The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time

Video from Brattleboro Literary Festival

"What is time? This question has fascinated philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists for thousands of years. Why does time seem to speed up with age? What is its connection with memory, anticipation, and sleep cycles? In his book The Clock Mirage, award‑winning author and mathematician Joseph Mazur provides an engaging exploration of how the understanding of time has evolved throughout human history and offers a compelling new vision, submitting that time lives within us. With a narrative punctuated by personal stories of time’s effects on truck drivers, Olympic racers, prisoners, and clockmakers, Mazur’s journey is filled with fascinating insights into how our technologies, our bodies, and our attitudes can change our perceptions." from video introduction.

Book cover
The Clock Mirage

"Some books elucidate their subject, mapping and sharpening its boundaries. The Clock Mirage, by the mathematician Joseph Mazur, is not one of them. Mazur is out to muddy time’s waters, dismantling the easy opposition between clock time and mental time, between physics and philosophy, between science and feeling.

That split made little sense even in 1922, when the philosopher Henri Bergson and the young physicist Albert Einstein (much against his better judgment) went head-to-head at the Société française de philosophie in Paris to discuss the meaning of relativity. (Or that was the idea. Actually they talked at complete cross-purposes.)

Einstein won. At the time, there was more novel insight to be got from physics than from psychological introspection. But time passes, knowledge accrues and fashions change. The inference (not Einstein’s, though people associate it with him) that time is a fourth dimension, commensurable with the three dimensions of space, is looking decidedly frayed. Meanwhile Bergson’s psychology of time has been pruned by neurologists and put out new shoots

Our lives and perceptions are governed, to some extent, by circadian rhythms, but there is no internal clock by which we measure time in the abstract. Instead we construct events, and organise their relations, in space. Drivers, thinking they can make up time with speed, acquire tickets faster than they save seconds. Such errors are mathematically obvious, but spring from the irresistible association we make (poor vulnerable animals that we are) between speed and survival.

from the article: How time vanishes: the more we study it, the more protean it seems

The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (link)


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