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The Super Bowl: What is time?

We answer an eternal and highly Google-able question

What time is the Super Bowl? Super Bowl LV will be played on Feb. 7, 2021, at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The game, which will be contested by the AFC’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will kick off at 6:30 p.m. ET (5:30 p.m. CT; 3:30 p.m. PT). In the United States, you can watch on CBS. The Super Bowl LV Halftime Show will be headlined by The Weeknd.

Time is a notoriously hard concept to pin down. The first person I’m aware of to take a serious crack at it is Aristotle, who offers up his definition of time in Book IV of his Physics (parts 10 and 11): “time is ‘number of movement in respect of the before and after’.”

This curiously circular definition — citing ‘the before and after’ in a definition of time somewhat evades the issue at hand — is a relative one. For Aristotle (who seems to be more interested in playing with the concept of ‘now’ than time itself anyway), time seems to be a sort of basis for change, although its exact nature is confusing, both for the philosopher himself and anyone unfortunate enough to be attempting to thoroughly digest his work.

Relative time turns out not to be that useful, and one of the great achievements of early modernity was capturing and taming time. The development of regular clocks allows for many things, not least more precise measurements of everything else. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, the grand edifice of Newtonian physics being built on water clocks and sundials.

Thanks to the magic of clocks, these days we’re used to time as a constant, the ‘now’ ticking second by second into the future with implacable rhythm. This is very helpful both in being able to understand the immediate universe and to maintain a functioning society. But it’s also both physically wrong and hideously unnatural.

Einstein dealt with the non-static nature of time in 1905 with “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (tl;dr: holding the speed of light constant means that time must flow differently for observers traveling at different speeds, a fact which has been proved experimentally) and although I’m not drunk enough to read about quantum physics I’m going to go ahead and assume that quantum theories of time are pretty gnarly too. Humanity’s general concept of time only works on a limited, parochial scale.

And honestly, it doesn’t work there either. We don’t experience time in the way our machines do. It contracts, contorts, extending March 2020 into hideous decades, and turning what ought to be joyous hours into a stumble of drunken seconds. People don’t experience time as a regimented flow. Sometimes we pretend to, and every now and then we force ourselves to sync up with it, but formal time is too abstract for us to stay with it for long.

Sports are great examples of our utter inability to mesh perceived time with ‘real’ time. Since it’s Super Bowl week, let’s take football. An NFL game nominally consists of four 15-minute quarters, but in practice lasts for hours. Why? Because the game clock twists and turns, freezing at some points but not others. The rules of football, with play clocks and timeouts and etc. act as a supplemental set of physics, but it’s not just the rules which determine how long a game goes.

On average the Super Bowl takes 3 hours, 44 minutes from start to finish. This is significantly longer than NFL average, despite no changes to the rules of the sport, and is entirely a product of capitalism’s bizarre intersection with cultural events. Super Bowl ads cost a lot of money, the halftime show and therefore more time needs to be made (made?!) to accommodate both. In a certain sense, then, the societal environs of the game warp time within the game.

The Super Bowl, then operates on about three different layers of time, all distressed in barely-sensical ways. This is fine, because time makes no fucking sense and never will. Things happen, they appear to be irreversible because of ... entropy? ... and we all just hang around and deal with it. What is time? Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea. Maybe the post my friend Chris Greenberg wrote three years ago might help?

I’ve given myself a headache now, so I hope this post is long enough for SEO purposes. Dulce et decorum est pro google mori.