austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Time, time, time, see what's become of me

For Sunday bunny_hugger proposed we do something we couldn't last time, and go to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Well, the museum there, since it's no longer a working observatory. When we were there in July 2012 it was closed for the Olympics, an event not actually happening while we were there. This was a long ride on the Underground, most of it above ground, and we got off at the wrong station because I was reading the directions.

The station didn't have turnstiles to get out, nor to get in. This is something I forgot to mention was true at the Chessington station either. Nobody checked our tickets as we got on, or when we were journeying back home. This felt most weirdly illicit. The United States model is so obsessed with the fear that someone might get something they didn't pay for that there'll be screening out of cheats, even when it would be more cost-effective to skip the checking. I suppose there's limited paths you could get onto and off of the system without a ticket, admittedly. And the European model is based on public transportation being a positive good, while the American model is that it's a form of punishment for people who fail to sufficiently car.

Since we started from the wrong station we passed a number of interesting spots we wouldn't have otherwise, including a splendidly 1950s-ish movie theater, a street fair, and a pleasant old church. It also took us near enough an ice cream shop, on a day finally warm and sunny enough, that we could get a 99 with a clear conscience. This is an ice cream cone with a Cadbury Flake chocolate bar stuck in. (A Flake is a very dry, very airy chocolate bar. I'm not sure the nearest American equivalent; a Twirl or a KitKat comes close.) It goes back to the 1920s and as you might expect the origin of the name is a mystery.

The walk up, and up, and up the long hill gave us plenty of chances to see more Londoners spilled out over the lawn, too. Finally we came in view of a Time Ball, held up on its post, and behind a dense pack of trees was ... a building. Part of the Observatory? We weren't sure, but we were also getting tired of tromping uphill so we went over to it. Yes, we were in the right place, a string of lovely old buildings with observatory domes on top. A statue of James Wolfe with pigeons squatting on its head. People taking photographs down the hill into London. People standing on The Line. People standing on line to get on The Line. A fellow playing Neville Maskelynne explaining the history of the observatory and how time and position relate to people standing on the On The Line line. Plaques explaining why there are several different Prime Meridians, not just The Line, and why the GPS readers people have put zero degrees longitude a couple hundred yards east of The Line. Older men in short pants and tall socks staring at their GPS readers and frowning. I'm making up that last detail but I stand by my claim that was totally happening.

We did not get on the On The Line line. It was way too long; they estimated it would be about 45 minutes to get up to the statue up front, where tradition dictates people take a photograph with one foot in the eastern and one in the western hemisphere. We did grab photographs of our feet on The Line, in parts away from the statue, which didn't take any special waiting.

This is, I admit, a bit of nerdly heaven. I was bitten long, long ago by the calendar and timekeeping and standard-keeping bug and there's no more satisfying icon of How We Measure Things than the prime meridian. Yes, there's the platinum-iridium block to denote the standard kilogram, sitting in Paris, gradually losing mass for no traceable reason. But that hasn't got the high drama of the prime meridian.

The museum portion explains much of the drama. I was well-acquainted with it and I'm proud to say I did not go explaining anything I was not specifically asked to explain. You have no idea how hard it is for a know-it-all to resist showing knowledge of everything. I would expect the crowd there to be two-thirds know-it-alls and one-third people who are somewhat interested and hoping they can avoid setting off a detailed explanation of how Jupiter's moons might be used to find the time.

Trivia: In 1878 Sandford Fleming proposed a prime meridian running 180 degrees of longitude opposite the Greenwich meridian, that is, along the line roughly followed by the International Date Line. (This would have the advantage of allowing the continued use of Greenwich as the prime meridian, as most world shipping traffic and the largest navies already used, without explicitly confirming the British convenience as worldwide standard.) Source: Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Clark Blaise.

Currently Reading: The Complete Dick Tracy Volume II, 1933 - 1935, Chester Gould.

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