What is Time?

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By Rahul Gladwin | July, 1999.

What is time? The notion of time has been thought upon by philosophers since ancient times, but no one has come up to an equitable answer. The question is one of the most elementary questions in philosophy and deals with all the existing matter in the universe. This essay systematically disintegrates this question into simpler components and individually analyzes a possible solution to each question. St. Augustine first defined "time" as the "past", "present" and the "future". What do these three entities actually mean? Does time really exist? How does time relate to us? Here is an critical analysis of the above questions.

Time is one of the world's deepest mysteries. No one can say exactly what it is. The more we think about it; the more complicated explaining it becomes. The dictionary defines "time" as a period during which an action, process or condition exists or continues. Even though we cannot explain what time is, we can measure its flow. The ability to measure time makes our way of life possible. Most human activities involve groups of people acting together in the same place at the same time. People could not do this if they did not all measure time in the same way.

One way of thinking about time is to imagine a world without time. If time did not exist, this timeless world would be at a standstill: like a photograph. But if some kind of change took place, that timeless world would be different "now" than it was "before." The period--no matter how brief--between "before" and "now" indicates that time must have passed. Thus, time and change are related because the passing of time depends on changes taking place. Change in time is detected from change in the universe. In the real world, changes never stop happening. Some changes seem to happen only once, like the falling of a particular leaf. Other changes happen over and over again, like the breaking of waves against the shore.

Any change that takes place again and again stands out from other changes. The rising and setting of the sun are examples of such change. The first people to keep time probably counted such natural repeating events and used them to keep track of events that did not repeat. Later, people made clocks to imitate the regularity of natural events. When people began to count repeating events, they began to measure time. Scientists think of time as a fundamental quantity that can be measured. The noted physicist Albert Einstein realized that measurements of these quantities are affected by relative motion (motion between two objects). Because of his work, time became popularly known as the fourth dimension.

Time that has gone by is called the "past". The past is as important as the present and the future. Changes or conditions that occurred in the past, influence the future. The past should have existed in order for the future to exist. The future cannot without exist without it. Since the past does not exist now, some philosophers argue that time does not exist altogether; for time to exist, all the three components have to exist: is that possible? No.

Time that is yet to come is called the "future". Time is always flowing towards the future. We often take things for granted to happen into the future: the sunrise; yet the future does not exist. Since the past existed, but does not exist now and the future has to exist, but does not exist now does time exist? Maybe; maybe not. The present is just a hinge that connects the past to the future.

Many physicists believe that the apparent non-stop, forward flow of time is not a property of the basic laws of nature. They consider it a result of the fact that the universe is expanding and becoming more disorganized. Some physicists have considered the possibility that, under certain circumstances, time might flow backward. But experiments have not supported this idea.

However, Albert Einstein came up with a concept of Time Dilation. Although, time is not a physical constant, the passage of time in any one place can be measured with great accuracy and precision. The effect of motion and gravity on time is that it is dilated or expanded. In 1905 Einstein formulated the effect of motion on time in his special theory of relativity, and in 1917 he formulated the effect of gravity on time in his general theory of relativity. These effects were observed in experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. In one such experiment in 1971, atomic clocks were carried on two high-speed aircraft. One travelled eastward, that is, in the rotational direction of the earth, and one westward. After the flight, the onboard clocks were found to have either lost or gained time (relative to a ground-based atomic clock) depending on their direction of travel, an effect of motion, and their altitude, an effect of gravity. The results have given us a possibility to alter the flow of time.

So what is time? It is the medium for all transformations. It is something that exists and does not exist at the same time. It is something that can neither be stopped nor be destroyed. It is something that is continuously flowing; and it was, is and will continue to bring about change in the universe. Time is something that itself changes and brings about change in things that flow through it; that does not mean that there are things in the universe that don't flow through time.

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