Exploring the essence of time
The Greeks saw time in double vision. Kronos was clock time, a humdrum tick-tock, wherein even minutes drag like Aesop’s tortoise. Kairos meant inspiring moments, “in-the-zone” time. In those instants, time speeds like Hermes on the wing, and forgotten is the swing of the pendulum, the digital pulse. Taskmaster Kronos isn’t much fun, yanking us toward rat-race Mondays, dentist chairs and April 15ths, and it’s the rare soul who befriends him. One such was the philosopher Immanuel Kant, his habits so regular that neighbors set their clocks by his morning strolls. Kairos, however, is the time of our lives.
Age, of course, tempers our perception of time. Young buck Mick Jagger belted out “Time Is on My Side”; the middle-aged rocker mused that “Time Waits for No One.” Point is, our experience of time is relative. In the realm of the sacred, time is sacramentalized, as in Islam’s five daily prayers. Liturgy, too, makes time holy, and Christmas, Lent and Easter have seasonal equivalents, a meld of the physical and metaphysical.
Both déjà vu and H.G. Wells’ time travel convince us that any wrinkle in time is freaky. Time, too, can be scary: in medieval woodcuts, the Grim Reaper carried an hourglass.
The 20th century, a century of change on hyperdrive, used time as one of its central artistic motifs—from Cubism’s bid to blast time’s boundaries by incorporating multiple perspectives simultaneously, to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, his sweeping elegy on time’s long dance, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, an epic in a day. By the end of the century, music had sped up to keep pace with how fast life now seems to us; the accelerated beats per minute of techno music might have destroyed earlier metronomes.
What’s next? Only time will tell. Time certainly provokes, as various authorities show us.
Brooks Pate owns no wristwatch and, before he married, his home contained no clocks. Yet timepieces and their essential mechanisms—the “ticker” and “counter”—so intrigue the UVA chemistry professor that he qualifies as an amateur historian of them.
“To make the best clock in the world still takes about 20 years,” he marvels, proceeding to share his pantheon of classics. There’s the marine chronometer called H1, John Harrison’s early-18th-century breakthrough, so notable that the film Longitude tells its tale. Created by an untrained engineer challenged to solve the problem of navigating at sea, its impact was earth-shaking. “[H1 was] the first clock more accurate than astronomical measurement. It showed us that the most precise thing you could measure was time, not distance,” Pate says. Then there’s the Maser, brainchild of Columbia chemist Charles Hart Townes. The first self-sustaining molecular clock, the big metal can preceded the laser and was innovative, Pate says, “because most clocks required putting energy into the ‘ticker’ because it’s losing energy. The Maser didn’t.”
What especially fascinates Pate is the atomic clock, invented in 1949. This instrument uses a very stable molecular ticker, allowing chemists to gauge with pinpoint accuracy the rotational frequency of molecules, a measurement from which their shapes can be detected. “That means minute differences in frequencies—one part in 10 million differences, for example—and for that you need a very precise clock,” he explains. Other applications? Cell phone transponders use atomic clocks to coordinate data transfer and enable phone companies to service more users on their networks, a perfect example of the adage “time is money.”
A past recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant,” Pate admits that both his avocation and his profession significantly affect his feelings about time. “My office is off the lab where we have lasers running at 10 hertz, so there’s always this 10-ticks-per-second sound in the background,” he says. “My whole life, I’ve been around mechanical noises in very fast time-repetition rates. This adds to the pressure-cooker environment of science. I’m certainly never bored, but there’s always the intense drive to know more, discover more. Working on big projects, I’m not able to sleep.”
No wonder he eschews a wristwatch. Still, the ingenuity of clocks continues to exert its appeal. “When I think of time,” Pate concludes, “I think of it in terms of processes I know. I break it down to physical events, like knowing how fast chemical reactions go or knowing how long it takes nuclei to radioactively decay. So I really have a very physical sense of time, down to individual molecular processes.”
The Clocks Inside Us
While Brooks Pate studies the kinds of clocks that chime, UVA chronobiologists Gene Block and Michael Menaker study the timing devices inside us. Biological clocks follow those 24-hour rhythms we call circadian, from the Latin circa (around) and diem (day).
“Since they’re such a common phenomenon in plants and animals, circadian rhythms are of fundamental importance,” says Block. And our knowledge of their complexity, he points out, has grown considerably since their detection in the 1700s by physicist Jean-Jacques de Mairan.
While the ancients believed that the sun alone controlled the sleep cycles of animals and the movements of plants, de Mairan, by watching plants in darkness, discovered their internal clocks. Later scientists disputed this, holding that unseen cosmic rays determined these kinds of rhythms. Finally, after long experiments involving rodents on running wheels and the observation of birds and honeybees, followed by the study of humans in controlled light and dark environments, a clearer consensus has emerged. Inside the mammalian brain, we’ve known for a long time, there’s a master timekeeper—the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN)—located in the hypothalamus. Yet it’s only recently that we’ve discovered other clocks in other brain regions, as well as in non-neural tissues.
“In theory at least,” Block says, “every cell could have a clock.”
There isn’t a single biological clock, then, but an entire, intricate system of them. As Menaker explains, “It’s a system of many oscillators—probably two or three in the brain, then in all the other cells, particularly in organs like the liver and lungs and heart. And the whole system has to be held together in adaptive synchrony.”
When the system is out of sync, people experience jet lag or disorientation, as is common for those 20 percent of Americans who do shift work. Menaker elaborates: “When you shift the light cycle, some oscillators shift faster than others. The consequence is that for a while the system is out of internal synchrony. It can take 10 days to two weeks for the whole thing to come back to its normal set of phase relationships.”
Menaker’s research is at the vanguard of science’s attempt to crack the code of the circadian system. It’s a quest that’s preoccupied him since the late 1960s. Back then, he chuckles, “our field was considered mysticism. ‘Legitimate’ scientists used to shake their heads.”
In recent years, however, chronobiology has caught fire. “There’s interest on the part of the International Heart Association, which is beginning to realize that the function of the heart and circulatory system is very circadian,” Menaker says. “Endocrinologists are also interested, discovering that the way the brain controls hormones is circadian.”
Like Menaker, Block is excited by the field’s intensifying progress. “Discovery is tremendously thrilling,” he says. “In experimental work, 99 percent of it is letdown—things that don’t work out. But the 1 percent that’s actually discovery, that’s the highest high.
“Understanding sleep is the next frontier in this work,” Block adds. “At this point we can’t even answer the basic question: Why do we need to sleep?” He’s also considering expanding his musings on time itself, weighing the possibility of offering a course on time that would reflect the interests of scientists, philosophers and historians alike.
An Eastern View
Reincarnation changes everything. David Germano, a religious studies professor who specializes in Tibetan Buddhism, explains how: “Since the eighth century, most Tibetans have assumed a reincarnational worldview, in which individuals have a long trajectory of past and future lives. Instead of death essentially being a kind of problem, life is. It’s the repeated coming back that represents the cyclical picture of existence and the key religious problem, whereas the West’s key religious problem is that we have 70 years or so and then come to an end.”
Karma versus last judgment is one way of framing the contrast between East and West. Another is their differing views of time’s direction. “We tend to have a strong sense of linear time, an evolutionary perspective of things developing in an inexorable march toward progress,” Germano says. “In Tibetan Buddhist culture, there’s progress—change in society and culture—but it’s not linear. It’s constant oscillation.”
That oscillation occurs on a vast scale. In Buddhist cosmology, four eons are posited: creation, endurance, destruction and emptiness. Right now, so long as stable life forms survive, we’re in the eon of endurance. The changes occur across many centuries, and ultimately the cycle repeats.
In his 15 years at the University, getting students to grasp the nature of Tibetan time, as well as space, zoology and human agency, Germano says, has been crucial to prompting their understanding of a profoundly different culture. And that insight can be liberating: “They begin to see that our conceptions of time, space and agency are not ‘natural.’ They’re just our own contingent constructs.”
Smashing the Corporate Clock
For Darden School professor Jim Clawson, time equals constraint. The clock is a controller. A deadline is the same as a dictator. With relish, he skewers standard high-performance wisdom. “Time management is a red herring,” he says. “Energy management is key.”
To illustrate, Clawson points to his friend, UVA thoracic surgeon Curt Tribble. To get to the operating room, Tribble can choose between a “time-efficient” trek through back hallways crammed with stacked boxes and cobwebs, or a carpeted meander through the heart of the hospital, past the foyer’s grand piano and potted trees and the stream of people coming and going.
When Tribble takes the second route, his energy level is up. Why? He’s motivated by choice, not obligation. With such a simple decision, Clawson explains, the doctor has replaced a “time-oriented, deadline-driven, outside-in” perspective with one impelled by “inside-out” thinking, which asserts the autonomous human over the mechanical schedule.
The time-as-whip mentality is ingrained in our culture, according to Clawson, whose specialty is business leadership and organizational behavior. Pressurized toilet-training, the jam-packed round of schoolwork and activities thrust on kids, the performance review intensity of drained executives—all conspire to keep us frenzied. Our anxiety about time is built on a Calvinist work ethic that denigrates play and the Cartesian scientific method that insists that objective decisions, based wholly on data, are preferable to ones that incorporate emotion and intuition. Such thinking drove Henry Ford’s quip: “I try to hire a pair of hands, but they keep coming with heads and bodies attached.” And it provoked Frederick Taylor to find the fastest way for workers to load coal, which was a robotic solution that, Clawson says, “overlooked the idea of energy spawning from social relationships, from a person’s attitude, and from the ‘feel’ they have at work.”
Clawson’s contrary approach might be dismissed as “wishy-washy psychobabble,” he says, if not for the results. He cites Seattle’s Pike’s Place Fish Market. Its workforce of high school dropouts puts in 14-hour days and the business reaps profits by following three principles: play at work, make the day of everyone around you, and choose your attitude. Similarly, while the U.S. airline industry heads into a nose dive, Southwest Airlines soars as the field’s richest and safest—a result of its humane strategies.
“If we choose to live in a strictly time-oriented world, we tick off a series of happenings, but the quality of our experience, the growth that leads to wisdom, the reflection that leads to judgment, the self-management that leads to higher energy, all go by the wayside,” he says.
Back In Sync
When keeping time is concerned, progress is not always a good thing
Take the Cocke Hall clock, for example. Manufactured by the Standard Electric Time Company of Springfield, Mass., and given to the University in the 1920s, it is an example of a now-rare impulse tower clock. The basic design: a master clock within the building sent electrical impulses to slave clocks throughout Cocke Hall, once every minute, releasing the brake on their motors just long enough—eight seconds, to be exact—to advance the hands one minute.
At some point, though, Cocke’s tower clock, located high above the McIntire Amphitheater, was reworked as a stand-alone clock. It was ill-designed for such a conversion, says Robert Desrochers, a Lititz, Pa.-based expert on antique clocks. “It would never have kept good time, absolutely never.” It didn’t.
During Reunions Weekend 2005, Charles P. Cocke (Com ’65) attended a lecture by University conservator Mark Kutney on the restoration of the century-old building named for one of his forebears, John Hartwell Cocke. Intrigued, Charles and his wife, Betsy, made a gift to restore the impulse clock, which stopped working decades ago.
Kutney, who found most of the tower clock’s original parts in the attic lying alongside the failed clock, chose Desrochers to do the restoration. Desrochers took six months to clean, repaint and rebuild the clockworks and restore the bronze clock face. The original master clock was lost, so a new quartz master was created. This fall, students will be able to set their watches by it, when the clock’s up and running.
“I don’t come across that kind of movement very frequently. It’s relatively rare,” says Desrochers. “It was a great job to be able to do.”