Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Protective Bubble of Civilization

We live inside a bubble. All of us in the developed world live inside this protective bubble we call civilization. 

No matter what the season or the weather, we leave our safe dry insured heated or cooled homes to travel down all weather roads inside comfortable cars to temperature perfect offices or stores. We eat sanitized food made from plants and animals that humans have learned to domesticate. We make sure we have shots or medicine to ward off disease. Often man-made music is everywhere we go. And while we can chose to step outside the bubble briefly to go for a walk -- usually in a well maintained park or down a city sidewalk -- most of our lives are spent inside the protection of this bubble.

Outside this bubble there is the natural world -- which the bubble of civilization depends on. Unfortunately we who live inside the bubble often forget that our lives and the lives of our children rely on the natural world such as the world's oceans and the world's climate. 

One of the dangers of being inside the bubble is that we can forget civilization depends on the much more powerful environment of the Earth.

And while the obvious parts of the bubble are buildings and transportation, there are other parts as well. We humans have learned to domesticate plants and animals, but those we use for food and other purposes are a very small part of the natural plant and animal world. Mass cultivation of these specialized plants is beginning to affect the world's ecosystems and also cause the extinction of many plants and animals that are not useful to civilization. In another example, we are protected from some diseases by modern antibiotics. But the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in resistant bacteria. And the vast majority of climate scientists agree that our highly developed technology is contributing to global warming.

The civilization bubble has worked so well and helped us live longer, more comfortable, healthier lives that we are no longer connected to the larger environment of the Earth. Yet the bubble of civilization has gotten so big -- leading to over seven billion people on the Earth -- it is starting to affect the world outside the bubble.

Because of the protection of the bubble, we are insulated and increasingly out of touch with the natural world and the effect that civilization has on the natural world.

What does this have to do with time, the subject of this blog? Time is a critical part of civilization and the bubble we live in. Yet because of the 'advance' of civilization we have distanced ourselves from the natural time cycles of the Earth and instead now, for example, depend entirely on an artificial time which is man-made. This means we are not in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. 

While civilization took perhaps ten thousand years to develop, it is only in the last hundred years or so that the industrial-technological revolution has taken civilization to the tipping point -- where it has both provided a comprehensive protective bubble for its citizens and also begun  to affect the larger environment of the Earth.


Our modern artificial time of minutes and hours and clocks and time zones took thousands of years to develop. It developed in a number of stages.

Upper Paleolithic: The awareness of repeating yearly cosmological events 

Humans began to notice specific recurring events in the sky such as the position of the sun at the summer and winter solstices and the seasonal occurrence of certain stars and constellations.

Cave painting from the Lascaux caves. While not yet proven, two different experts concluded that some paintings by old stone age people in the cave at Lascaux have a number of astronomical aspects. The evidence is so strong the cave has been declared a UNESCO heritage site for astronomy(
Neolithic: The creation of sophisticated astronomical structures

Buildings and structures were created that aligned exactly with key moments in the sun's travel such as the winter solstice -- showing a precise understanding of annual time and the seasons.

The Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, built about 5200 years ago. "Once a year, at the winter solstice [the sun] shines directly along the long passage into the chamber for about 17 minutes and illuminates the chamber floor. This alignment is too precise to be widely considered to be formed by chance. Professor M. J. O'Kelly was the first person in modern times to observe this event on December 21, 1967." Document of the US space agency NASA. (
Ancient Civilizations, Sumer and Babylon: The mathematical creation of hours and minutes

For administrative reasons,  the ancient cities and civilizations of Sumer and Babylon invented a way to treat time as a commodity, just like grain or bronze. Daily time was divided into hours, minutes and seconds and reasonably accurate clocks, such as water clocks, were constructed.

Sumerians divided time mathematically from seconds to minutes to hours to days to months to years to great years (19 years or the Metonic cycle). Today we still use much of what they invented.  (

Water clock calculations on a Sumerian clay tablet. (

Classical Civilization, Rome: The Julian Calendar

Julius Caesar came up with today's calendar which accurately kept track of the days in the year (even though it was tweaked a bit later by Pope Gregory)  -- but ignored the cycles of the moon. This calendar created a way of keeping track of time with a time-keeping chart. It was a way of accounting for time -- rather than referring to or looking directly at the sun or the moon or the stars -- thus distancing people from the astronomical cycles. 

This Julian calendar we use today keeps accurate yearly time, but ignores lunar cycles and downplays seasonal events such as the summer and winter solstices. (
Medieval Civilization: The invention of mechanical clocks

Most early mechanical clocks indicated not only the time of day but the position of the sun, moon, stars and the zodiac. Later clocks got rid of their references to the heavenly bodies and only indicated the time in mechanical hours and minutes -- thus removing time from its relationship to the cosmos.

Built in 1410 the Prague astronomical clock displays a wealth of astronomical information. 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.” (
The Culture of Science, 19th century: Time is divided across the world into time zones 

Prior to time zones each town and city set its clocks to high noon when the sun was at its zenith. The creation of time zones severed the connection between noon and the sun at its highest point at a local location. And this in turn distanced people from the relationship between the time of day and the position of the sun.

Standard Railway Time was adopted in the United States in 1883, dividing the country into 5 time zones. Many protested. The Indianapolis Sentinel wrote that people would now "eat sleep work ... and marry by railroad time." (

The Culture of Science, 20th century: The clock is no longer tied to the Earth's natural cycles

In the 20th century the clock itself was removed from its connection to the natural cycle of the Earth's rotation. In 1967 an atomic clock became the standard for a second, creating a very accurate way of telling time -- but removing the clock from nature.

"NIST-F1 Cesium fountain atomic clock, serving as the US time and frequency standard, with an uncertainty of 5.10-16 (as of 2005)." Picture and quote from
The Culture of Science, late 20th century: Artificial electric lights blot out the night sky

In a related development the ever-present light of modern civilization -- known as light pollution --  has washed out the night sky so most people are no longer able to keep in touch with the constellations and the seasonal astronomical cycles. These cycles were crucial to humans until about 50 years ago [much more about this in a later blog].

The same region of sky near a town of about 200 people (top) and near a city of about 400,000 people (bottom) in Utah, USA. The light pollution near any urban area now blots out much of the sky. (