Why Time Flies | Alan Burdick

Summary of: Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation
By: Alan Burdick

The Enigma of Time

Augustine’s The Confessions explores the multifaceted nature of time, theology, and eternity, which remain a fascinating puzzle even as science delves deeper into the mysteries of the mind. With the Big Bang theory suggesting that time began with the universe, Augustine’s philosophical musings on the subject continue to provide thought-provoking insights today. This summary presents four distinct viewpoints on the enigmatic nature of time.


Embark on a fascinating exploration of time and the intricacies of our perception of it with the book summary of ‘Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation’. Discover how time measurement evolved from sundials to atomic clocks and how science continuously seeks ways to synchronize our global understanding of time. Find out about our innermost perceptions of time, and how temporal orientation and circadian rhythms influence our lives. Ponder questions of consciousness and learn about the theories of scholars like Saint Augustine, William James, and Martin Heidegger, as well as perspectives from contemporary researchers, who shed light on humankind’s perennial fascination with time.

The Evolution of Time Measurement

Scientists have calibrated global units of measure at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris where the world’s timepieces are synced to keep accurate time. The debate about whether time can be perceived at all is ongoing with most believeing that it is a property of the mind, rather than something you can sense. For centuries, people used Earth’s rotation as a standard, using clocks such as Christiaan Huygens gravity-driven pendulum clock and William Clement’s clock, which was the first to divide the day into seconds. Britain led the way in time standardization in the early 20th century, but the arrival of the quartz clock made timekeeping even more precise. In the 1960s, atomic clocks redefined the second and revealed the gradual slowing of Earth’s spin, necessitating the addition of leap seconds since 1972 to keep atomic time in sync with rotation-based time. Today, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology provides the official time through servers synced to computers and GPS devices. The Bureau takes readings from NIST’s atomic clock and others worldwide and averages the differences to keep the world’s timepieces ticking in sync with each other.

The Inner Workings of Time Perception

The perception of time is a complex process that involves various genes, organs, and cognitive development. Psychologists describe this as “temporal orientation.” Our bodies have an internal circadian clock that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. However, our awareness of time goes beyond this clock and involves the coordination of different organs and senses. We perceive time in various ways, including duration, temporal order, and “nowness.” This perception of time develops gradually from early childhood and is a constant and subjective experience for individuals worldwide.

The Power of the Circadian Clock

The circadian clock, an ancient biological system that affects almost all animals including humans, controls our body temperature, heart rate, hormone levels, and other bodily functions. Night-shift workers who disrupt their natural rhythms suffer from a metabolic disorder, while babies benefit from synchronized lighting in neonatal units, especially when fed with breast milk. The non-circadian Arctic reindeer and polar animals show various adaptations to sunlight, while humans are most sensitive to light in the mornings. Our bodies accumulate adenosine, a chemical that causes drowsiness, when we’re awake, and we sleep when enough builds up. However, we cannot resist the circadian rhythm that increases our body temperature before dawn, waking us up. Therefore understanding and respecting our biological clocks is paramount to our health and wellbeing.

Time, Movement, and Space

According to Einstein’s theory, time moves slower as you move faster. Jet lag causes your internal clock to desynchronize, but eating on your destination’s schedule may help. Circadian rhythms may be able to adjust to a Martian schedule with gradual exposure to sun-equivalent light.

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