A matter of time

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 30 Aug 2022


What is the most precious thing anyone has? You guessed it. It is time.

Time is so fundamental that no one can imagine what it would be like without it. There are a myriad theories, explanations, definitions, and calculations, yet we are nowhere nearer to what time really is, where it comes from, where it goes, and why we are so aware of it.

Our quest for the essence of time started due to the constantly repeated expression by everyone nowadays: “How time flies.”

Why do we feel time flies? Where does it fly to and why?

We can neither see it, touch it, taste it, nor hear it, yet we are acutely aware of its existence and we speak of it non-stop: What time is it? Will it take time? Classes start on time. Time to go, etc.

Carlo Rovelli, famous Italian physicist, describes time as “a derived concept, an illusion born of our incomplete knowledge; it is not something that exists objectively.”

But time cannot be just an illusion — look at your clock —the seconds, the minutes, the hours — they race and the world races with them.

Humans have been occupied with this invisible entity for thousands of years, leaving us with more questions than answers.

The answers fall right in the lap of physics and physicists who come up with theory after theory, but we are yet to be convinced.

Aristotle’s definition comes close: “Time is the calculable measure of motion with respect to before and afterness.”

His idea of time as a fixed sequence of events seemed pretty good and satisfied physicists through the centuries with only minor modifications, that is until Einstein came along in the early 20th century with his revolutionary theory of relativity.

Before we get there, let us walk through history and examine some of the concepts on time, which are endless.

It is estimated that time began 14 billion years ago, according to the Big Bang theory. It has had a constant and continued existence ever since the birth of the universe and still has no definite, complete, tangible definition, at least for the layman.

Some researchers conceive it as the fourth dimension of reality. Our reality consists of three dimensions of space, height, width and depth, and Time.

Now that we have established the fact that the definition of time is as elusive as it is illusory, why does it still pre-occupy science, biologists, researchers, and the rest of us?

Does time really fly? “It was never like this in the past”, complain older people and yet the opposite is true. Our brain’s internal clock runs slowly as we age. That gives the illusion that the days are longer because the perception of time is related to the amount of new perpetual information you absorb when you are young.

The brain has more to process when something is always happening. Should that not make time seem shorter? No, say our learned scientists, the passage of time seems longer — but why? Biochemical researchers explain that the release of dopamine when we perceive something new starts to drop as early as age 20. That makes time appear to go more quickly. Confused? Indeed.

Have you ever stopped to think why a week’s vacation flies so quickly? The week is over before it started and way too soon we are back to our same habitual, tiresome, humdrum pattern. The reason is baffling.

You enjoyed your holiday, met new people, saw new sights, tasted different foods, had new experiences, it was great. What is this? Why does “time fly when you’re having fun”? Sounds like punishment.

In reality time did not go faster, in fact it went slower because you were involved, excited, enjoying new experiences. Thus, the passage of time will slow dramatically as the rate of your experiences and accomplishments increase dramatically.

In this case, if we want time to slow down no matter our age, we should do something different, try something new; acquire a new skill? Exactly.

 Rather than just be content to float through life, we should push ourselves to do a breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and even dive in search of a slower life.

If we are focusing on something fun, we pay less attention to the passage of time..., that is why it appears to move more quickly. Adrian Bejan, PhD, Ohio State University, hypothesises that Mind Time and Clock Time are misaligned. This misalignment is strengthened as we age because we experience a slow-down in image processing speeds.

Enter Einstein, who wrote: “People who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Many physicists since have shared this view: that true reality is timeless.

In his groundbreaking Theory of Relativity, Einstein determines that time is relative. In other words, the rate that time passes depends on your “frame of reference”. Observers do not always agree on when an event happened or how it happened, or how long it took.

The faster the clock moves, the slower time passes to someone in a different frame of reference.

The missing matter in the universe can therefore be said to be accounted for by time.

Einstein has spoken and who are we to argue? His work is still a theory — calculably correct, but leaving us where we started.

A lesson learned, is to keep busy, thus slowing time and enhancing the quality of our lives.


“What then is time? If no one asks me I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

 St Augustine (396-430 AD)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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