In History, Nature, Philosophy, Science, Words

dandelion - word of the week

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s about time.” Apologies for the lack of a word last week. I was called away to share some octopus in a local tapas restaurant. Mea pulpo.

Sometimes you just run out of time. And just when you think you’ve made time for all the things you need to do, something comes out of the blue and snatches it away in its deliciously salty tentacles. I’m all for spontaneity, as long as I’ve got time to prepare for it.

If you’ve read and understood A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (and let’s face it, who has), you’ll know where time comes from, but like all physicists (and this may be a bit of a sweeping generalisation), Hawking doesn’t answer the more useful question, which is “Where does it go?” Frankly, the black hole bit strikes me as a bit of a rushed ending.

And if time began with the Big Bang, what was happening before that? Far be it from me to challenge a physicist as eminent as Hawking, especially when he’s no longer around to put me in my place, but time isn’t exactly physical, is it? So I think I’m on pretty firm ground in saying the theory that time didn’t exist just because nothing was happening is constantly disproved by the existence of the Northern Line.

If you want proof of the abstract nature of time, ask when the next train is due. It’s not so much String Theory as How Long Is A Piece Of String Theory.

You might assume the word ‘time’ comes from the Latin ‘tempus’ via the French ‘temps’; after all, it begins with ‘t’ and it’s got an ‘m’ in it; but it actually comes from Old English. ‘Tima’ and ‘tid’ may sound like a couple of children’s TV characters but they were, in fact, Old English for time and tide. Their meaning was a simple fixed period of time, such as a day or a season, rather than the concept of continuous, tortuous pressure and the sense of life trickling irrevocably away, as we like to think of time today.

The ancients had a much more optimistic and manageable concept of time. The Mayans, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, to name but four, believed that time was cyclical, going round and round, and that everything was destroyed at the end of each cycle, followed by a period of replacement. I used to have a washing machine like that.

When you look at the seasons, plus the fact that everything of fundamental and firmamental importance is round and goes round – atoms, molecules, planets, stars, footballs – and the way history repeats itself and there is nothing original under the Sun, this seems like a plausible theory. Perhaps we shouldn’t be relying on physicists to explain time. Maybe a cyclist would be better qualified. Cyclists always seem to have time.

Ideas on the length of those cycles varied, however. The Hindu mahayuga is a cycle of 12,000 years, with every 1,000th mahayuga bringing an even more comprehensive cataclysm than the 999 before. The Mayans, on the other hand, calculated that each cycle would last 2.88 million days (approx 7,900 years).

You’ll notice that both cultures made sure that their cycles lasted way longer than they would, so they didn’t have to worry about being proved wrong. It should be said, however, that the last Mayan cycle did conclude in our lifetime, back in 2012, and the world didn’t end – unless you count Manchester City winning the league.

The ancients also recognised that time speeds up with the more time-saving devices you own, which is why they didn’t bother with email. And that reminds me, I’ve taken up too much of yours.

Enjoy your weekend.

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