroll, please click here.
Or to see another version of this lecture, the one that I originally viewed, please click here.