Friday, December 15, 2006

What Time Is It, Anyway?

Speaking of lighting menorahs at sundown on the first day of Hanukkah, does anybody really know what time it is? JJC may not have realized it at the time, but when he and his family decided to light their menorah candle at sundown this evening [4.47 pm, according to JJC], JJC was signalling that he was on the side of the astronomers versus the physicists on the question of "keeping time." What on earth am I talking about? Let's just say, first, that, thank god the semester is over, because now I get to do some fun reading, and I just this evening finished a fabulous article in Harper's [December 2006 issue] by Michelle Stacey, "Clash of the Time Lords: Who Will Own the Measure of Our Days?" This is a nifty essay that I think JJC, especially, would be interested in, about a kind of disciplinary argument--between the astronomers and the physicists--over how best to "clock" the minutes, hours, days, and eras of our earth and history, but which also has deeper implications, for, as Stacey herself puts it,


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?

11 comments:

J J Cohen said...

Great post, and much to think about.

To start: when the Cohen family lit their menorah at 4.47 PM EST, they weren't following the physicists or the astronomers, but the sun itself: that's the precise minute it dips beneath the horizon and signals the start of the new day on the Jewish calendar. The numerical time didn't matter, really: it was the vanishing of the sun alone. So that must be what you called local time, Eileen.

Very local, really: as any good Jew knows, the Cohens were doing it all wrong. We should have lit our menorah before sundown, since shabbat begins when the sun vanishes ... so at 4.47 we should have ignited a sabbath candle, not the menorah.

Oh well. I'd say we'll burn in hell, but Jews don't have a well developed notion of the afterlife.

(Really, we were trying to get our kids excited about Hanukkah beginning, having them count it down to the minute. We are not all that observant, prefering an intensely local family time over a grand and universal ritual time)

J J Cohen said...

I take it back: we were with the astronomers, clearly -- but the point I was trying to make is that it was the moment of sunset that mattered, not the numerical value assigned to that moment. And it mattered for reasons that were far from cosmic.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Working in a slightly later era, I can vouch for England's being out-of-synch with Gregorian time shift. Letters in the period are even sometimes dated thus, "16/26 May 1635." Historians writing about that period routinely have to say in their preface that they are using old style (o.s.) or new style (n.s.) dating (also an issue on when treaties went into effect). Not to mention the fact that the year didn't start until 26 March.

Eileen Joy said...

egAnonymous--thanks so much for clarification on o.s. and n.s., which I have seen in scholarly books, but never quite understood what they denoted. When England finally decided to catch up with everyone else, one of the effects was that everyone automatically aged by a bit over a week, including George Washington, which means that when Americans celebrate his birthday, we don't do it on the right day. Then again, since legislation recently converted various presidents' birthdays into just one "Presidents Day," it may not really matter. Another interesting tidbit from the article was why the English finally decided to join up with Europe on the timekeeping matter: a member of Parliament had a mistress in France and he was tired of all the confusion that was caused between them because of the dating on their separate letters going back and forth across the channel. Isn't that great? England *refused* to go along with the change in 1582 as a defiant act of anti-papism, but they went along with it 1752 for no reason other than the confusion of dating in letters between an MP and his mistress. When it comes to the movement of time, entropic decadence really is the rule, isn't it?

Karl Steel said...

Nice work, EJ.

First, one thing did leap out: "Timekeeping...[is] more fundamental than most other quotidian concerns."
No kidding.
==
If the calendar riots did happen, and if we wonder at them, we should remember that rioting over calendars seems odd to us only because we take calendars for granted. But imagine the chaos for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck if they lost 10 days. Presumably, they'd lose 10 days of work in a month while having the next month's rent leap up on them. If there were deaths only in Bristol, I'd be astonished.

You may wish to look at Jacques Le Goff's "Labor Time in the 'Crisis' [ed: there's that word again] of the Fourteenth Century: From Medieval Time to Modern Time," in Time, Work, and Culture, an essay in which Le Goff sketches the way that humans laid claim to possession of time, how "the time which used to belong to God alone was thereafter the property of men" (51).

Per my suggestions about the calendar riots, I'm interested in the draconian punishments meted out to cloth-workers who seized (temporary!) mastery of werkglocken, the bells that marked the breaks in the work day. In 14th-century Commines, "if the workers seized the bell in order to use it as a signal of revolt, they incurred the heaviest fines: sixty Parisian pounds for anyone who should ring the bell for a popular assembly and for anyone who should come armed...; and the death penalty for anyone who should ring the bell to call for revolt against the king, the alderman, or the officer in charge of the bell." (47). Again, we're faced with the pressing issue of time's ownership. The struggle between the physicists and astronomers may be less severe on its face than that of the 14th-century Commines (or 8th-century Northumbria for that matter, where Bede and the Irish struggled over Easter's date), but I suspect that all of these examples are equally illustrative. Of what, I'm not sure yet.

I do know that time belongs only to a few of us, and most people "get their own time" only when they retire, when the promise life makes to death is close to coming due.

Re: Giddins, also from Le Goff, "...men of the Renaissance continued to live with an uncertain time. It was a nonunified time, still urban rather than national, and unsynchronized with the state structures then being established: a time of urban monads. An indication of this may be found in the diversity of the zero hours of the new clocks: sometimes noon, sometimes midnight, which is not a very serious difference [ed: I say Le Goff slips here, but he rights himself by the end of the graph], but more frequently sunrise or sunset--such was the difficulty of freeing preindustrial time from natural time [ed: another slip: 'natural time' was still labor time, with a journal being, as Goldhammer, Le Goff's translator, observes (44), the amount of land a worker could plow in a day: rural spaces yoked (natch, so long as we're using overapt tropes) space and time together too]. In his Voyage en Italie, Montaigne, like many other travelers before him in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, noted what confusion and disorder were caused by the changing origin of time from one city to the next" (49).

The variable time that so frustrated Montaigne was certainly "local" time, but it was hardly "comforting." Governed as it was, it was not individual; it was, and perhaps always has been for workers, a time belonging to someone else: abbots and God in the countryside, the bourgeoisie in the city, the king everywhere, eventually. It is perhaps only in the modern era--whatever that is--that time can make a valid claim to be utterly transcendent, utterly inhuman, but even now, as EJ rightfully points out, oscillating atoms are hardly less arbitrary, in the end, than measurements of "irregular" celestial bodies.

J J Cohen said...

It is perhaps only in the modern era--whatever that is--that time can make a valid claim to be utterly transcendent, utterly inhuman

But is that true? In Eileen's example, time is still harnessed to time-on-earth (at least in order to gain its numerical designation), is anchored to the human (sustained by human measurements and the keeping of atomic clocks, attached to mundane tasks and interests), and is still subject to relativity (I know very little about physics, but assume that the degradation of atoms proceeds in a temporally relative way as the earth wanders the cosmos compared to such degradation in bodies moving faster or slower -- is there anything that escapes time's relativity?)

Karl Steel said...

But is that true?

Now that you point it out: nope.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--thanks for referencing the book by LeGoff; I have always meant to read that book, and am reminded to do so again. Your comments, as always, provide much to think about. One brief thought [inbetween wrapping and mailing Christmas gifts and trying to finish that damned "Seven Sleepers" article]: I think in modernity, as much so as in the Middle Ages, that access to timekeeping is a form of power, economic and otherwise, so that, as you point out, time has always belonged [and continues to belong] to . . . workers? [Or is that employers?]

As JJC points out, and Karl also concurs ultimately, time can never be really inhuman--at least not if we are talking about the ways in which we measure it or take account of it--although I wonder if the universe, at the same time, is always "keeping its own time" in ways that have nothing to do with how *we* keep, record, remember, and experience time? But then, as soon as we start thinking about that, we place the idea od time--no matter how inhumanly abstract--into some kind of framework of human consciousness. After all, until we noticed it, that oscillating atom didn't "know" it was keeping time; it was simply oscillating. The world does indeed "keep its own time"--it simply doesn't "narrate" the fact [i.e., it doesn't "know" or "tell" it--in this sense, the keeping of time is always a human concern, even a human tragedy].

J J Cohen said...

Eileen, I meant to offer this a while ago: here is a course I taught quite a long time ago on the cultural construction of time. It was great fun, but I see the bibliography is badly out of date.

Karl Steel said...

Good lord, that course looks fantastic. Looks like I might have some of my summer reading mapped out, right there.

Eileen Joy said...

JJC--that course on time looks really cool, even *if* the bibliography would need some updating. But do you realize how many courses I've stolen from you already? It's almost embarrassing. Then again, I'm inclined to keep doing it.