Time – The Underlying Mathematics and Science

As a species, we form our daily lives around clocks, calendars and alarms. It would be extremely difficult for us to cope if we didn’t know what time it was or what day it might be because the concept of time is at the core of our society and our civilisation. From what I gathered before investigating into the concept further, it is the manmade vehicle that traverses us through our entire existence on our planet and beyond. I always believed that time was something that we just made up ourselves… My discoveries proved me wrong.

Firstly, let’s take an example: what does a normal morning begin with for many?

An alarm blares at 8:00am to sound that it is time for us to get up and start the day. However, the snooze button delays the awakening to 8:12am (12 more minutes still leaves us a sufficient amount of time). Washed, dressed and ready; our phone reads 8:54am. We’ve wasted too much time because we need to be at our destination by 9:00am and we know 6 minutes is not long enough for a journey that takes 10 minutes. We’re going to be late. We need to be more organised next time.

You may or may not know it but this little scenario – that may be all too familiar – is oozing with mathematics.

It may seem like common sense to the average person, but planning towards time is all linked with having skill and knowledge within the fundamental principles of mathematics: estimation, planning, problem solving, sequencing events, organisation and so much more. They’re all how
we go about our days. Without being competent in these various fundamental skills, we’d be at a huge loss. Ma (2010) categorised 4 aspects of mathematics that teachers need to tap into in order for their students to have a rich understanding in their learning in maths during her investigations in teaching in China and the United States. They are: interconnectedness, multiple perspectives, basic ideas and longitudinal coherence.

A day would not be a day without a reference to what the digits on a digital clock read or where the hands were pointing on the analogue equivalent. But what really is a ‘day’? How have we measured 24 hours as a full day? I asked this question to the Internet and even myself multiple times. This led me to the discovery of the Circadian Rhythm:

The number 24 was not chosen out of sheer randomness, it is a crucial number that correlates to various living beings on the planet.

(Latin) Circa – about

(Latin) Diem – day

The phrase Circadian rhythm, broken down, literally means about-a-day rhythm.

In short, the circadian rhythm, a phrase coined by scientist Franz Halberg (2003), is an organisms’ body clock that indicates what they need to be doing at any given time across a 24-hour cycle. Sleeping, waking up and eating are examples of where the circadian rhythm is at work. It is heavily influenced by environmental factors. The sun and the moon indicate to our bodies when to rise and when to sleep (phone and computer screens being great deceivers to our body clock’s perception of night and day). Similarly, plants’ leaves adapt to the environment by moving in order to attract pollinators depending on the time of day.

Maths is natural to us.

Plants have a body clock too

Discovering the underlying biology to how we’ve conjured up time has led me to really appreciate why we need the manmade structure of clocks to keep us on track through our natural daily lives. This has shown me the real importance of mathematics having a relationship with the earth and it’s creatures. Its context is so core to every little thing we do, that we don’t even realise the underlying principles behind it. The mathematical ideas we are using to problem solve, estimate, decide and sequence events are intertwined with our bodies.

The clocks, calendars, phones and timers are all mathematical tools made from our innate ability and urge to define time and to quantify our instinctive movements. Furthermore, this further exemplifies Liping Ma’s theory of [inter]connectedness, as the various tools and formulae of mathematics are linked with, not only with each other but also with the real world (Ma, 2010). Tapping into this, as professionals, will be the difference between a student who can answer questions and a student who fully comprehends the work that they are doing. Knowledge in time is a topic that is heavily linked with the real world and children need to be competent with working with numbers. “Understanding relationships between numbers, and progressively developing methods of computation, has become the focus for learning, replacing the traditional ‘four rules of arithmetic’” (Skemp, 1986, Pg. 7).

Relating this further towards education, children, even from a very early age, have a great understanding of the concept of time. Toddlers “become familiar with the routine of their day” (Early Years, no date, pg. 2) and know, logically, what they’re doing and when they’re doing it. They may not know how to read what time it is when they have a snack or go for a nap, but they know instinctively when they are actually going through with consistent tasks (their circadian rhythm are already keeping them on track from the get-go). This, although it may seem minimal, is a child’s early access to problem solving mathematics.

Overall, my investigations into the concept of time have only scratched the surface of what is to come within the Discovering Mathematics module, and in my professional development as a student teacher.

Circadian Rhythm

Looking ahead, I know now why we must teach time to children, as it is part of their being. Furthermore, having the underlying knowledge of the basic ideas, coined by Ma (2010), will improve how deep a teacher’s teaching roots can grow in a child’s ability to truly grasp mathematics and go beyond just the academic mathematics that we throw onto a child.

I finish this post with a pop song that explores our fascination with what is possible in 24 hours:

“I wish these 24 hours

would never end,

oh in these 24 hours,

 wish the clock had no hands”

(Ferreira, 2013)


Early Years (no date) Maths through Play [brochure] Available at: http://www.early-years.org/parents/docs/maths-through-play.pdf (accessed 22nd of September 2017)

Ferreira, Sky (2013) 24 Hours In: Night Time, My Time [CD] 0602537712793 Capitol Records.

Halberg, Franz. (2003) Journal of Circadian Rhythm: Transdisciplinary unifying implications of circadian findings in the 1950s [article] Available at: https://www.jcircadianrhythms.com/articles/10.1186/1740-3391-1-2/ (Accessed 20th of September 2017)

Ma, Liping (2010) Knowing and Teaching elementary mathematics: teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States New York: Routledge.

Skemp, Richard R. (1986) The Psychology of Learning Mathematics, Second Edition, London: Penguin Books.

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1 thought on “Time – The Underlying Mathematics and Science

  1. Richard

    Thanks Alan, I loved reading your analysis and the links to the video and the song are just great – this is the connectedness of maths in action!
    It also got me thinking about a quote I heard recently from Einstein:
    “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl [or guy] for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” (available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/370132-put-your-hand-on-a-hot-stove-for-a-minute) and this makes me think that there is a biological and psychological element to time. Also as I am reading this in the afternoon slot – I have to admit – I am feeling a little sleepy myself right now! But thanks again – a really insightful and well researched post.


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