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A Review of
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2017
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Reviewed by Alisa Williams
The title of Alan Burdick’s book instantly intrigued me. For the past decade or so my life has felt as if someone pressed the fast-forward button and forgot to let up, a perception Burdick assures is quite normal in his expansive exploration of Why Time Flies.
I knew very little about the study of time before cracking open Burdick’s book, but his relaxed prose and quick wit kept the often complex concepts behind, what we call, time easily digestible.
Burdick begins by offering up his own love-hate relationship with time, which many – if not all – readers will find relatable:
Time, it seemed to me, was an external phenomenon, imposed and oppressive – and therefore something I could actively choose to remove from my person and leave behind. This notion initially gave me a deep sense of pleasure and relief, as rebellions often do. It also usually meant that, as I headed off somewhere or to meet someone, I was not outside time at all, I was simply behind it. I was late. I was so effective at avoiding time that a long time passed before I understood that that’s what I was doing. And with that realization, another one quickly followed: I was avoiding time because secretly I feared it. I gained a sense of control from perceiving time as external, as if it were something I could step in and out of, like a stream or sidestep altogether, like a lamppost. But deep down I sensed the truth: time was – is – in me, in us (xiv).
In Why Time Flies, we journey across the globe with Burdick on his quest for answers. In Paris, with a visit to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, we learn about the history of time measurement. The invention of time zones has a rich and intriguing past, and Burdick’s narrative on the “Greenwich time lady” and her ancestors who were charged with “bringing” time to clients from the late seventeenth century through the early twentieth century was particularly fascinating.
You can feel Burdick’s deflation when, during his time in Paris, he learns that “the world’s best clock is a newsletter” and “exists only on paper and only in retrospect” (12), albeit a highly complex retrospective newsletter, mathematically calculated and carefully assembled with data from across the globe.
I had come to Paris under the assumption that the world’s most exact time emanates from some tangible, ultrasophisticated device: a fancy clock with a face and hands, a bank of computers, a tiny, shimmering rubidium fountain. The reality was far more human: the world’s best time – Coordinated Universal Time – is produced by a committee. The committee relies on advanced computers and algorithms and the input of atomic clocks, but the metacalculations, the slight favoring of one clock’s input over another’s, is ultimately filtered through the conversation of thoughtful scientists. Time is a group of people talking (14).
It is this realization that shapes the rest of the book – that time is gathered, decided, and influenced by people. In short, time is a social phenomenon. What follows is a mostly philosophical and psychological exploration of the social construct of time and its influence on our lives. Burdick does delve deep into the biological as well – specifically, the role circadian rhythms play in the body’s ability to manage time – but even this extensive review leads back to the surprising conclusion that our very cells and neurons can be influenced and changed by our social relationships.
One of the struggles Burdick grapples with throughout the book is that despite the numerous studies on time across a variety of scientific disciplines, the experts on time research can’t come to a consensus on a concise definition for time. “Suffice to say, discussions of time often get confusing because we’re using just one word to describe a multilayered experience; to the scientist connoisseur, time is as generic a noun as wine” (26).
Because of this – or perhaps in spite of it – Burdick’s analysis of time seems to leave no stone unturned. Jet lag, climate change, cyanobacteria, language, the migratory pattern of birds – all are examined. As he goes, Burdick paints a rich picture of a world entirely interconnected by the invisible threads of time that unspool around us, weaving together the very fabric of our being and our relationships with nature, with humanity, and with our own cells.
Burdick’s journey through time discovery pulses between the infinitesimal and the infinite. Precise biological and mathematical research leads to a discussion of the more vague philosophical and psychological. A look at femtoseconds and attoseconds broadens into hours, days, weeks, and years.
By the final section, Burdick has given us a robust sense of what time is and what it is not, and now seeks to answer the question posed by the title of the book. Why does time fly? This answer, unsurprisingly, is just as complex as time itself. Numerous studies indicate that our interaction with the world around us, and specifically, the other people in our life, impact our perception of time.
Mimicry seems to be an integral part of socializing, and a sensitivity to timing is essential to it; the meaning of a nod, smile, or sigh can change dramatically depending on whether it’s short or long, quick or slow, regular or sporadic…If you see a friend feeling angry, you don’t merely infer how she feels: you literally feel what she feels. Her state of mind, and state of motion, become yours too. And so does her sense of time, it turns out…the perception of time is contagious. As we converse with and consider one another, we step in and out of other’s experience, including the other’s perceptions (or what we imagine to be another’s perception, based on our own experience) of duration. Not only does duration bend, we are continuously sharing these small flexions among us like a currency or social glue (213-214).
Burdick concludes, “we must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience” (216). As to the question of why time flies, “all told, it seems, time speeds up not with age but with time pressure, which explains why people of all ages say it’s accelerating: time is the one thing that virtually everyone in equal measure feels he or she lacks” (246).
Though I felt very much a novice to the scientific study of time when I began to read Burdick’s book, after 300 pages, I have learned I am both novice and expert – my body and mind are inherently attuned to time in ways that science has been able to only partially unpack.
If Burdick’s book has given me anything (in addition to a more robust knowledge of time), it is a refreshing feeling of confidence that time is no more a master of me than I am of it. Instead, time is a construct that should be embraced, nurtured, and respected. Not feared, but never taken for granted either. After all, as Burdick notes, “time isn’t speeding up; its pace is cruelly steady, a fact of which I am ever more painfully aware” (247). After finishing Why Time Flies, I find I too am more aware of this fact, but also more motivated because of it.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com