What time is it?

At the end of the nineteenth century, America’s railroads began using a standardized time system involving four time zones. Within each time zone, clocks were synchronized. The concept was new and revolutionary for many people. Prior to the standardization, each community had its own time. In many communities, the local authority on time was a jeweler, who possessed the skills to work on watch and clocks and who might own an expensive chronometer which was an accurate way of measuring time. Local observations also were used to determine noon by measuring the highest point of the sun’s path across the sky. Time was completely relative. You checked the time of the place where you were. Railroad travel challenged the idea. The ability to travel hundreds of miles in a relatively short amount of time meant that people wanted to know what time it might be in a distant place. The departure and arrival times of the train had to be made predictable, and, in the case of cross continent travel, the question arose of what time it was on the train. Did the time at the departure point persist for the entire journey? At what point does the train “switch” to the time at the arrival point?

All of this was long before I was born and so I accepted time zones as a way of thinking about time. My parents were pilots and we traveled across time zones. I clearly remember a trip our family took when I was a child where we took off in mountain time, crossed central time in flight and landed in eastern time. The two hour difference was impressive. Big Timber, Montana to Indianapolis, Indiana was a long leg for our family’s airplane, and it made it possible for us to make Washington, DC in a single day. We, of course, arrived with our internal clocks still aligned with Mountain Time and stayed up a lot later than our usual bedtime.

The concept of time was on my mind once again yesterday as I participated in a two hour Zoom meeting with participants from Portland, Oregon and Daytona Beach, Florida. When it was 4 pm here, it was 3 in Oregon and 6 in Florida. Somehow the experience reminded me of the days when we would tune in particular television shows with an awareness of the difference of the time zones. The CBS Evening News, for example, was live across the nation, so we were used to all watching at the same time, which meant a different time on the west coast from the time on the east coast.

We’ve adjusted to the concept of time zones. In the case of our family, we think not only in terms of the time of day, but also which day it is. Our daughter lives in Japan and we speak by Skype or FaceTime on a regular basis. We get a kick out of talking to tomorrow. When our grandson was born, I announced to friends, “Our daughter just had a baby tomorrow!” The joke in our family is that we found out about his birth before his birthday.

We have a nephew who has traveled around the world going in one direction. He went from the United States to Europe and on to Asia and returned by crossing the International Date line while flying home across the Pacific. Unlike us, who have “lost” a day going one direction and then “gained” it back returning in the opposite direction, he only crossed the date line once, gaining a day. I joke with him that as a result he should now celebrate his birthday one day earlier, as he really hasn’t lived as many days as reported by a calendar. Of course the flaw in that rationale is that it doesn’t hold up if you count hours gained by traveling east. In reality, he has experienced the same amount of time as if he had not traveled.

Back in the time when people were just adjusting their thinking to accept the concept of universal time, Albert Einstein was thinking about time from a much bigger perspective. What would be the nature of time if one could travel huge distances in space? If it were possible to travel faster than the speed of light, could you travel backwards or forward in time? Since it takes time for light to travel through space, the farther we look into space the farther into the past are the events we are observing. This couples conceptualization eventually led Einstein to develop and refine his theories of special and general relativity.

Given the complexity of time and of our understanding of how it works, it shouldn’t surprise us that times reported in the Bible don’t always align with our way of thinking. According to the Bible, Methuselah, son of Enoch and grandfather of Noah, lived to the ripe old age of 969. Noah is said to have lived 350 years after the flood. Moses is reported to have lived to the age of 120, which is two years less than the oldest documented person. Jeanne Calmet, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days, set a record for the length of a human life with an officially recorded birth and death date.

We live our lives thinking mostly of much shorter spans of time. We know that there is a finite number of days remaining in our lives. At my age it is fairly certain that the number of days I have already experienced is more than the number of days in my personal future. That knowledge gives time a certain value. I am less patient with wasting time than once was the case. On the other hand, I am more able to take time to reflect and think than at certain other points in my life. I value being as much as I value doing even though there are days when I am frustrated by my lack of accomplishments.

So when I rise in the middle of the night to write in my journal, as is the case this morning, I have to accept that I really don’t know what time it is. I’ll probably go back to bed for a while and when I wake it will still be today.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!