How time flies

Review December 2017 by Dan Byrnes of Alan Burdick, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. Melbourne Australia, Text Publishing, 2017.

This is a book not so much about time, as about time perception, how we perceive time and its passages. Yes, that is right, it is all more complicated than we thought.

Burdock says, physical time needs to be translated into what physiology can understand, and since all of us are time dependent, the sense of what time it is is social (and hence can be manipulated, as it once was when the world was divided into time zones to synchronize railway movements in different cities in different countries).

Burdick does update on a few points, but I consider the book a failure as it mostly treats new US research on time perception (down to nanoseconds, which is the direction that psychological research on time has gone, more so in the US). There is no discussion of music (an enormously time bound art) or its appreciation, nor on any scientific differences in international positions on time perception (if any). Memory is indexed but music is not.

I need to mention a proviso here … the best book I have ever read on time was by J. B. Priestley, years ago now. However, Priestley was mostly discussing our perceptions of external time. In comparison with which, the single most valuable section of this book by Burdick is his discussion of physiological or non-physical time (where physical is as in the sense of, physics). Time is outside us (as when night turns to day and time progresses, the arrow of time goes forward) – but it is also inside us, as all the cells of our body heed circadian rhythms that ultimately heed the movements of the Earth around the Sun! Burdick insists this, I feel he is right, but other questions he tends to ignore – particularly musical questions. (Music is the most time-bound art there is!)

I also want to know more than Burdick tells us about how and why children feel time moves so slowly, a question Burdick does address, while old people feel that time moves oh-so-fast, a question my grandmother put me onto as she entered her early 80s. (She lived to be 92.) All this is discussed, but unsatisfactorily.

Burdick does discuss as separate topics, duration, temporal order, tense (the linguistic sense of past, present and future) and the feeling of nowness. These are all different topics. Rather surprisingly, we find time is like wine; it is of many types, it might depend in which culture or at what age it is grown (or experienced). Our sense of time is something we grow into as we get older, which is precisely why I want to know what happens for older people, but Burdick does not tell us clearly. Again, oddly, while he discusses time, Burdick does not discuss space, yet the Einsteinian revolution in quantum physics tells us that you cannot speak of one without speaking of the other. Perhaps these really are questions that are related-but-separate? Burdick also fails to discuss sex, whereas I want to know why when I was having fun in the sack, and the lady involved often seemed to agree, time got to seem to be absent, and very interesting and pleasurable it was too. Burdick does not tell me what was going on here, or seeming to be going on, he simply does not say. (Nor does Burdick index the word – sex.)

Well, enough of the grumbles. The more I grumble the more the reader will grumble, and together we will have to agree; this book on time is taking up far too much time. I think there is an American cultural problem here that Burdick cannot help reporting as by trade he is a reporter who is an American. Still, Burdick warns us that the topic of time is full of rabbit holes – and it is. Somehow, I still prefer the treatment by J. B. Priestley. Burdick, I rather think, got lost in recent American psychological experiments, got lost in their preoccupations with mixing small slices of time with drugs. A waste of time, then?


Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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