∆ The Story of Time

∆ The Story of Time - Merrell Holberton.Kristen Lippincott.


The following summary of 'The Story of Time' is part of a reply i wrote to someone asking about an aspect of Relativity.
In that reply I used 'the story of time' to get an overview of -the history of time- mankind's first reasons for thinking (rightly or wrongly) that time exists and so on.

As such the book is excellent, very well written and illustrated, and explains in detail the evolution of different calendar systems etc. 

My review below is part of a discussion in a different context, which is why i am focusing on whether the book scientifically  'proves' the existence of time (which I appreciate is not really what it is written to do).

The Story of Time

The 300ish pages of ‘the story of time' are mostly about man (and woman’s) observations of day/night, star motion, tides, seasons, water ‘clocks’, mechanical pendulum clocks and so on.

It covers the social and spiritual/religious aspects of time – essentially breaking time into calendar, ‘extended’ and clock, ‘precision’ time. It also discusses the constant progression of events seen as ‘linear time’. And the repetitive nature of day/night, full moons, the seasons – i.e. ‘cyclical time’. The book makes a few references to Einstein but doesn’t cover relativity.

-          My first point would be that observations of the path of the sun through the earth’s sky, orbit of the moon, rotation of the start, orbit of the earth around the sun – can essentially be seen to prove that things can exist and move , change, and interact– and that as they do so humans (or anything else) can be affected by the motion and by ‘observing’ such motion if they are capable.

-          These ‘seasonal’ motion proves that things need energy or inertia to move – and observers ‘memories’* prove that observing can change the internal physical contents of a mind.

-          But, critically, in my opinion, rotating and orbiting planets, rising and falling tides, crops existing indifferent states depending on how the earth it tilted to the sun, or the way the physical contents of people’s heads  can change as they see these things - does not also prove that extra to all these things another thing called time exists. Or that as planets rotate etc a ‘temporal’ record of these events is created or exists in a ‘past’, or that there is a ‘future’ we are heading into.

-          Also critically, however, the book talks about all these things in terms of them being mankind’s first experiences and examples of TIME. As our first indications or reasons to assume that such a thing as time exists, as If this was completely obvious and matter of fact.

-          My point being here that I believe most of us – myself included first get the idea of time from observations like this, and I assume many scientists and philosophers do so also. E.g Aristotle, st Augustine,  Newton – and I assume Einstein as a child. But all these observations are just of motion – but, and ‘the story of time’ is a great example of this, they are talked about as time so often that the repetition of the word alone seems to give it (undeserved) credibility.

(*Memories; any form of memory be it in a computer of a living brain is analogous to the sticks and beads that make up an abacus. You could position the beads on an abacus to store a few important numbers, but all you would be proving is that existing matter can be moved – and not that as existing matter is moved a past or future exist. Forming a computer or human memory is fundamentally similar to just moving a few million, billion, or trillion beads around).

In its opening pages (p12) ‘the story of time’ discusses ‘the problem of time’ and ‘areas of confusion’, around time – (which is odd – because surely after millions upon millions of human minds have thought carefully about ‘time’ – then if the thing exists, and is everywhere, we should at least have a general agreement on its basic attributes / functions / nature etc)

The book looks at still un-agreed aspects, such as whether we head into the future or time brings it to us. Whether the past is ‘in front of us’ which is why we can see it, or ‘behind us’ because it is ‘done’, whether time flows ‘into the past’ or whether we ‘march into the future’, etc, etc.

The earliest intellectual reference to time it quotes is from Aristotle …

B 384bc Aristotle’s ‘physics iv’ –‘Time is the calculable measure of motion with respect to before and afterness’.

This quote is important because it’s the earliest reference to a thing called ‘time’ in a book all about time – but it mentions ‘before’ and ‘afterness’ (suggesting an observer considered the existence of ‘future’ and ‘past’) but it does not show that the thinker (Aristotle) considered or appreciated that ‘memories’ could be formed and seen in one’s own mind if matter (objects, photons, retina cells, nerve cells, brain cells, ions, electrons etc) could JUST exist move and interact.

So what most people refer to as ‘the past’ is really just the contents, here, now, of their own minds. And that these contents  alone, if taken to prove more than they do,  might give the false impression of ‘an accumulating temporal past’.

The book also doesn’t show that the thinker considered that perhaps ‘matter can just move in orderly or chaotic ways as energy is being released. And how this could give the false impression that a partially predictable and partially unpredictable  future’ exists, and is steadily arriving.

 (so the book  doesn’t show that Aristotle considered these possibilities, let alone that he considered them and showed they were invalid – and thus that they do not show the idea of time to be unfounded.)

Other famous time quotes are…

Aristotle also – Time, it might be said, consists of the past, present, and future. But the past has been and is no longer, while the future is about to be and is not yet. And the now (that is, the present) “is evidently not a part of time”. Since no parts of time exist, how can time itself exist?

Here Aristotle talks about ‘the past’ and ‘the future’ as if they exist but without proving this. And as stated he hasn’t shown that extra to ‘internal memories’ and external moving things, these concepts of past and future actually relate to any other real thing. Thus he is talking about them as if they are mysterious parts of some other mysterious thing.

(b354) St Augustine said - What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

To me this is a terribly misleading and inconclusive statement. It suggests time must be something because the speaker knows what it is – but the fact ‘he can’t explain it’ – is invalidly  used as part of the ‘proof’ that it is mysterious – and thus must exist.

(1911) John wheeler – "Time Is What Prevents Everything From Happening At Once.."

Again a claim that time is something – but time’s function is described or proved in terms of a confusing and tricky statement/assumption. What could ‘everything happening at once mean’? – and if everything is all just here moving and changing etc as it does – then that’s what it does. What stops everything happening at once is that fact that energy has to flow from place to place at limited speeds for things to happen, and things need space in which to happen.

This statement is a bit like saying ‘XXX’ is what stops tables spontaneously exploding. Tables don’t seem to spontaneously explode therefore ‘XXX’ exists and performs a function. This line of reasoning is endless and meaningless.

This brings us to Einstein, and my concerns that the foundations for his core assumptions that ‘time’ may in a mysterious way exist, could be based on the casual and repetitive/habitual use of the word ‘time’ when just describing  day/night, summer winter etc as caused by just constant motion, and seemingly profound, but ultimately content-less quotes, as above.

Einstein b 1879 ‘Time is that which clocks measure’.

This is a critical quote because it is from Einstein who goes on of course to write relativity – which is taken by most scientists to be a proof of and extension of our understanding of time.

However, geared motors with numerous ‘hands’ attached to them, (‘clocks’) definitely measure the flow of energy from internal batteries or springs, through mechanisms and out to the environment (as motion, heat, noise etc). And they also definitely measure, or increment some pointer, in relation to the oscillations of a pendulum or crystal etc. But it is not clear that geared motors also measure the flow of some other, extra thing (time) between a past and a future, in some fourth dimensional manner.

( I dislike all these kind of quotes, above, apparently about ‘time’ because they seem self referencing, non-proving, and inconclusive – while giving the impression of being ‘profound and intellectual’, proofs of, or statements about ‘time’.)

My reason for analyzing ‘a story of time’ so harshly is because the book gives a very good general outline of our pre-scientific reasons for assuming time exists.  And I believe these foundations can be shown to be a misunderstanding, or over interpretation, of the observations that ‘things just exist/move/change/ and interact ‘now’ ‘.

This is important because I believe much scientific work into ‘time’ is probably by people whose initial reasons for assuming time may exist are based on this kind of history, observations, and (possibly) falsely reached, ( but very widely accepted without question ) conclusions.

Indeed I think even Einstein’s assumption that ‘the past’ and ‘the future’ and time in some actual way exist may have been initially based on this kind of very ‘casual’ and conversational, but not scientific ‘reasoning’. 


 the above was the first part of a reply to an email about relativity - i reviewed 'the story of time' to see where enstein may have first got the general ideas that 'time' was a thing that existed , so i could then question his use of the word in 'Relativity' ( the book) 


the email continues effectively with a review of relativity sections 1 - 9 , here.

>> ∆ Einstein's Relativity.

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