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Does Observing The Nature of Time Change The Nature of Time?

In physics, the Observer Effect is the theory that simply observing a situation or phenomenon changes that phenomenon. For example taking the pressure of an inflated car tire inevitably will let air out of the tire, hence changing the pressure of the tire whilst observing the pressure of the tire. The same is true at a subatomic level, in order to observe an electron it must interact with a proton, but this very interaction will change the path of the electron.

A Watched Pot Never Boils

Experiments in quantum physics have shown that a researcher can physically impact what they are observing simply by observing it. Physicists have found that the act of measuring some particles can either slow or speed up a particles’ decay. Measuring more frequently inhibits the decay, just like the proverbial watched pot that never boils. Slowing particle decay is known as the quantum Zeno effect. It was first presented in the 1977 paper The Zeno’s Paradox in Quantum Theory, written by Baidyanaith Misra and George Sudarshan. It is named for the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea best known for his paradoxes. Physicists at The University of Texas successfully tested the Zeno (slowing decay) and anti-Zeno (speeding decay) theory in practise in 2001. This leads to the inevitable question;

Can our very observation of time change its nature?

The Observer Effect may help to explain a fundamental phenomenon of our perception of time. Time as we know it (the time of absolute standard time) is a certain constant. But time as we know it has had to be highly engineered to produce such certain consistency through the mechanics and equations of time — specifically in order to compensate and counteract the complexities of the nature of time. For the true nature of time (the time of apparent solar time / orbit eccentricity / obliquity / relativity) is no where near as linear as we require it to practically be. Our observation of an absolute time has artificially flattened out the distortions and eccentricities of times relative nature, and as such we have changed time through observing time.

In order to measure an absolute constant time it’s observable complexities must first be reconciled.

A simple experiment in our perception of time’s duration

Sense of Time, Ted Hunt 2018

Observed at times norm of hours, minutes & seconds times duration seems and feels entirely normal to us.

Sense of Time, Ted Hunt 2018

But when this level is increased, for example by introducing the notion of a ‘thirds’ (as the perceivable next increment above seconds), times duration begins to feel alien and anxiety inducing. Yet this is just a visual reflection of the extreme present of increasingly low latency computation and real time communications we currently inhabit.

Sense of Time, Ted Hunt 2018
Sense of Time, Ted Hunt 2018

The opposite is true if we step back from time, and measure only its “nowness”. Looking roughly 30 minutes into the future and 30 minutes into the past frees us from overly concerning ourselves with anxiety of an uncertain future and overly baggaging ourselves with concerns for a regrettable past.

Sense of Time, Ted Hunt 2018 Source: The Long Now Foundation

Finally if we remove ourselves from a purely human / individualistic perception of time we might take a far broader temporal view of the “long now”. A duration that, like evolution and the Universe itself, progresses in millennia (1,000 years), epoch (1,000,000 years) and aeon (1,000,000,000 years).

These four simple examples highlight how our observation of time can actively change specific attributes of the nature of time, such as our perception of duration. Admittedly if only on a perceptional level. But within this observation upon our observations lays a distinct truth of time. Time is both perspectival and perceptional. Our individual and collective struggles to understand and manage time are largely driven by our inability to ‘sense’ time in the same ways as our primary senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing.

Simply put we don’t directly sense time, we perceive it - and this perception of time is a construct of the human brain. Our extensions of self such as watches, clocks and calendars provide our brains the ‘data for perception’ that our sensory nervous system has no distinct biological equivalent to*. We have tongues to taste, hands to touch, noses to smell, eyes to see, and ears to hear, but we have no inbuilt biological means to accurately sense time. So our brains filled in the blanks while our imaginations set about observing patterns and creating tools to provide us the data we need to bind ourselves to time.

Through forming new perspectives upon the nature of our sense of time we might soon be able to adapt radically different temporal tools - that in turn our perception will interpret as entirely new constructs of time. To change time we simply need to observe time.

*Our circadian cycles are closely aligned to external and internal temporality, but our sensory nervous system seemingly lacks the ability to use nuanced circadian information to influence our perception of time. At least not to the degree of accuracy we require to thrive and survive.

The above text represents ‘thought in progress’ associated with the project sense of time, a new collaboration between King’s College London’s Department of Philosophy and artist Ted Hunt, brokered and supported by the Cultural Institute at King’s in partnership with Somerset House Studios.



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