Ill-Fitting Clothes and a Bridge Unused
Tonight, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in that last instant before 8 p.m. Eastern time, a new leap second will be introduced. It is only a temporary fix. As soon as the leap second is over, our measurement of time, and the movements of earth and the stars and planets, will begin diverging again. But it will make us feel better, as if we’re managing the earth’s rotation, and the stuff related to it.
Time is humankind’s greatest invention, and its worst. There are sixty seconds (or sixty-one) in a minute, because we say so. There are sixty of those in an hour, and sixty – oops, sorry, twenty-four hours in a day, give or take a fraction, or a leap year.
We measure time to less than a millionth of a second, and because of this, we feel as though we’re managing earth’s rotation by assigning a leap second here or there. Of course, we only started doing this in 1972. Earth, how you made it to the 1970s without our regular corrections, we may never know. You’re welcome.
Here’s a real example of how time-smart we are (true story): Once upon a time, our international time standard was Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), as recorded at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Now, our internationally accepted standard is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
No, I did not misspell the acronym. Coordinated Universal Time is called UTC.
You may think that the acronym would be CUT, but that’s crazy talk. The United States called it CUT, but France protested. France wanted it called TUC, because of the order of word placement in the French language.
Since the two countries could not agree on CUT or TUC, a compromise was finally reached at an international Coordinated Universal Time Summit. The compromise: The official abbreviation for Coordinated Universal Time shall be UTC. As is the goal of most summits, both sides were made equally unhappy.
NOTE: UTC does not stand for Universal Time, Coordinated. Because, that would be stupid. UTC literally stands for Coordinated Universal Time.
It’s nice that we are so smart, and it’s also frustrating. The universe is like an anomaly that we’re driven to fix, to tame, except it’s untamable, and not in need of fixing, at least not in an engineering physics UTC Summit way. We say we want to understand the universe, to identify and explain stuff, but that’s a lie. We want to control and manipulate it.
The truth is, the unpredictable non-linearity of this place we inhabit makes us uncomfortable. We want to pretend it’s linear, predictable. Time is anything but. It passes, advances, slips away, and stands still because of love’s power. Sometimes, we sense time easing backwards, but mostly we are dizzy from the rate at which time fast-forwards and flings us along with it.
What’s the reason that we’re adding a leap second tonight? Same as always: To
account for the gradual slowing of the earth’s rotation, and the slightly longer day that results from it. What is left unasked and unanswered is why we’ve used leap seconds much less often over the past decade or two.
Thankfully, our universe is rebelliousness. We keep trying to put clothes on it, to place controls, or to age it so it will settle down and behave predictably.
I think the universe prefers to stay naked and ageless, like a kid, whether young in years or young at heart, who would rather run splashing through the stream in beautiful chaos, instead of walking across the nice bridge we built it.
Some of you know that I taught a college-level Engineering Physics III course. The last chapter of the twenty-pound textbook guts our entire foundation of subject matter knowledge. The last page is little more than an open admission that we don’t know crap, we’re not sure we ever really did, but we hope we’re getting closer to knowing something someday.
Truth: Our best attempts at managing Time is equal to keeping the drunk in a tunnel. There are so many variables to count, variables like human emotion, memory and perception. They all affect the value of and duration and, at times, even the presence of time.
When I was at Mom’s bedside, watching her take her last breaths, I became convinced that the times between her breaths were immeasurable by a clock. It was all silent space, suspended waiting, quiet waiting, anxious waiting.
In the space between her breaths, I felt warm and cool echoes of years washing over, receding, passing. Several times I tried holding my breath until her lungs took in air, but each time I gave up. Every time I anticipated her next breath, but every time that short stab of air came, I was startled. Then nothing again, but space and moments, and more years passing between us.
There were no seconds to count because there was no time to reference. It was all blended together, events and voices, snapshots, as if my life was flashing. And even if I had counted to, say, fifty-seven seconds between her last two breaths, what significance could I attach to that arbitrary number? It wouldn’t be the same as any of the fifty-seven second blocks of time I spent writing this.
We paint with light. Photons are fundamental particles of light, and they do whatever they darn well please. Our experiments prove it. They are wave-like when they want to be, particle-like when it suits them, and something else when you least expect it.
I didn’t learn that from engineering school or from my short time teaching. I learned it twenty years ago from a Nikon camera advertisement in a photographic magazine. The Nikon ad was so effective that it inspired me to switch brand loyalty for my 35mm SLR cameras.
In case you can’t read it, the top of the ad says:
Sometimes light behaves like a wave.
Sometimes light behaves like a particle.
Sometimes light behaves like a spoiled, tempestuous child.
I’ve taken up enough of your time. If you’re looking for something to do with your extra second tonight, check out http://spendyourleapsecondhere.com/. Or just blink slowly and it will be gone when you open.
Some strange man once said, “We like to think we’re flying the plane. Instead, we are passengers on a crooked journey, looking for a way to make our paths straight. Sometimes the straightest path is not over the bridge, but through the water, naked, even in mid-flight.”
Okay, that strange man was me.