Time for a few thoughts on time

Oct 02 2020

Time for a few thoughts on time

“It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up.”
― J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

“This week flew by!’ “Finally, Friday! This week has dragged on forever!” Students will make contradictory remarks like these on Friday mornings as they cross the street or wait to have their temperatures taken before entering campus for their final day of the school week. So, what explains why one student sees the week as a blur while the other bemoans the five days as a slog?

The last six months have made me think a lot about time and how we experience it. Before we went out for Spring Break, we were all in school together, students participated in plays, concerts, and athletic competitions without masks, and life felt relatively normal. On the one hand, those days feel like eons ago; on the other hand, it seems like it was just yesterday.

This year has brought so many unexpected events: Since the second week of January, 32.9 million around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 995,000 people have died. In the United States alone, over 200,000 people have lost their lives and more than 7million have tested positive. To put those numbers in context, in America, more than 3 times the number of people living in the city of Houston have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and almost four times the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War have passed away.

Meanwhile, the economic fallout has been mind-boggling. Long term businesses have shuttered their doors, unemployment statistics have reached numbers not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930’s, and industries that seemed “too big to fail” have suffered incredible losses.

Things we took for granted like going to restaurants, movies, or concerts have disappeared. Back in March, my wife and I attended a performance by the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Majestic Theatre; we had an eerie feeling that this might be the last show we would see for a while, but we didn’t realize then this would be the final time we would go out for the foreseeable future.

As a historian, I seek analogies from the past and this time has me reconsidering the months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, the days after World War I broke out in August 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the US entering World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I wonder: Did people during these times feel like events were rushing out of control or did they view what was occurring as a culmination of long-lasting trends? How does life appear when we’re living through earth-shattering happenings rather than looking back in retrospect?

In our own era, how do we teach children the concept of time when it feels so elusive to us? We have attached a couple of videos here on the notion of time and the idea of entropy. With animations and examples, these videos explain how entropy works, the arrow of time, and why it is irreversible. Time is an elusive concept and even when children or adults know how to tell it, we still may not internalize the notion of what exactly it is.

As much as we may enjoy books and movies that play with time travel, we have yet to figure out a way to either stop the flow of time or go back and change something that happened earlier. Many Keystone students, just like my sons when they were younger, love Mary Pope Osborne’s “The Magic Treehouse” Series where siblings Jack and Annie travel back in time. I was talking with some first graders about these books the other day as they waited to be picked up. For a more grownup time-travel story, Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63” wonderfully captures the fantasy of going back in time and asks us to consider the unforeseen consequences of altering the past.

In his biography of Albert Einstein, Walter Isaacson relates how the young physicist worked as a patent clerk in Basel, Switzerland and observed trains go back and forth in the railyard; at the same time, he watched clocks and pondered the relationship between time and space. Eventually, Einstein developed the theory of relativity that altered our world view in so many ways.

Perhaps there are a few lessons for our children beyond the mechanics and physics of time. Like Einstein, they should be unafraid to play with the concept of time as they daydream. Children need moments to just sit, think, process what they have learned and imagine how their world could be different. We need to make time so children can think about it. From their initially ill-formed thoughts may emerge grand ideas or new concepts. Second of all, children should value time and realize that at least for now, it is fleeting and finite. The Rolling Stones express this dual nature of times in two songs, as they sing, “time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me; “ but also “time is on my side.”

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