Time to Think

Time. Though everyone is familiar with the word—whether in English or one of the roughly 6,500 other languages in use worldwide—most people infrequently give the concept of Time the deep and abiding attention it deserves. We measure it with clocks and calendars and changes in the physical world around us. And changes in ourselves. But the deeper mysteries of Time rarely command our attention and devoted exploration. We take Time for granted. Though we know the amount of Time available to each of us is limited, we hardly ever allow our thoughts to delve deeply into it. That infinitesimally tiny fraction available to us during our brief personal experience with its mystery is taken for granted, as if nothing we can do will change the way we experience Time. Yet, if we take the long view of Time, we can view parts of the past and the future with extraordinary clarity.

Looking backward, tracing our own genealogical links only a few generations, we can begin to understand how Time changed the world into which we were born. Examining evidence of how our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived can provide snapshots of reality in a Time experienced by our forebears not long ago. And if we imagine the world in which today’s newborns celebrate their eightieth birthdays, we realize those people are, today, inhabitants of the twenty-second century. Those eighty-year-olds will have witnessed the celebratory transition to a new century a few years before they became octogenarians. Some of their grandchildren could live to celebrate the twenty-third century.

Not long ago, the internet did not exist. Personal computers had not been invented. The idea of cell phones was a science fiction fantasy. Many people alive today remember cars without power brakes and power steering. Today’s eighty-three year old people were born the same year the first automatic transmissions were used in production models of Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Hundreds of thousands of products in common use today had not even been conceived before World War II. And many other products were invented, placed into common use, and retired when they became obsolete or, at the very least, rare—replaced by newer, better, more efficient products: Dictaphones®, fax machines, Polaroid® cameras, etc., etc. Allowing our fantasies free rein, we might imagine what technologies—almost unthinkable today—might exist one or two or three hundred years hence. By employing our imaginations in such a way, we experience Time as a vehicle of dreams…change…fancy…illusion.

I found a fascinating article on BBC.com that says the following;

How far do we have to go back to find the most recent common ancestor of all humans alive today? Again, estimates are remarkably short. Even taking account of distant isolation and local inbreeding, the quoted figures are 100 or so generations in the past: a mere 3,000 years ago.

And one can, of course, project this model into the future, too. The maths tells us that in 3,000 years someone alive today will be the common ancestor of all humanity.

Just 3,000 years ago, there may have been one person who is a common ancestor of everyone alive today. And someone today is—or will be—the common ancestor to everyone alive in the year 5023. Granted, the numbers are mind-boggling, but nonetheless they tell a fascinating story about genealogy. But more importantly, they clearly express the effects or the outcome or the byproducts…or whatever…of Time.

I am certain I am not the common ancestor of all the inhabitants of Planet Earth in 5023, but someone reading this post may be. Probably not…but it is possible. If one could ride along with Time as it trudges forward, the amount of knowledge to which that person could be exposed is vast. Incomprehensible. Or, if Time willingly carried that same person back three thousand years in an effort to find our common ancestor, the effects of the passage of Time would be, without a doubt, stunning.

Thus far in this post, I have treated Time as if it relies on the Earth’s circumnavigation around the Sun. But Time is relative. In a distant galaxy, the concept of Time could be radically different from the way we conceive it here. Rather than the rather parochial perspective of ancestral commonality based on the passage, in either direction, of 3,000 “years,” an interstellar perspective might be based on the formation and disintegration of stars or galaxies. Or of this and multiple other universes. Time is both infinitesimally small, as in fractions of a second, and immensely large, as in existentially vast, far beyond comprehension.

I thrive on the superficial exploration of the unknowable. What, for example, would…never mind…secrets are timeless. But I might share some of them. And I am a willing recipient of shared secrets, secrets that remain locked in my brain well beyond the end of Time. That trite phrase summons other unknowable questions that gnaw at me every moment of every day: does Time have an end? And did it have a beginning? Unlike many questions, Time will not tell. The answer to these—and so many other—questions will remain unanswered until…


No experience, regardless of how painful or overwhelming, is the end of the world. Except, of course, those unfathomably horrible experiences that clearly and irrevocably foretell the end of the world.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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