One of my fascinations with us is our discovery of scales, spatial and temporal (wait, aren’t those the same thing really?), such as cosmic, geologic, microscopic, biological, atomic, quantum, daily, life span, generations, etc. A recent issue of Science News had several articles about time that perturbed my thinking here. One page summarized our efforts at clock building in order to standardize time keeping. Meeting someone at the rising of the moon suffices for many purposes for many times but what about moonless nights? So their timeline begins about 1500 BCE with Egyptian sundials, then water clocks and presumably hour glasses with sand, then devices to mark astronomical movement more precisely beginning about 600 BCE, and the first mechanical clocks around 1300 AD. We have continued to improve their accuracy (wait, does anyone really know what time it is?) until we now have an atomic clock accurate to within a second over 15 billion years. By the time that clock loses or gains its errant second, Polaris will have shifted from its position as our north star and another will have taken its place (will it be Vega?) and probably another after that, but who’s counting on that being a significant change in our orientation? Many of the improvements in time technology have come for navigation purposes, e.g., knowing the longitude of a location or the micro-second timing for the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to drop its probe accurately on one of Saturn’s moons after traveling millions of miles over several years.
Timing is important, coordinating group effort (let’s synchronize our watches, check) or flights at the airport or sharing processing resources on computers. I am not sure the monitoring of workers to the second as they manufacture or deliver goods is a great improvement but that is modern life, as Charlie Chaplin depicted even before modern life became quite so time obsessed.
One of the more prominent differences between urban and rural life is how we keep time, or rather, how we monitor our efforts, one by the minute and one by the task at hand. Cultures vary a good deal here as well. I was chastised by a waiter in the Caribbean to abandon my young man’s American sense of promptness and relax into island time. Easier said than done. England’s trains proudly run on schedule or face a disgruntled public; some other countries’ trains, well, look for them when you see them. I am also fascinated by individual psychological variation, from someone who is always early to someone habitually late to those who insist clocks be kept tuned to some accuracy or those who set their watches 5 minutes late to give themselves some leeway. Oh, well.
One of the articles in the Science News focused on biologists’ efforts to understand biological clocks, like the metabolic rhythms of organisms seemingly in adaptation to diurnal variation in sunlight, etc. It turns out that this understanding is not coming easily or clearly. Why protein synthesis varies regularly (loosely termed) is not explained by our preconceptions. That makes an interesting read. I really liked one concluding comment as to why organisms keep their own time. Microbiologist Susan Golden says maybe our circadian rhythms evolved so that we are “not being jerked around by the environment.” In short, our rhythm is a hallmark of our autonomy, of our life’s inherent integrity separating us from the rest of universe. Island time begins to look very good from here. I think I will rest a moment before traveling on.