Do We Know The Time?

Sundial sculpture inspired by orbit of earth around the sun

Sundial sculpture inspired by the orbit of earth around the sun, which renews the seasons of the year and is a time experience.

Do we know the time, I wonder where the time goes, where are you going this time? Writing on 1 October in The Times(!), David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, talks about different experiences of time—time running, time circling round, time swinging like a pendulum, time staying still. Of course these are real experiences—we think and plan for now and for the time ahead, we’re aware that night and day go round and round, inside ourselves we feel the rhythms and beat of musical time, when we’re absorbed time seems to stop and disappear. These are some of our experiences, do they help us know the time, I wonder?

In today’s culture time tends to matter, we like to run by the clock and know what’s going to happen when, we prefer feeling in control. It is interesting that this fits with the left side of the brain, carefully measuring, being exact and running in a line. Most of us are rather boxed into this these days whether it’s really our natural way or otherwise. On the other hand, an open, flowing way of living with time, enjoying sights and sounds, exploring the past and imagining the future, is much more the way of the brain’s right side. We seem to know the time in at least two ways, we stay in control, and we go with the flow.

Solar Time I sundial inspired by yearly cycle of earth and sun

Solar Time I sundial inspired by measuring time on earth as it spins and the yearly cycle of the seasons.

As a sundial designer this fascinates me. I started out thinking sundials were precise, exact, instruments of measurement, because the mathematics define where the sun’s rays will fall with more accuracy than we ever need to know. This was pinned down for us by astronomers centuries ago, and anyone designing a sundial today still has the same formulae and calculations to work from. But the lovely experience of watching a sundial in the sun is to see time in a quite new way. First of all the sundial shadow moves, slowly slipping across the dial as the sun travels in the sky, bringing movement in time to life before our eyes. Then we learn that, in a repeating cycle that runs round the whole of the year, time slows down with the sun before going faster again and each day moving at a slightly different speed!

Our culture has difficulty with this time of the sun, or ‘solar’ time. We like our clocks to run at a steady speed, letting our schedules smoothly fit together. Even so, the steady speed of the clock is no more than the average or mean of what the sun does through the year, which is the reason for us calling it ‘mean’ time. But, reckoning by the sundial, it is the time of the clock that has a sinuous moving form—when we put clock time onto a sundial it turns into the looping shape of the ‘analemma’. So knowing the time can be more than the numbers we read on a clock or a watch, it can be a time experience.