Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our Most Important Sense: A Sense of Time

In the last three blogs I traced human development from cavemen through ancient civilizations to the modern computer. I presented evidence that this development was dependent on a superior memory and a sense of time that extended far into the past and well into the future.

Yet, today, our sense of time is so much a part of our lives we hardly notice it's there. 
A deep-sea fish has probably no means of apprehending the existence of water; it is too uniformly immersed in it...
Sir Oliver Lodge, British scientist
While the other senses such as seeing, hearing etc. are widely studied, the sense of time, while crucial, does not get much attention. 

There are two reasons for this: the first is that like the deep-sea fish we are too immersed in time so we have few means of apprehending its existence; the second is that our experience with time is quite complicated, so it's hard to know where to start or what questions to ask.
"Time perception studies the sense of time, which differs from other senses since time cannot be directly perceived but must be reconstructed by the brain."
"Humans can perceive relatively short periods of time, in the order of milliseconds, and also durations that are a significant fraction of a lifetime. Human perception of duration is subjective and variable."
In order to unravel time, as we experience it, we must separate the layers. I suggest the following is a good place to start:


Objective time: The ticking of the clock, the sun rising, the sun setting -- this will 'wait for no one' and exists independently of a culture or a person.

Cultural time: Every culture, each region, each business has its own shared concepts of time, its own conventions and expectations. A New York minute is faster than a New Orleans minute, for example.

Personal time: Each of us carries within us a 'time-map' of our lives, from earliest memories to the different schools we attended and places we lived which include milestone events, such as falling in love, losing a friend, starting a career and going though a family's divorce. Much of this map is divided based on these events that mark time -- rather than the mathematical divisions of the calendar or the hourly divisions of the clock. In addition when we are 'off duty' we experience time very differently than when we are 'on duty' or 'on the clock'.

The rhythm of the duration of an event is an experience of our consciousness whose beginning and end is not determined by the clock but by its duration within our consciousness, and once there, it has no other dimensions and no other limits save the limits of the experience itself.
Naum Gabo, Divers Arts, 1962 
(a principle founder of the art movement known as Constructivism around 1920)

With each individual, personal time is stored in the brain. While there is much to be discovered about this process, one theory has it that each sense stores a memory of what was sensed, all of which is then somehow tied together as having happened at the same time. Yet the key point is that these memories are in the brain and can be accessed.

Each person must reconcile objective time, cultural time, and personal time to function in the society. Our sense of time is crucial as it tells us where we are on the time grid and it gives us our time bearings. Without it we would be propelled along life's journey without knowing where we are located or where we are headed.

Like the left-right, forward-back, up-down movements that define motion in the world of space (known as the x/y/z axes as described by Descartes), we keep our bearings by knowing where we are in relation to other things. And so with the dimension of time, we need to know where we are in relation to the constraints of time.

All photos in this article are courtesy of

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Ancient Manipulation of Time: Part 2

The First Computer?

Today clocks are everywhere. In addition the time on your computer, your cell phone or your cable TV is usually in sync with a central atomic clock server which means that clocks now differ only seconds at most. Clocks are a particularly human invention and their ubiquitous presence means that we have accepted them as fundamental to our lives. [1] Yet the invention of clocks involved thousands of years of development -- a story that is as fascinating as any detective movie.

About 4000 years ago, the Babylonian's began the ultimate leap from observations to predictability. In so doing they created the foundations for modern science and technology, which as we all know, has given humans the ability to dominate the Earth. Their work even led to what was arguably the first analog computer, a device that is still in wide use today.

The movement of the sun, moon, stars, constellations and planets were, for the ancients, the way they told the time of day, the month, the seasonal changes, the solstices and equinoxes and the new year. This was essential for knowing when to plant and when to harvest, when the fish ran, when animals migrated and when annual rains or floods would come.

Astronomical movements were to the Babylonians a celestial clock. And since time ruled the lives of people and empires, they looked to understand the complexity of time. Starting about 1800 BCE, the Babylonians kept comprehensive records of astronomical movements on clay tablets written in cuneiform. Known as the Babylonian astronomical diaries, these diaries now combined the power of human memory with the power of the written record.

For the purposes of this blog about time, it is important to note that observations deal with the past while predictability derives from these past observations and then projects into the future. This simple point is a key to understanding the human relation to time and how it has given us so much power.

It is also important to note that when human memory was recorded on clay tablets it was then not dependent on living individuals. Memory was still the key to the power that humans were unlocking, yet now it had achieved a new form, a more permanent form in writing that could be accessed by civilized humans indefinitely into the future. [2] 

Careful astronomers, the Babylonian's measured and recorded the positions of the sun, the moon, the stars, the constellations and the planets over hundreds of years. At some point they grasped the fact that celestial movements repeated. [3]

This is a close up of a section of a cuneiform tablet that recorded the daily movement of the planet Venus over a period of 21 years. It is the first time that the movement of a planet was understood as repeating. Although this tablet has been dated to the 7th century BCE, it is believed to be a copy of a much older record from the 17th century BCE.

Once having understood these repeating patterns, they created mathematical formulas that correctly matched the previous paths and predicted future movements. 

Historian A. Aaboe said about Babylonian astronomy that "all subsequent varieties of scientific astronomy, in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West -- if not indeed all subsequent endeavor in the exact sciences -- depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways."

Now lets fast forward just a bit in the ancient world to around 150 BCE. With the conquests by Alexander the Great, the science and discoveries of Babylonian astronomy became known to the Greeks. Building on the Babylonian's knowledge, the brilliant Greek astronomer Hipparchus created the first astrolabe which was perhaps the earliest computer. In later centuries, when the astrolabe became fully developed it could be used for obtaining the time, for nautical navigation, surveying, locating stars and hundreds of other uses. It is still widely used today in parts of the world.

On the left is a drawing of the basic lines for an astrolabe in Chaucer's time, 
in the middle is an actual astrolabe during Chaucer's time, 
on the right is a sexton which is a specialized astrolabe for use at sea. 

Screen grab of a digital astrolabe.
Get your own free copy at: 

The construction and calculations of the astrolabe were based on mathematical formulas derived from the movement of astronomical bodies. Early clocks in fact were put together based on formulas carved into astrolabes.

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance many astronomical clocks were built -- clocks that displayed the position of the planets, the zodiac, the moon and the sun along with the current time. While the use of these clocks eventually faded in favor of today's clocks that simply give the time of day, they could not have existed without their astronomical ancestry.

Lynn White Jr., Medieval researcher, said, "Most of the first clocks were not so much chronometers as exhibitions of the pattern of the cosmos...Clearly the origins of the mechanical clock lie in a complex realm of monumental planetaria...and geared astrolabes.”

On the left is a drawing showing the moving plates of an astrolabe, 
in the middle is a diagram that shows how a clock based on an astrolabe 
can display the sun's daily and yearly movement. 
The last photo is of Prague Orloj, the famous astronomical clock in Prague 
that was built in 1410 and is still working today. (
This chart explains what information can be read from the Prague Astronomical Clock. 

The point is this: 
Time and yearly changes being critical to human survival and the fact that humans possessed remarkable memory (see my earlier blog: The Genius of Cavemen) led to the discovery of repeating patterns in the heavens that corresponded to seasonal changes and then to the ability to predict future patterns.


  • The first time keeper was the movement of the sun, moon, stars, constellations and planets
  • Humans, due to their unique memory, noticed long term patterns and began to correlate celestial movements with changes in the year
  • Civilizations, such as the Babylonians, took these observations to a new level of accuracy via written records
  • After hundreds of years of written data, the Babylonians were able to create formulas that predicted the movement of these celestial bodies
  • These mathematical formulas were eventually built into the astrolabe device that could be used to make calculations derived from sighting objects in the sky; this led to the development of early geared clocks which were often geared astrolabes 
  • This device eventually led in part to today's computers
Modern Note: The computer you are using to read this blog has, at its heart, a CPU (Central Processing Unit) which contains a clock -- and this clock is critical to computer processing as a CPU could not function without it. Simply put the modern world could not function without precise clocks.

Virtually all microprocessors contain a clock which regulates the actions of the chip. 
The chip could not process information without the clock. (

To restate what I said in the article before this one

By accurately observing the past and projecting that behavior into the future, humans could now, in a limited way, use time as a resource; they could manipulate time. Being able to predict meant that they not only knew when to plant, but when to start preparing months before the seeds went in the ground, how much grain to store for the winter and how much fire wood to cut. My guess is that over time, the ability to predict seasonal changes in weather, flooding, temperature, prevailing wind etc. lead to a substantial increase in crop yields which in turn led to the rise of complex civilizations. Humans had begun to have, to use the modern term, a handle on the time, which gave them a power possessed by no other animal on the planet.

On the left is a chart of the seasonal winds known in Homer's time, ca. 700 BCE; 
on the right, from Aristotle's book Meteorology, is Aristotle's 'wind rose' showing a much more sophisticated understanding of wind patterns as they related to the seasons about 400 years later after Homer. Aristotle coined the word meteorology and the term 'weather forecast'. (

[1] It is only in the last two hundred years or so that standardized and accurate clocks have become a necessity -- with the need to create time zones and schedules for the railroads, for example, and the need for factory workers to show up on time when the Industrial Revolution took hold.
[2] Even today, astronomers are learning from these clay tablets. For example, the appearance of Halley's Comet was recorded on a Babylonian clay tablet in 164 BCE.
[3] The Babylonians were so good at finding patterns they even discovered the Saros Cycle, which predicted solar and lunar eclipses due to repeating patterns over about 18 years. 

A picture of activity in the Istanbul observatory showing the intense interest in astronomy 
by Islamic and Middle Eastern scientists in the 15th century. 
Arab scientists went on to perfect the astrolabe. (

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ancient Manipulation of Time: Part 1

As I wrote in my blog The Genius of Cavemen, early human beings had remarkable powers of recall, powers that allowed them to accurately draw bison from memory.

It is only recently that scholars have agreed that they also were keen observers of the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets and the seasons. This, of course, required a number of skills: accurate long term observations and memory of those observations, the ability to pass along that information to others and to pass down that info from generation to generation, and the ability to extract long term patterns in the celestial movements. Comprehending these movements was essential for survival as it told people when to plant and harvest. As I have said from the beginning of this blog, humans could do this because they had a superior memory and sense of time which allowed them to understand time as no other animal had done.

Yet the implications are even more profound. By accurately observing the past and projecting that behavior into the future, humans could now, in a limited way, use time as a resource. They could manipulate time. Being able to predict meant that they not only knew when to plant, but when to start preparing months before the seeds went in the ground plus how much grain to store for the winter and how much fire wood to cut.  They had, to use the modern term, a handle on time.

The following pictures from prehistoric and ancient astronomy show both the early interest in astronomy and something about the extent of knowledge, although our full understanding of what humans knew back then will always be incomplete.

For a good listing of our current knowledge about this era, go to Archaeoastronomy: (Prehistoric Astronomers) on the Ancient Wisdom site in the UK.
Also see a list of archaeoastronomical sites by country.

Ironically, the advent of modern computers has made it easier to verify these astronomical calculators of the past -- because the complex movements of the planets thousands of years ago, for example, were quite difficult to simulate until now.

Yet what you will read in this article is only the beginning of ancient wisdom -- in my next blog I will show how about 3800 years ago discoveries were made in astronomy, astronomical science and technology which led directly to the modern day computer and our modern way of life. 
The Goseck Circle in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, built around 4900 BCE, is the oldest solar observatory discovered so far. The two southern openings line up with the two solstices plus it could have been used to reconcile the monthly lunar cycle with the solar year. Built by stone age peoples and only recently discovered, it reveals a sophistication that modern archaeologists had not thought possible. (
Diagram showing the openings that correspond to the two solstices. 

It is now generally accepted that Stonehenge in England, built and reworked over a number of years between 3100 and 1600 BCE, was both a kind of clock that lined up with the sun during solstices and equinoxes and was possibly a astronomical calculator that could predict eclipses and other celestial occurrences. (
Gathering of people to see the sunrise on the summer solstice at Stonehenge 2005.

The Nebra Sky Disk is the earliest -- ca. 1600 BCE -- accurate astronomical picture of the sky. Relatively small and portable it had the ability to reconcile the monthly lunar cycle with the solar year and could be used to predict when to plant. It was found not far from the Goseck Circle, but fabricated more than 3000 years later in the Bronze Age. (

Southern star panel of the earliest Egyptian star catalog, known as the  Egyptian Celestial Diagram, ca. 1470 BCE. It was found in the Tomb of Senemut. This shows the intense interest Egyptians had in mapping the heavens in detail. (
Copy of a chart that served as a night clock during the Egyptian month of Thoth, ca. 1140 BCE.  The name of star is on the right, the hour on the left and the position of the star is indicated in the column. (
The month of Thoth was associated with the God Thoth. 
"He invented all the arts and sciences, astronomy...and most important of all - writing. ...he was the first of magicians and compiled books of magic which contained 'formulas which commanded all the forces of nature and subdued the very gods themselves'." 
(Quoted from 
Model of an Egyptian sundial or shadow clock. 
Plowing in Egypt ca. 1200 BCE. 

Civilization was only possible because agriculture created a surplus of food. This ample supply of food was due in large part to a precise knowledge of the changing and repeating seasons that was uncovered by astronomy. The insights of astronomy were discovered because humans were able to see and grasp long term repeating patterns.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Genius of Cavemen

More than 10,000 years before the earliest beginnings of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia and about 5,000 years even before the start of agriculture, cavemen were creating sophisticated and accurate paintings in color of animals that they hunted and ate.

In the pitch dark of the Altamira cave in Western Spain -- two hundred meters or so from the entrance -- they must have been aided by lamp or torch light. Deep inside they could only have painted from memory. And while the skill of these artists is as good as any modern painter, what impresses me the most is the accuracy of their work.

Artist's conception of how cave drawings were made. 

While the particular bison they hunted, the steppe bison (Bison priscus), is now extinct, we can gauge the accuracy of their paintings by looking at photographs of the closely related wisent or European bison (Bison bonasus).

In the pictures below compare a  painting of a single bison cropped from a photograph of the famous Polychrome Ceiling in the Altamira cave with a photograph of a European bison. 

 Cropped bison painting from a photograph of the polychrome rock paintings 
at the Altamira Cave in Western Spain. About 15,000 years old, 
this painting was created with a sophisticated airbrush technique. 

European bison photograph. 

To begin with it is clear that the painting is of a bison and no other animal. Next look at the back legs, the curve of the rump, the back bone, the angle of the head, the horns, etc.

While a painting like this might not seem that difficult, bear in mind that up until the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s no painter had depicted the movement of a horse's legs correctly when galloping. No one had seen that all four legs left the ground at one point in a gallop -- which was only proved by Muybridge's sequential high speed photographs. Furthermore these painters knew horses quite well and had observed them close at hand, often for decades. My point is that accurately depicting an animal is not an easy task.

Photograph of galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge 
that proved what painters had not seen for centuries. 

As I said in my introduction to this blog: "I believe it is the modern human -- i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens -- sense of time that is the key difference between humans and the other animals. And further I believe that time, as we experience it, is created by our uniquely human brains..."

In the case of this Altamira bison painting, it appears that the human sense of time, i.e. memory, was exceptional. This drawing of the bison, which must have been drawn from memory, is proof that primitive humans had remarkable memories as well as keen powers of observation. 

It is even quite possible that the cavemen's ability to remember was much better than ours, as non-literate societies had to rely on memory rather than the written word. This has been well documented in studies of the oral tradition, before literacy, in which very long works such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were often committed to memory, for example.

But even more than this, memory was a key component of the cave dwellers' ability to survive. In the hunting pictures below, we can see a coordinated bow and arrow attack on a herd of animals. This attack required a number of memory and time related skills: a knowledge of animal habits, day to day, month to month, season to season; a plan of attack that coordinated the efforts of the hunters; and the preparation for the attack with the construction of bows, arrows and spears that were designed for the greatest effect in the hunt.

"Hunting Scene" from the Cave of the Horses of Valltorta in Eastern Spain. Such an attack required knowledge of the animal's habits, planning, coordination and preparation. (

 Arrowheads. These are much more sophisticated than it appears to us moderns.

Detailed description of arrowhead construction. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Past Isn't Dead

Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)
The future's not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera
From Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956

Don't tell me the past is dead 
and the future is not ours to see:
without the past 
the present cannot be understood
and has no meaning;
without the future 
the present has no purpose.
Rick Doble

"The past isn't dead.  It isn't even past."
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1943

Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence
Titian, c.1565, allegorical painting

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years 2013

What a great way to start a blog on the subject of time: 
Goodbye 2012 and here comes 2013. 
Out with the old, in with the new? 
Or is there more to this annual passing of the torch?

In this pictured view of time, 2012 fades into the past: over and done with. Yet 2012 is part of a decade, part of the 21st century and part of the 3rd millennium. Events from this year such as the Arab Spring people's revolts, super storm Sandy and the reelection of Barack Obama will affect future events for years to come. 
(modified image from