Time: A User's Guide, By Stefan Klein, trans. Shelley Frisch

A perfectly pleasant but superficial way to pass the time
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The Independent Culture

Time flies. Except, of course, when you really want it to. Pliny the Younger knew as much 2,000 years ago. Has much been learnt since about the elusive dimension in which we measure our lives? In a world in which the feeling of being pressed for time seems near-universal, it would be nice to think so. German science journalist Stefan Klein's clearly written review of the biology and psychology of time relates lots of intriguing findings.

Intrepid subjects proved nearly half a century ago that if we set up home underground, with no cues from sunrise or sunset, most of us would adopt a 25-hour cycle. Since then we have learnt more about the psychology of time perception, why some people are more alert in the morning, and the biology of our internal clocks. But it is not clear that all this experimentation has made it easier to sort out our troubled relationship with the external clockwork that governs us.

That becomes apparent in Klein's second part, more of a self-help guide. This is less compelling. Our speeded-up, overstimulated days leave us feeling chronically short of time. But "time-management" through list-making and so forth is a waste of time. The real problems are managing attention, avoiding pointless stress, and motivation. Deal with those small things, Klein, implies, and our days will be filled with experiences properly savoured and the timely accomplishment of well-ordered tasks. If only...

Klein suggests that we need a "total rethinking" of society and politics, in pursuit of a new culture of time.

But his specific suggestions are less than revolutionary – including flexitime and more control over scheduling their tasks for employees, longer opening hours for doctors and municipal offices, schools that start a bit later so sleepy teenagers are not zoning out in the morning, pausing for contemplation and, er, taking it easy from time to time.

It's hardly a root-and-branch rejection of modernity, though eminently reasonable.

A short third section looks at the physics of time, touching base with Newton and Einstein, and hints at possible future transformations of the notion of time. This seems like a gesture towards hard-core science writing.

All in all, this is an agreeable way to pass the time, but do not expect any life-changing revelations about how to deal with the hours, days or years.

Jon Turney is writing 'The Rough Guide to the Future'

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