Timekeeping has always been one of mankind's greatest challenges, less vital than the need for food and shelter but more fundamental than most other quotidian concerns. Without an understanding of time, we are lost, wanderers in a murk of experience where yesterday and tomorrow are seen only in broad strokes, banded by sunrise and sunset.
So, as my teenage daughter might say, what's the diff? The story that Stacey tells is infinitely technically complicated [even, in parts, beyond my meager understanding], but suffice to say that, whereas the earth's rotations around the sun do not keep perfect, regular time, atomic clocks do, and for a long time now, in order to keep the sun shining at noon and the winter solstice always falling on a certain day in December, atomic clocks [like the ones maintained at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC] have been manipulated to "leap" ahead a second here and there, so that our very regulated timekeeping devices [such as global positioning systems] can continue to be in synch with what might be called geophysical "mean solar time." The ways this works is: "Whenever solar time is about to fall nine-tenths of a second behind the atomic count, global timekeepers force all the atomic clocks in the world to count an extra second . . . giving the earth a second to catch up." The sun and earth, as it turns out, don't keep regular time [whatever "regular" might mean], whereas "electrons within a cesium atom oscillate at an astonishingly unvarying rate, regular to within nanoseconds, never changing, never slowing or speeding up, more accurate by far than any clock ever invented." It turns out, therefore, that a second is not 1/86,400th of a day, but is, rather, 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom. Both solar and atomic time are "natural," according to Stacey, but one [atomic time] is supposedly more "perfect."
And so, a kind of academic debate--but with "real world" implications--has ensued between the astronomers, who believe that we should use "leap seconds" to calibrate atomic time with solar/Greenwich mean time [after all, who wants to sit around in the dark at noon, which could happen three to four thousand years from now if we don't utilize leap seconds], and the physicists, who believe we should maintain, as strictly as possibly, the most technologically "regular" time we can, although this would mean, as Stacey puts it, that "the sun, along with the stars and the and out measurements of the earth's rotation, will become irrelevant to telling time. 'Time' will become an abstraction, numbers on display, unbound from the outside physical world." [Although I might say, if atomic time is based on oscillating atoms, isn't it still bound to the physical world, just at a different level?] Certain questions are raised as objections [of a sort] to eliminating leap seconds: "If we're not going to worry about civil time matching solar time . . . why not simplify global timekeeping even more by reducing the number of global time zones from twenty-four to five?" And: "How will we decide what time it is on Mars or Jupiter?"
Most interesting to me in Stacey's article was an historical "prequel" to all this that she shared of which I had been completely unaware. Apparently, in 1752, "English and colonial American subjects went to bed on Wednesday, September 2 and awoke the next morning on Thursday, September 14. The intervening eleven days . . . never came into being." The reason for this decision [mandated by the English government] had its impetus in an even earlier time-shifting event in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which was essentially a revision of the Roman Julian calendar [and which we still use today]. In this calendar, the days stretching from October 5 to 14, 1582 were eliminated to make up for the fact that the lunar month never easily matches the solar year [if you put twelve lunar months together, you get 354 days, not 365], and the Julian calendar had compensated for this by adding about eleven minutes to each solar year. Over time, this adds up, and the calendar began to "lose time." Hence the Gregorian solution. But here's the fun part: the English government, caught in the throes of Reformation struggles, refused to go along with it:
So began a strange, off-kilter period of European life--quite possibly the only moment in history when humans could experience something akin to time travel. In those years [between 1582 and 1752] a traveler who went from England to France immediately leapt forward by ten days, and then fell ten days back upon his return.
Here's the even more fun part: the new legislation in 1752 to adjust the calendar in England to match up with rest of Europe apparently caused some social mayhem, and there were even Calendar Riots in some cities, resulting in several deaths in Bristol [this may be a bit apocryphal, Stacey admits, although the slogan "Give us back our eleven days!" is scrawled on a poster in a 1754 political cartoon by William Hogarth]. It turns out, then, that "time is, of necessity, an affair of politics and diplomacy as well as of science." In the current global debate over timekeeping, England is actually reprising its sixteenth-century role as foot-dragger, wanting to hang on to its Greenwich Mean Time, while the rest of the world, including the U.S., would like to switch to a "Universal [Atomic] Time Clock." Rob Seaman, an astronomer who fervently opposes elimating leap seconds, has written that we need to stop "blaming poor Mother Earth for her middle-aged unsteadiness" and seek instead "a grand vision of the shared meaning of time in human concerns." Regardless of the so-called "perfection" of certain timekeeping machines and oscillating atoms, there is, as Stacey writes, "an opposing and gorgeous imperfection that somehow also manages to be true."
I will stop here by saying that all of this got me thinking, partly also because of the current observance of Hannakuh and with Christmas looming around the corner, of how we also measure time through memorialized sacred history, and of the ways in which we measure, in our work, medieval historical time as pre- or post-Conquest, pre- or post-Crusades, pre- or post-Conversion, early or late, etc. In other words, beyond the measurement of time through calendars and nanoseconds, there is also the measurement of time through more broadly delineated historical memories that, beyond the centuries and decades in which we claim they are "contained," also bleed over and through those boundaries while also presenting themselves as somewhat static entities. And I thought, too, about Anthony Giddens's claim about the premodern era as a place in which time and space were merged together with the domain of the gods, whereas in modernity, time is supposedly lifted out of space and thrown across broad geographic spaces, thereby unsettling and disturbing what might be called the premodern "comforts" of "local time." To be medieval, then, was to be situated *in* time, whereas to be modern, is to be thrown *out* of time. But maybe Giddens is wrong?