Book Review: Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies is an intriguing look into time and its many facets

Alan Burdick’s book, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation is one with a fascinating premise that we can all relate to. A staff writer from the New Yorker, Burdick specialises in penning articles about science and technology. Here, he poses the question, “What is time and why does it speed up as we age and slow down when we’re bored?” The result is a book that is quite dense and detailed, meaning it’s interesting in parts and a little dry in others.

Rather than adopting a purely scientific approach, Burdick interviews psychologists, neuroscientists and biologists to pick their brains and have a discussion that is geared more towards their philosophical takes on time. We learn that time is a construct that was devised by humans and that early on it was not in synchrony like it is now (where multiple clocks constantly record and calibrate the “actual” time around the world.) We also learn that time flies as we get older because we believe what others say about it flying as well as the fact that we seem to perceive time in proportion to our actual age at any given time.

Burdick occasionally takes a slightly personal approach with this volume. He includes anecdotes about his sons as a frame of reference with respect to how babies and children learn about and perceive time. Burdick also covers how babies develop their own circadian rhythms or the clocks that govern the sleep-wake cycle. Some studies were actually conducted to see whether newborns respond better to an environment where it is dark versus one that is well-lit.

Burdick also participated in a series of experiments as part of his research. In one he went to the Artic during their summertime, where they experience 24 hours of sunlight. This was to mirror some of the work done by Michel Siffre who investigated how a human responds to time without cues. In Sifrre’s case however, the French explorer spent months in a cave and reported back to people on the ground. He discovered that our bodies are pretty poor at telling the time without cues despite the fact we have quite sophisticated independent internal clocks for eating, sleeping, etc. This is exciting to know about because it has implications for jetlag because one bodily system can be operating in one country’s time zone while others may be more caught up or further behind with respect to the time in the new destination.

In another experiment Burdick jumped off a giant platform while wearing a harness and into the safety of a large net. He was examining how the body perceives and responds to time when it is in a period of stress. In a lot of cases this book seems to throw up more questions than it answered. Part of this is attributable to the fact that more research needs to be done in this field because there are still a lot of things we fail to understand with respect to time.

Why Time Flies is a long and detailed book about time and its many facets. It has some interesting moments and it offers up some thought-provoking food for thought but there are also points where it gets a little too academic and scientific for its own good. For those smart enough to grasp the language and the scientific concepts, they will find a well-researched volume and some fascinating insights that occur time after time.

Why Time Flies is available now through Text Publishing.