Time and our lives

    Business Spotlight 4/2023
    pocket watch hanging in the air with path in the background
    © Andrik Langfield/unsplash.com
    Von Becca Caddy

    What would life be like if we didn’t track time? Without a clock or a watch, people could still live a relatively normal day. The human body has to evolvesich entwickelnevolved to to sync up with sth. (ifml)mit etw. synchronisiert werdensync up with the earth’s rotation over 24 hours — this is our circadian rhythmzirkadianer Rhythmus, Biorhythmuscircadian rhythm. We would still wake up at some point in the morning and get tired at night, but we might struggle to keep our jobs. Most people can’t arrive at an important meeting based on guessworkMutmaßungguesswork.

    As much as we might try to fight it, time governs our lives. From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning, time dictates when we need to take our children to school, arrive at work, get to meetings, eat lunch, leave the office and go to bed. We try to maximize time and not waste it, preoccupied with how to use it wisely, particularly in the workplace. However, most of us never consider what time is. We tend to think of it as an unchanging, natural phenomenon. But how much of it is natural and how much is a human construct?

    “Time is a concept that we do not yet understand very well,” Dr Barak Shoshany, assistant professor of physics at Brock University, in Canada, told Business Spotlight. Shoshany says the simplest definition of time is what a clock measures. “Clocks are based on events that happen regularly, in a predictablevorhersagbar, berechenbarpredictable manner,” he says. “This can be anything from the day-and-night cycle, to the swing of a pendulumPendelpendulum or the tiny vibrations of an atom. Time gives us a timelineZeitrahmentimeline, where we can determine in what order things happened and compare their durationDauerdurations.”

    It’s about keeping society organized and efficient

    Whether it’s measured in seconds, minutes, hours or years, time seems to move from past to present, always at the same paceTempopace and in the same direction. This is how society has been organized and how businesses expect people to work. “As our understanding of the universe improves, it turns out that things aren’t that simple,” Shoshany says. As part of his special theory of relativity, Albert Einstein suggested that time and space are actually interwovenverflochteninterwoven and part of a single continuum. This, he said, is space-time.

    “In general relativity, time and space are combined into one four-dimensional structure,” Shoshany explains. Instead of thinking in 3D, scientists have to start thinking in 4D. “You can ‘rotate’ between space and time, just like you can rotate between two directions in space,” Shoshany says. “This leads to weirdsonderbarweird but experimentally verified phenomena.”

    Essentially, if space and time are linkedverknüpftlinked, then an object’s position in space and its speed as it moves through that space can change the experience of time. “Space-time can to bendsich biegenbend and to curvehier: sich krümmencurve,” Shoshany says. “This is what makes clocks tick slower on earth than in space,” he explains. “It may even be possible to bend space-time in a way that might allow time to flow backwards.”

    Every second matters

    This is more than an academic debate. Time is a vitalunerlässlichvital instrument used to tell us when trains should leave; when markets should open, etc. We go to a lot of trouble to measure time and make sure it’s perfectly synchronized to an international standard, Coordinated Universal Time. “Governments around the world aren’t just providing the time as an altruistic service to citizens,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire, told NPR. “It’s about keeping society organized and efficient. It’s about increasing economic productivity.”

    Once, it was enough to get up when the sun came up and go to bed when it got dark. Then, technology began to change our relationship with time. Railways made it important to standardize and coordinate time; electric light extended days into nights. Today, even the length of a second is important. A solar day is the time it takes the earth to rotate once on its axisAchseaxis, made up of 86,400 seconds. But the earth’s rotation tends to be inconsistentungleichmäßiginconsistent, and this causes disparityUngleichheit, Diskrepanzdisparity with atomic clocks. For most of us, this divergenceAbweichung, Unterschiedlichkeitdivergence of atomic time and astronomical time is not noticeable — it would take several thousand years for the difference to grow to an hour. But for our highly digitalized infrastructure, one second is a very long time. Countless computer networks, power gridStromnetzpower grids and mobile telecommunications run on fractionBruchteilfractions of a second. In financial markets, high-frequency traders use millionths or even billionthMilliardstelbillionths of a second — and are required by law to record their transactions down to that level of precision.

    Time is subjective

    The growing importance of exact time may lead to more time pressure, but there’s also the reassuranceBeruhigungreassurance that comes with routine[wg. Aussprache]routine. Our experience of time depends greatly on context — a meeting may to drag on and on (ifml.)sich ewig hinziehendrag on and on while holidays and weekends to whizz by in a flashim Nu vergehenwhizz by in a flash. In the book The Structure of Time, British cognitive linguist Vyvyan Evans writes: “Despite the conceptual models and language we employ to make sense of it, our experience of time is not a thing which can be pointed to and observed.”

    Is time natural or a human construct?

    Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are fascinated by this subjective view of time. They believe it affects work and well-being, writing that when time is “to distort sth.etw. verzerrendistorted” through personal trauma, distressVerzweiflungdistress or broader global events, it can have long-term health implications. This is sometimes called “temporal disintegrationzeitliche Desintegration, Auflösung zeitlicher Ordnungtemporal disintegration or discontinuity”.

    The researchers give the example of the distress that came with Covid-related lockdowns. Many people reported that, because of the forced changes to their routines, they had lost a solid sense of time. The feeling of being to be adriftdahintreiben; hier: keine Fixpunkte habenadrift produced worries about the future and about what would happen.

    Time and culture

    The fact that humans don’t share a common understanding of time can be seen in cultural differences. The authors of a 2018 research paper called What Is the Structure of Time? identified “clock-time cultures, in which great importance is to be attached to sth.mit etw. verbunden seinattached to the clock and to times or deadlines defined in terms of specific hourhier: Zeitangabehours. By contrast, in event-time cultures, the passage of time is defined by events, and people do not attach great weight to times set in advance.”

    Our experience of time depends on context

    Many people think of time as linear, with the past behind us and the future ahead. However, not all cultures see it that way. For the Aymara people living in the the Andesdie AndenAndes, for example, the past is in front of them. It has already happened, so they can see it.

    While the topicThematopic can be loaded with emotion — consider the endless discussion about whether or not to keep daylight saving timeSommerzeitdaylight saving time, for example — perhaps it’s best to think of time as an imperfect technology that’s here to help us. Just as our maps have improved over time, for example, so, too, can our clocks.



    • Sorry I’m late. I lost to lose track of timedas Zeitgefühl verlierentrack of time.

    • There’s no need to hurry. You can take your time with this.

    • I don’t want to think about what will happen if we to run out of sth.an etw. knapp werden, etw. nicht mehr habenrun out of time.

    • Tom got to the airport just in the in the nick of timein letzter Sekunde, kurz vor Torschlussnick of time to catch his flight.

    • Another delay! Why can’t the train be on time for once?

    • We had to work around the clock to get everything finished.

    • The new manager has got the factory running like to run like clockworkwie am Schnürchen laufenclockwork.

    • I’ll start right away. This is too important to leave to the last minute.

    • Jan must have pulled an to pull an all-nighter (ifml.)eine Nachtschicht einlegenall-nighter to get all of that work done.

    • This is supposed to be finished by Friday, but we can’t start until the client has given us the to give sb. the go-ahead (ifml.)jmdm. grünes Licht gebengo-ahead.

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