Review: Life in the space-time continuum. All about biological clocks in time and off the beat

The event took an interdisciplinary look at the topic of time. - Cristina Psenne
The event took an interdisciplinary look at the topic of time. - Cristina Psenner (left) and Caitlin Koch from campus radio station bonnFM hosted the evening. © Barbara Frommann/University of Bonn all images in original size .

A series of events has been focusing on life in the space-time continuum, with the next one in April set to focus on "myself and everyone else."

What is time? Does it even exist separately from us humans? And what keeps us "in time"- An event from the series entitled "Die Exzellenzuniversität Bonn lädt ein" ("An invitation from the University of Bonn, a University of Excellence") took an interdisciplinary look at the big issue of time, offering an evening of fascinating insights, surprising facts and ample food for thought.

"Time after Time," "Forever Young" and "An Tagen wie diesen" ("On Days Like These")--the pop songs that resounded through Lecture Hall I on the evening of December 6 all shared a common theme: time. The University had evidently hit upon a popular topic: So many people turned up for the event, entitled "Leben im Raum-Zeit-Kontinuum. Von inneren Uhren im und gegen den Takt" ("Life in the space-time continuum. All about biological clocks in time and off the beat"), that there was not enough space inside the room for everyone and proceedings had to be livestreamed into an additional lecture hall. In all, 360 people listened to five illustrious researchers from the worlds of philosophy, astrophysics, molecular physiology of the brain and medicine each exploring "time" from their highly specialized angle and engaging in discussion on the topic.

Time as a shared experience

"Even though we all live and move through time, it still strikes us as mysterious and hard to comprehend," says Professor Michael Hoch, Rector of the University of Bonn. "This is the very reason it’s so fascinating. It’s no coincidence that you have researchers from all manner of different fields studying time-including here at our University of Excellence, of course. One particularly interesting question is how the various life forms on our planet, from single-celled organisms through to human beings, have adapted their bodies to suit life in the space-time continuum in the course of evolution, e.g. by establishing daytime and night-time rhythms."

The event was the second in the new "Die Exzellenzuniversität Bonn lädt ein" series, which is open to anyone living in the city and surrounding area who might be interested-as well as members of the University itself, needless to say. The evening was moderated by Cristina Psenner and Caitlin Koch from the campus radio station bonnFM.

From the theory of relativity to circadian genes, taking in astrophysics along the way

Professor Dennis Lehmkuhl, Professor of Natural Philosophy and the Philosophy of Science, opened proceedings by recounting how Albert Einstein (1879-1955) came to develop his theories of relativity and spacetime. He focused particularly on the pioneering groundwork laid by Heinrich Hertz (1854-1894) and Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909), both of whom spent time researching at the University of Bonn. Professor Michael Kramer from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy picked up the theme with a number of observations about time from an astrophysics perspective, explaining why a clock at the top of the Eiffel Tower runs more slowly than one at its base, for instance.

Professor Michael Pankratz, who studies behavior and the molecular physiology of the brain at the Life & Medical Sciences Institute (LIMES), spoke about circadian genes, which determine our daytime and night-time rhythms. He also introduced an intriguing link: "We measure time based on our memories." He explained this idea with reference to the fate of Henry Gustav Molaison (1926-2008), a well-known case from recent medical history. Molaison lost his entire short-term memory in 1953 following brain surgery, meaning that, until his death aged 82, he was left permanently with only his childhood memories prior to his operation. In other words, Pankratz argued, time had stood still for Molaison ever since he was 16.


Plants have a biological clock too

In the panel debate that followed, Professor Klaus Fließbach, Senior Physician at the Clinic for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Geriatric Psychiatry at the University Hospital Bonn, described how the things that we are currently experiencing have a major impact on our perception of time. Thus time seems to fly while we are making a lot of new, important or especially emotional experiences but feels particularly stretched out when we look back on it later. However, it is not just humans and animals that have a sense of time. Plants do too, as Professor Ute Vothknecht from the Institute for Cellular & Molecular Botany explained: "Plants know what time it is!" This has an evolutionary benefit because, if a plant detects that the sun will rise in an hour’s time, say, it can get ready to start photosynthesizing soon.


The introductory talks and subsequent panel discussion thus threw up a few surprising bits of information and ample food for thought. At the end of the highly successful evening, the audience voted on the topic for the next event in the "Die Exzellenzuniversität Bonn lädt ein" series, to be held on April 24, 2024. The chosen theme will be "Das Ich und die Anderen - Individuum, Gruppe, soziale Gemeinschaft" ("Myself and everyone else-individual, group, social community").