How do we Measure Space and Time ~ A Brief Overview



The question concerning our metrics of Space and Time could be rephrased by asking the quite conventionalist question, “What provides us the most stability between measurements of space and time?” And to answer this question, I believe it is best to begin by addressing the problems concerning the measurements of space and time (intuitive understanding, problem of constants, and abstract solution) and the selection of space and time (Is it, “All in the head?”). My essay will then conclude with an evaluation and proposal.

The Problems of Measurement.

I. How do we generally understand Space and Time?

When we begin speaking about the measurement of space and time, we often revert to conventional uses of measurement. For space, we often say things like, “Space is the number of inches, or centimeters, from one point to another,” or, “Space is the distance between the two wall of my bedroom,” or, for some, “The final frontier.” In general, we speak about space in terms of distance, or some place that is transversal. For time, we often say things like “Time is the duration of seconds, minutes, or hours, or years from one event to another,” or “The time it took my mother to go to the grocery store,” or “There are five minutes left on the game clock.” When we speak about time, we are often referring to the duration that some event has taken, or the duration until some event will take place.
To some extent, this sort of talking references the standard way in which we do speak about space and time as merely clocks and yard sticks is revealing to a fundamental nature of each. However, as revealing as these intuitive responses may be, these sorts of responses often leave out the central question, “How effective, or revealing, are these measurements in the face of constant change?” We haven’t always referred to space as inches, feet, or miles nor have we always referred to time in terms of seconds, minutes, and hours. There is a much deeper project that has created our modern uses of these terms.

II. The development of a greater problem.

In the days of Ancient Egypt, distance was originally standardized by the length from Pharaoh’s shoulder to the outermost extremity of his hand. And time was measured by celestial motion – if it be sun, moon, or stars. But what does that mean in terms of Pharaoh’s growth and successor? It meant that distance would change. What does it mean for time if the celestial motions were not perfect (As Tycho Brahe found out)? It means that the measurement of time would change. Length would be in constant flux, and the time of yesterday may not be the same amount of time today. This produces a significant problem in any attempt to make a standard unit of measurement, for we must ask, “What can we find that is constant, or what can we find that is without change?”

Modern measurements for space is lightyears. The reason is because light traveling in a vacuum is the currently the known upper-limit of travel within the universe, a sort of speed limit if you will. Time has been standardized to the atomic clock which measures one second=9,192,631,770 ticks of a cesium clock. (Of course, we can all thank O.U. Betchikan in 1993 for spending the three and half months counting them. Thank you Dr. Dowden for the joke. ).

III. An abstract, or idealized, solution.

However, the problem is still persisting. The speed of light, even in a vacuum, is still subjected to different forms of impediments, states of matter, quantum fields, etc. Time is still off by a tick every 3 million years. Can we find some standard of constant measurement? Again, the question crops up, “Can we find something that is constant?” It is true, we have moved from pharaoh’s arm (highly unstable for length), to metres (much more stable), to light years (highly stable), or from celestial motion (generally accurate), to mechanical clocks (decently accurate), to atomic clocks (highly accurate). However, all of them are subject to different fluxes; especially with the measurement of distance being derived from time.

Euler in 1776 (+/-) came to the conclusion that time could be calculated in relation to Newton’s 1st law of motion. This conclusion asserts that the most accurate metric for space and time are the advancements that most closely approximate scientific laws, and improvements on previous calculations are improvements that more closely approximate the scientific laws

The Types of Space and Time.

As we have traced the general problem of finding a constant measurement for space and time, we have done so without consideration for the different types of space and time. Often the way we intuitively measure space and time are in virtue of what Kant has argued to be the phenomenological necessities for human beings to understand space and time. We measure space not only in distance, but in Euclidean geometric distance. We don’t measure time only in duration, but duration that consists of a particular kind of change, order, frequency, and relation. So a question that must be addressed is “What sort of space and time are we measuring?”

I will begin with time and then continue onward to space. The types of time in consideration will affect how those times are measured and the purposes, or aims those measurements will assume. We have biological, psychological, and physical time.

I. Biological Time

Biological time is the sorts of regular intervals that biological organisms go through. For example, Carl Linnaeus thought we could create a clock using the flowers of specific kinds of plants. Certain plants open their flowers at a particular time of day, others close when it becomes night. Cicadas, for another example, run on a seven year cycle mating cycle. Also, for human biological clocks, our heart beats 70 beats per minute (on average), and our brains often release a chemical at night to “let us know” it is time for sleep.

II. Psychological Time
Psychological Time, though sounds like Biological Time, is different in one particular way. While Biological Time is pegged onto certain regular biological functions, psychological time is pegged not on the human “psyche”, and therefore the brain per se, but pegged upon how human beings experience physical time. We’ve often say that an hour lasts a lifetime during an exam, but that the same hour feels too short when spending it with a dear friend you haven’t seen in years.

III. Physical Time

This is the time we often speak of intuitively when we are scheduling appointments, or wondering what time lunch will be. This is the sort of time that is measured in reference to the cesium atomic clocks.

IV. Space
The measurement of space, thought doesn’t have as many differences as the experience of time, does appear to have a fundamental question concerning the measurement of distance in Euclidean versus non-Euclidean geometries. But the questions concerning our preferences concerning the measurement of both Space and Time could be reduced down to the question, “Is our preferences a result of what is in our head?” Or, as Kant would pose it, “Is it only a result of what ‘intuitively’ makes sense to us?”

My Position:

I believe the strongest interpretation of the measurement of space and time is a two-fold interpretation: conventional and real. When we measure space and time, I believe that the different units, the selection of importance of which types of space and time we are using, are constructions of utility. However, if we are to argue, “What is the very things we call space and time that we are measuring?” I would answer that it is pure relation.

Time is the measure of change. The particular stores of changes, order, frequency, or relation is irrelevant (ie. Conventional) to the question, “What is time?” Do not misunderstand my point, the question, “What is real time?” is a legitimate question, but the question, “What is the best way to measure it?” isn’t, or at least, it isn’t if we are trying to find the existence of space and time in terms of its measurement. There are two different core questions with different answers. The latter question is what is consumed with conventionality – what is most stable, what is most accurate, what is the version we should use for different contexts?” However, the question of realness is manifested in more abstract notions such as order and relation (before/after/simultaneous). I would argue, in much the same vein as Kant, that space and time are necessary for human understanding. The particular ways in which we measure them are conventions – even necessarily human conventions. However, those conventions must peg onto something that is real – relation.


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