A time to end all times

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Ed­i­tor-in-chief Neil God­bout

When the ar­mistice to end the First World War was signed a cen­tury ago, the mo­ment of the sign­ing – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – was frozen in time, even as time marched on, with no army or sig­na­ture on Earth able to stop it.

So many lives lost in a con­flict that brought in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion to the bat­tle­field with hor­rific re­sults. We re­mem­ber the 16 mil­lion deaths, the sac­ri­fices, the brav­ery, the dates, the places, as we must.

Sadly, we also for­get that about three times as many peo­ple died in the Span­ish flu epi­demic that in­fected the en­tire world in 1918 and 1919. Their deaths were as tragic and sense­less as those who died in the trenches.

The flu and the war changed how peo­ple saw the world. For the first time, both war and sick­ness were seen in a global con­text, rather than prob­lems con­fined to re­gions or con­ti­nents, where oceans could of­fer safety from con­ta­gious viruses.

Yet the af­ter­math of the First World War didn’t just make the planet smaller, it lit­er­ally trans­formed hu­man­ity’s view of space and time.

Al­bert Ein­stein had al­ready pro­vided the sci­en­tific un­der­pin­nings for that change years ear­lier, when he pub­lished his The­ory of Spe­cial Rel­a­tiv­ity in 1905, with work by him and oth­ers over the next 10 years to­wards an un­der­stand­ing of gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity.

Isaac New­ton had por­trayed time in ab­so­lute terms, un­touch­able and un­chang­ing, but Ein­stein pro­vided the for­mu­las to show New­ton was wrong, con­firm­ing what the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Great War, had al­ready shown – time is rel­a­tive.

Trains and tele­graphs shrunk the world over the course of the 19th cen­tury, de­mand­ing in­ven­tions like time zones and stan­dard times that (mostly) ev­ery­one could agree on.

As James Gle­ick shows in his book Time Travel: A His­tory, Ger­many im­posed Som­merzeit (Sum­mer Time) dur­ing the First World War in an ef­fort to save coal. Day­light Sav­ings Time spread around the world af­ter the war. Time was seen for the first time as an­other de­vice that could be shaped and con­trolled for hu­man pur­poses.

“When the Nazis oc­cu­pied France,” Gle­ick writes, “they or­dered all the clocks moved an hour for­ward, to Ber­lin time.”

Agree­ing to a global con­cept of time was no sim­ple task. France was hardly thrilled to bend a knee to Greenwich Time. In the wake of the First World War, one of the chal­lenges for the League of Na­tions was to im­pose the Gre­go­rian Cal­en­dar as the world­wide stan­dard, forc­ing those coun­tries still us­ing the Ju­lian Cal­en­dar to fall in line.

“Bul­gar­i­ans and Rus­sians com­plained that their cit­i­zens could not be made sud­denly to age by thir­teen days,” Gle­ick writes, “to sur­ren­der thir­teen days of their lives in the name of glob­al­iza­tion.”

The Great War showed that not just space but even time could be taken away from peo­ple.

The philo­soph­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of rel­a­tive time, the war and the flu shat­tered pre­vi­ously held be­liefs in the ab­so­lute, from faith in the di­vine to the cer­tainty of truth, jus­tice and moral­ity.

Yet great thinkers had al­ready ar­rived at this place cen­turies ear­lier.

More than 300 years ear­lier, long be­fore E=mc2, In Flan­ders Field, poi­son gas and a fate­ful meet­ing aboard a train car to si­lence the guns, Wil­liam Shake­speare had al­ready de­con­structed time, rip­ping it to shreds in the wake of war, death and tragedy.

Upon the news of his wife’s death, Mac­beth fully com­pre­hends the fragility of life and the weight of time.

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

To­mor­row, and to­mor­row, and to­mor­row, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syl­la­ble of recorded time;

And all our yes­ter­days have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief can­dle!

Life’s but a walk­ing shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

We re­mem­ber, we for­get. Time, death and war al­ways our com­pan­ions.

The clown rec­og­nizes the ab­sur­dity.

In his book, Gle­ick quotes the per­pet­u­ally glum co­me­dian Steven Wright: “Right now, I’m hav­ing am­ne­sia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve for­got­ten this be­fore.”

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