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Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." And it’s still as close a definition as we have. This hour of Radiolab, we try our hand at unlocking the mysteries of time. We stretch and bend it, wrestle with its subjective nature, and wrap our minds around strategies to standardize it...stopping along the way at a 19th-century railroad station in Ohio, a track meet, and a Beethoven concert.


Brian Greene, Jay Griffiths, Ben Rubin, Dr. Oliver Sacks and Rebecca Solnit

Unlocking The Secrets of Time

We'll hear a recording of a baby becoming a young woman, in "Nancy Grows Up." "Nancy Grows Up" by Tony Schwartz from "Tony Schwartz Records the Sounds of Children".

Comments [14]

It's All Relative

Both physicist Brian Greene and neurologist Oliver Sacks explain the very strange, very subjective nature of time.

The elasticity of experience is expressed by sound artist Ben Rubin in a piece he produced for The Next Big Thing. We include an excerpt on being in "the zone." ...

Comments [9]

Ruled By Time

The self-declared Independent State of Trolheim does not recognize GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Jay Griffiths argues that the question of what time it is in inextricably bound up with issues of power and politics. And we'll hear a piece from producer Aaron Ximm on the experience of listening to Beethoven's ...

Comments [11]

Comments [61]

Ant from Berkeley

Back in the early-mid '60's I read a science fiction story in an anthology. It was about a society of humanoids who's entire life was lived in (what us the reader would say was) 8 days. Just out of reach of their life span was a visible space craft that had the capacity to, they believed, restore them to some previous time when they lived a life span more like ours (the readers).Darned if I can remember the author or the title but it comes back to me pretty regularly.
Does this ring a bell to anyone?

Jun. 20 2015 05:08 PM
John A Miller from United States

Looking for the song at 9 minutes right at the end of Nancy Grows Up.

May. 04 2015 11:41 PM
George W from Here

The 3rd great time war began, not in space between daleks The Doctor, It began in a small town at noon, or was it?

Dec. 17 2014 07:12 PM
martin kykta from Austin, Texas

You did not get the relatitvity explanation right. Special relativity says, if two people with watches are traveling at a constant velocity relative to each other, they both see each the others watch as moving slow. Suppose one should deacclerate (or accelerate) to catch the other. The one that does would find the others watch is fast (or slow). The accleration fixes the differences of the clocks. Likewisw clocks located in large acceleration fields (say the gravitional surface of the planet)run slower than clocks in a low accelaration fields (located off the planets surface). For the most part, for people moving with low velocities compared to the speed of light on the surface of the earth, time is the same for everyone.

Jan. 09 2014 04:06 PM
Terri from Oregon

I love RadioLab, but was highly distressed to hear a section of the Podcast/Radio show titled "Unlocking the Secrets of Time" aired on Jan. 4th, 2014.

At 8:02 in the recording a little girl says this:

"...Tony, if, um, if a dog makes wee wee in the house, if he's, if you have to make him house broken, if he makes wee wee in the apartment, you have to slap him with a newspaper, then if he doesn't do it again he's house broken…."

Hitting an animal, especially a puppy, should not be encouraged in any form, even from a little girl that knows only what her parents have taught her, which sadly in this case is—it's OK to hit a dog. This section could have easily been edited out and I am disappointed that RadioLab did not catch it and left it in for so many people to hear, and thus condone, whether intentionally or not.

I would encourage you to remove this section of the podcast.


We'll hear a recording of a baby becoming a young woman, in "Nancy Grows Up." "Nancy Grows Up" by Tony Schwartz from "Tony Schwartz Records the Sounds of Children" FW05583, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1970. Used by permission.

Jan. 08 2014 07:39 PM
Johannes Knesl from NC

I think Radiolab has the potential to become your best program.

It is provocative and goes quite far but then stops short. I think this is because you feel you have to/want to entertain. This results sometimes in flippancy, as for instance when you ridiculed that eminent physicist's kind gesture of letting you in on how he tries to feel time and electrons etc.

There was also a fairly easy way to go deeper and investigate the stretching to time in meditation - it would have been the felt-experiential side opposed to the hard scientific side.

As we finally are getting better science, we are realizing that there is more under the sun than our imposed/imposing conceptual armory has dreamt of.

Please do not shun depth, we are a capable audience, and leaven with such humor as does not demean or cut off the sense of awe - that all good scientists feel and want to transmit.
Thanks and all the best ,


Jan. 07 2014 07:09 PM

This episode opened my understanding enough to reconsider the meaning of this scripture...

2 Peter 3:8
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

Jan. 05 2014 06:45 PM
John from Austin from Austin, TX

Someone on the show said the sun is directly overhead at noon. As most educated people know, this can only happen within the Tropics, and not in the US. That guy needs to get outside more.

Also, even though it is now accepted as an idiom, I wish you would not allow the expression "centered around". Try drawing a picture of that.

Jan. 05 2014 01:28 PM
Verlie from MA

I missed part of the show, when you were talking about athletes perceiving time so much faster. I had an experience, at a 3 month silent meditation retreat, where my task was to be present in every moment. Near the end of the retreat, I was holding out my palm with sunflower seeds to feed the chickadees in the woods. I noticed as I watched the birds approach that I was seeing exactly how they shifted their feathers, like ailerons on a plane, to fly between the thick evergreen branches. Normally that would have just been a blur. And in that moment I remembered Leonardo da Vince's drawings of birds and their wings, and realized that in addition to drawing from deceased bird models, he had also watched them this closely, and this quickly, or is it slowly, as I was in that moment.

Jan. 04 2014 02:53 PM
David from NY NY

Star Trek original series. Season 3, episode 11.
"Wink of an Eye"

in which the crew encounters a race which moves at speeds outside the threshold of human (and Vulcan) perceptions

rather fun

Jan. 04 2014 01:03 PM
Margaret G from Philadelphia

If a whale (or similarly paced out of water animal) heard the slowed down Beethoven, would it sound the same to them as it does to us? Or similarly, if Beethoven were to be sped up to the tempo of a hummingbird, would a hummingbird hear what we hear?

Jan. 03 2014 04:06 PM
Stephen from NYC

Why do you guys post this link to if the Beethoven's 9th is un available - so bogus - marketing technique! If anyone has a direct link to the music I would appreciate - not some smoke and mirrors marketing technique hokus pokus.

Nov. 19 2012 04:03 PM
Paul from Wisconsin

At a previous residence, a beetle would scrape itself along a lighted wall every night at 10 p.m., presumably to get my attention because it wanted the lights turned out. (It also did this once when I left a pot of boiling water unattended, believe it or not.)

Nov. 18 2012 08:05 AM
Glenn A. Walsh from Pittsburgh

Good program. The Nova episodes that Brian Greene hosted earlier this year (these should be available for free viewing on the Nova web site) talk about the latest theories on time.

Railroad Time did not just happen. It was Samuel Pierpont Langley (who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory who made it possible to have a time standard for the railroads (and everyone else). And, like many things, it happened as a matter of financial necessity for the Allegheny Observatory.

When Langley arrived at the Allegheny Observatory in 1867, there was little money for actual astronomical research. With the strong support of Pennsylvania Railroad Vice President William Thaw, Langley started using the Observatory to determine precise time, by observing certain stars. He then sent time signals, by telegraph, to railroads, cities, and other subscribers. Annually, this time subscription service raised nearly $3,000 (a huge sum in that era) to fund Observatory research.

More on the history of Allegheny Observatory:

Nov. 17 2012 06:52 PM
Jim Maynard

Interesting program. You might want to check out an interesting movie called Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzman. An astronomer in it makes the case that everything that happens to us happens in the past. What we see with a telescope happened up to a great time ago, while by the time we hear what someone says a small amount of time has passed since it was said. This is a side idea in a beautifully done production with more important issue to examine and well worth viewing.

Nov. 17 2012 04:41 PM
roy staab from Milwaukee/Brooklyn

time & insects, in 1983 I would bike out Flatbush avenue to make my art at the end in Dead Horse Bay. I use the reeds that grow on the show and make my art on the tidal estuary sand and then wait for the tide to come in so the art is only in the water. in late afternoon at a particular time the crickets would start it's song. get those last photographs and go home. wonderful light and communing to the earth at the same time.

Nov. 16 2012 03:00 PM
Wil Davis from Nashua, NH

Saved by the radio! Seems to be a technical problem (WEVS - Nashua, NH) just getting static for the moment! So much better than the programme to which I was listening! - Wil Davis

Nov. 16 2012 12:18 PM
Wil Davis from Nashua, NH

Another load of garbiage! Over-produced, wankage of some producer (Tony Schwartz?) getting off on making a recording of his brat learning to speak! (God help us all!) Too much production, too many voices sounding the same, too many SFX! CLICK! - Wil Davis

Nov. 16 2012 12:12 PM
lou daniel from uk

Hello everyone. I live in the UK and adore radiolab...I am itching to know what the piece of music at the end of the section on the recording of the little girl from birth to twelve is. Can anyone help? Sorry to be a pain if its obvious.

Sep. 21 2012 03:22 PM
Karl from Oslo

I often listen to music on my iPod on my way to work in the morning, and have discovered a strange phenomenon. Whenever I yawn, the tempo of the music seem to slow down a little. When I have completed the yawn, the music is back to normal tempo. While the pitch of the music has remained constant, during the yawn, I will experience a 127 bpm tune drop to 124 or so bpm (difficult to measure, obviously).

Has anyone else experienced this? I find it fascinating that one can alter the perception of time simply by yawning :-)

Jul. 02 2012 01:02 AM
Stephanie Beach from Littleton Mass

Wonderful article.
For Claus Dinesen, I downloaded the Slow Beethoven from
Just right click the link, save link as and put it in your music folder.
Go to iTunes and 'add file to library'.
Thank you so much, RadioLab!

Jun. 28 2012 07:57 AM
M. Reuter from Fort Lauderdale, FL

I listen to the show on SAT mornings and am enamored with it. Being a social scientist (sociologist), I appreciate and acknowledge the scientific approach while giggling at the humor and sharp conclusions. This is my favorite NPR show (well, the car dudes aren't far behind ...). The piece on "TIME" was fascinating - absolutely fascinating - even though I would still argue that a large portion of our understanding of "time" is socially constructed. So, I want to leave you guys a "hats off" compliment, and hope there will be many more seasons to listen, but if you ever go back to the issue of time, I wish you'd also talk to some sociologists.

Mar. 01 2012 12:18 PM
Elaine J from Grand Rapids, MI

1/7/2012 between 3-3:30pm I heard an (humorous) essay (sort of) on Time, e.g. amount of time in one's life spent filing nails, eating, blinking, laughing, singing, in other words doing innocuous things, as well as important things.
Grand Rapids, MI PBS station perhaps.
Can you identify the essay/poem/reading please?

Jan. 08 2012 02:30 PM
eric greene from washington

excellent article on time -
consider that time is three dimensional one (forward and back) is past, present and future- up/down and left/right are alternative probabilities, just as all our three physical dimensions exist so too does all time.

this theory was put forth by Jane Roberts (a mystic) in the 60's.

Nov. 19 2011 04:06 PM
Drew C. from Orlando, FL, USA

I've been listening to Radiolab for quite a while now and I still think this episode is my favorite. It has all the greatest qualities of Radiolab; Oliver Sacks, stories, science, and insight. :) Thanks so much, everyone.

Oct. 18 2011 01:34 PM
jordan from Orange County

This is an absurd and silly thing to say

Oct. 06 2011 04:19 PM
CR83 from Tulsa

Try this small experiment that will dissolve your mind's conception of time when run in tandem with your biological clock.

Most people before going to be take a glance and look at the clock...the next time you go to bed, conscientiously think about not looking at the clock or thinking about how many hours of sleep you will get. Simply get in bed put your head down and relax. You will be surprised to find that regardless of the amount of time you sleep 5hrs, 8hrs, etc. your body will feel rejuvenated and you will have deceived your mind from sensing fatigue.

P.S. Radiolab is the new television. Jump on the bandwagon.

Sep. 02 2011 01:09 PM

Radiolab is cool!

Aug. 02 2011 12:10 PM

About the thing where time has already written our history and it is just there frozen and waiting to happen? Time is the order those events happen. If it weren't for time, our universe wouldn't work. That is to say that if it weren't for time it could be as if some one were in New York, watching the sunset with the Statue of Liberty, the next thing we know, we're not born yet and the Statue is still being under construction!! Time puts the events into an order that makes sense.

Jul. 31 2011 03:57 PM

Relating to the section about how time is relative to people, and how people in "the zone" perceive things more slowly than they actually happen: I have this experience while I'm playing music. When I play music, and play it well, it may feel absolutely perfect to me, just the right tempo. Curiously, though, when I listen to recordings of my playing, the music is too fast. Even music I've just played and felt was just right.

Jul. 29 2011 05:15 AM
Adam from Nebraska

What's the name of the bass-heavy song starting at 23 minutes?

Jul. 01 2011 03:43 PM
Wout from stupidville

sorry my bad I meant that time is a tool to measure change

Jun. 13 2011 10:19 AM
Wout from The netherlands

Andrew from Chicago

what you describe is true in a way but you think of the word time in it's poetic meaning

basicly time is nothing more the a different word for change... regerstating that change

Jun. 13 2011 09:59 AM
Brian Gunning from Iowa City

For a week in my Senior year in high school I experienced severe time dilation. Everything was moving at normal speed, by my perception was that it all was going super fast. Frustrating, annoying, and overwhelming. Thankfully it went away in a week.

Jun. 07 2011 04:22 PM
Andrew from Chicago

What if time doesn't exist? It seems to me that the goal for all of us is to remain present; to acknowledge that, in fact, all we really have is the present. Sure, our world and sun and lives exist in cyclical motion and things change, but to me the significance of that isn't found by breaking down time into its component parts to "figure it out," but rather, it shows us that the present is never the same. The present is where it's at. As we know, time is relative; subjective. In accepting this, try to just ignore time. Stop thinking about the past, stop thinking about the future. Imagine we are just people moving around in space, with events occurring all around us. Our present automatically encompasses all that has already happened so there is no use in dwelling on it. By accepting that the present is all there is, we realize we have much more time than we ever imagined. As the Zen masters say, "when you wash the dishes, wash the dishes."

May. 17 2011 07:09 PM
Jacoba from Dresden, Germany

Great show, both me and my family were entranced. I think that the part about the faster you go the slower time goes is a little hard to grasp, but still as amazing.

May. 14 2011 11:35 AM
kenneth stirling from melbourne australia

I was wondering if the Oliver Sach's patient Mirin(?) V ( for whom time had slowed) saw the world around him move at a blistering pace and conversely for the female patient Hester Y. Did she see the rest of the world move at a snail-like pace. Any answers?

Mar. 31 2011 06:51 PM

Great show!
Definitely one of my favorites. Love the segment on Sandusky, Ohio.

Mar. 28 2011 08:38 PM
Deanna Webster from Colorado

So.... my mom always used to say, "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get...", and- she was right! Awesome.

Feb. 09 2011 03:06 PM

For the best time dilation/compression story I suggest "Dragon's Egg"
by Robert L. Forward.
The "Cheela" live 430,000 times faster than the humans they contact.

Feb. 07 2011 10:08 PM
Pal from Halifax, N.S.

I was just listening to some episodes of radiolab that I missed... and well it's a good thing I did. The time episode really explained a lot to my boyfriend and I. We have been together for over a year and a half and really find the other person to be interesting and fascinating but we also have a lot of mis-understandings. What we realized is that we go at different speeds. Be is very speedy and gets a lot done. I am more slow, methodical and detail oriented. We totally operate on different planes! It was quite eye opening to think of things in these terms but at the same time makes us question if we are fundamentally in-compatible.

Thanks for the insite... not that we know what to do with it.

I do heart radiolab and find it to be just the right speed.

Jan. 16 2011 10:16 PM

Patrick from California:

He considered real noon, i.e. what them cowboys called "high noon," where the sun appears to be at its highest point in the sky. That's when you're facing closest to the sun for that particular day.

The "noon" that we use to refer to a certain time in our standardized time zones is, generally speaking, not the same time as high noon, as it's a rather arbitrarily set time. Standard time zones were invented originally so that places linked by railroads would have synchronized times. Otherwise, they don't really have much significance in terms of positions of the sun, celestial bodies, etc. I know from my own casual observations that at least for part of the year here on the American east coast, high noon is actually around 1 or 2 PM.

Dec. 15 2010 06:47 PM
Patrick from California

Reading a book that talks about how Eratosthenes (ca. 276-194 B.C.) estimated the circumference of the earth by noting the length cast by a shadow at exactly noon in Alexandreia and Syene. He surmised that the difference in shadow length combined with the distance between the cities could tell him the circumference of the earth. My question is this: How did he do this if time was not standardized until the 1900's and train schedules as you mentioned :-)

Dec. 15 2010 05:03 PM
Thomas from Barcelona

Heh heh. I would also like to know the name of the song Ty from New York and Victor are after. It sure did give me goosebumps.

Nov. 27 2010 10:00 AM
jordan from connecticut

The theory with setting two rolexes would work but because a rolex doesn't keep perfect time considering the fact that Rolex watches are self wound automatic peices. Two Rolexes will never keep perfect time. If you lay one down on its side and one on its back the one on its back will be faster than the one on its side. The thoery should have been stated with two quartz battery watches because they will keep better time than a Rolex

Nov. 16 2010 10:46 AM

Amazing work as always. But someone please answer Ty from New York's question!! Im dying to know the name of that song too. The layering of that over the end of Nancy growing up was fantastically beautiful

Nov. 12 2010 11:33 PM
Nick Bizony from Barrington, IL

Great series. Have always been a Robert Krulwich fan, since discovering him on NPR and on The Newshour.

Nov. 01 2010 01:04 PM
Ty from New York

I was wondering if anyone can tell me what the music is that starts playing at around 9 minute, after the "Nancy Grows Up" piece. Thanks.

Oct. 25 2010 08:29 PM
Eric Gunther from NYC

Chad, Rob, and company,

You guys failed to touch upon an instance where we all experience time at a significantly accelerated clip: our dreams. Personally, I have always believed this to be because we are unhampered by the physical world. Any thoughts?

Oct. 22 2010 04:06 AM

Jennifer, I believe what you are looking for is the Japanese musician Nobukazu Takemura. It plays between 21:30 and 23:00? I think it's the song "Kepler" from the album Scope.

Oct. 19 2010 09:18 AM
Jennifer from Atlanta

What was the music played that was all sorts of chimes? I think it was right before you talked about the clock garden. I would love to use that as an alarm clock!

Oct. 18 2010 11:31 PM
liz from manassas

time is so not interesting to learn about. to bad i got stuck with it. :(

Sep. 29 2010 01:21 PM
rkakel from Canada

Fantastic show.

Sep. 26 2010 11:36 AM
Nick Ryberg from Minneapolis, MN

Syncronicity = listening to Time yesterday and seeing this long exposure iPad graphics project. One surely sets the context for the other.

Making Future Magic: light painting with the iPad – Blog – BERG

Sep. 15 2010 09:30 AM
Nathaniel L. Galea from in the feet of the hills in central virginia

oops, I see that Leandro from NYC has already found it right. thanks Leandro.

Sep. 11 2010 10:06 PM
Nathaniel L. Galea from in the feet of the hills in central virginia

Thank you. I think Borjes was very close, what a beautiful conception of Time.

Like Claus D., I would love to know how to listen to all or some of the slow Beethoven.

Regardless, keep up the good work.

Sep. 11 2010 10:02 PM
Jeffrey Hansen from Mexico City, DF

Just listened to the rebroadcast of the "Time" Episode which brought me back to one of my all-time favorite books, "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman, a great novel about different worlds, each of which has a distinct perception of time. Highly recommended.

Sep. 06 2010 01:01 PM
Walter Friese from Minneapolis

So, when we speed up the singing of the whale 60 or 100 times, are they really speaking French and asking where Jacques Cousteau went?

Sep. 05 2010 04:55 PM
Dan from Hawaii

You changed your URL so iTunes fails to update. It is very difficult to find the link to subscribe in iTunes on your site. I'm a professor who just finished teaching a class on "designing usable systems": I could have used this as a (negative) example!

Sep. 03 2010 10:29 PM
leandro from NYC

The gods of Google. Check it out: 24/7 stream and an iPhone app.


Sep. 03 2010 01:12 PM
Claus Dinesen from Denmark

Hello at Radiolab
... superb audio for my ears, thank you. Is it possible to download the slow version(24 hour version) of Bethovens 9 symfoni?

Best regards Claus D./Denmark

Sep. 01 2010 05:52 PM

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