Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation

  • By Alan Burdick
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by David Z. Morris
  • March 24, 2017

A deeply engaging exploration of time as a social convention and biological mystery.

Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies is a powerful attempt to reckon with a deceptively simple question: “What is time?” There’s an easy answer, of course — time is that thing displayed on the face of a clock. But scratch the surface even slightly, and time is one of the great inscrutable mysteries of human social life — and of existence itself.

Time is at once an individual perception, a social contract, and an unstoppable natural force. But how do we perceive the passage of time, when we have no “sense of time” clearly equivalent to our senses of smell or taste? How do we all agree that it’s five o’clock anywhere? And why do our bodies inevitably bow to time’s unstoppable forces?

The first and best half of How Time Flies focuses on human society’s collective relationship to time. Maybe the most revelatory sequence is Burdick’s description of the massive network of atomic clocks that now maintain humanity’s baseline time — Coordinated Universal Time.

This central strut of modern society is run by a global cadre of men and women whose lives are dedicated with extreme focus to helping us all live in the same second. There’s something arcane and monkish about it, and Burdick’s beautifully detailed description reads like it was ripped straight from a Philip K. Dick novel.

But time is also much more than a technical construct. The bodies of nearly all living beings contain “clocks,” more commonly known as circadian rhythms. They affect body temperature, the speed of hair growth, and alertness, among other processes.

Burdick traces the sources of these rhythms down to the molecular level, to the genes that code them as an adaptation to the movement of the sun tens of millions of miles away. It’s a moving dive into the most basic unseen mechanisms that constitute who we, as humans and as animals, are.

There’s an obvious tension between these social and biological forces. Mechanized time, which emerged in full force in the 19th century, is sometimes interpreted by historians and in popular culture as a tool of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism — think Charlie Chaplin ruled by a dictatorial whistle in “Modern Times.”

So, is time — and especially the kind of hyper-divided, surreally precise time we are chained to now — a tool of alienation, or even oppression?

Burdick’s answer is more or less that, no, there’s little fundamental difference between our current sense of time and the tolling of a medieval church bell. His most convincing rebuttal is the story of Michel Siffre, a Frenchman who descends into lightless caves for extended periods to experiment with his own perception of time. The experiences drive Siffre temporarily batty, suggesting that we somehow need not only our internal clocks, but the collective awareness of structured time, to anchor our sense of self.

Through all of this, Burdick peppers personal meditations on time, in particular by chronicling the growth of his children. This book, Burdick isn’t shy about telling us, took a long time to write. But he is strongest as a straight science writer, describing some unseeable or barely conceivable process in his very clear, precise language. He’s fine when reflecting on his personal experiences of time, and conversant in William James and Augustine, but short of sublime.

The book really does begin to drag, though, when Burdick turns from exploring time as a biological or social phenomena to focusing on the intersection of time and subjective consciousness.

There is, it turns out, a lively scientific community dedicated to testing how humans perceive the passage of time. For instance, experiments show that when a still image of a dancer in motion is flashed on a screen, humans see it as lasting longer than an image of a dancer standing still, displayed for the same objective duration. And while we may feel that extreme experiences like falling make time “slow down,” our perceptions don’t actually become more acute.

Burdick recounts an entire laundry list of lab experiments like this, and the theoretical squabbling over how to understand them. The ultimate takeaway is worthwhile — human perception of time, it turns out, falls victim to the same sort of evolutionary quirks that make us susceptible to visual illusions and very poor at judging probabilities.

But Burdick puts an awful lot of obscuring detail between readers and that big picture. He seems aware of the problem, at one point describing much of the research as no more profound than “a supposition wrapped in numbers.” This weak section makes up maybe 50 pages of When Time Flies, but it felt at least twice as long as the rest of the book — a bit of accidental meta-commentary on Burdick’s subject, I suppose.

It made me wish he’d spent more time hanging out with serious philosophers than laboratory psychologists. That might have left me with more tools to really think about time and subjectivity with some precision, instead of with a basket of intriguing factoids. It might also have helped Burdick offer a more satisfying, comprehensive answer to his central question.

Instead, Burdick mostly leaves us gawping in wonder at a mystery that only seems to get deeper the more we poke and prod it. But that’s a strength in the book, not a flaw. Especially as the digital clock ticks, information flows at us relentlessly, and the mechanized human world grinds on, it’s worth your time to be reminded that behind it all, there are weighty and perhaps ultimately unknowable matters afoot.

David Z. Morris covers technology news for Fortune, and his writing on technology and society has also appeared in the Atlantic, Aeon, and Pacific Standard. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

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