austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Just like the clock John Cameron Swayze displayed last night on the old TV

Over twelve percent of the population has noticed this phenomenon: you suddenly turn your eyes to pay attention to clock of some kind (preferably not-invisible) that shows time down to the second, and the clock takes its sweet time getting around to advancing a second. Then it keeps puttering along at about one second per second, but even then you can move your eyes off and then snap back to the clock and see the same very slow, long second again. So what's going on here, and why don't under eighty-eight percent of the population check to see whether their clocks are actually sweeping out seconds? Do they not worry that their clocks are getting lazy or might be slacking off when they figure nobody's watching? Would you slack off if you were a clock?

What seems relevant here is the fundamental structure of space and time: the only way to know that time is passing is by comparing it to some convenient event happening, for example like a second hand reaching another tick mark. Without the clock there's no way to tell how much time is passing or whether it is at all. If you didn't have a clock tracking your time down how would you know whether, or how rapidly, it was passing?

Consider something that has happened to over eight percent of all people ever: you go to Wikipedia to look up germanium, and before you notice you're reading about Saul Wahl, King of Poland for the day of 18 August 1587 whether or not he existed, and it's three days after you started. How can so much time disappear without your noticing? Wikipedia hasn't got any clocks on it. Web pages used to have clocks, in 1996, when it was discovered a little bit of Javascript could turn a dull web page into a lively little thing that loads slowly and then advances a half-dozen seconds before crashing the web browser and shortly after that the computer. Now we know better and you can enter a timeless void on the Internet until the Flash advertisement banner makes the computer crash.

Another piece of evidence: remember as a child being able to spend hours on experiments like seeing whether one could lie on the floor and by careful breathing roll a tennis ball into and out of your belly button before a sibling came over and stepped on your chest? You could spend hours doing that and still not have gotten halfway from the end of the morning cartoons to the start of Password Plus on channel 4, even though the cartoons ended at 9 am and the game shows started at 10. As a kid it's enough to rely on the dashboard clock in the car and maybe a calendar to be sure you don't overlook your birthday which isn't scheduled until late September anyway, so that time only really concentrates while being driven somewhere you don't want to go.

Yet meanwhile decades later in any given workplace you can go from 9 am to 10 am in roughly the time it takes to get an unpleasant-tasting cup of coffee, sit down to something like comfort, and look at today's quirky news features, a process which actually takes only about three minutes. As an adult you're surrounded by clocks on your watch, on your phone, on your computer, on your other phone, on the wall, on the microwave, on the TV set, on the Smart Towels, on the toaster oven, on the laser cats -- you can't have all these devices clicking off seconds and not expect the ticked-off seconds to add up! Something that might take you only a second gets counted up as a dozen or more seconds before it's done.

If you intend to grow up and notice that it seems like 2004 was about twenty minutes ago, maybe that's because you've got too many clocks in your life, ticking the time away before you even notice it's gone. De-clocking your surroundings is sure to help, or at least leave you less worried about how long it's taking, and I'd recommend doing it in a hurry.

Trivia: Projections for the reentry of Skylab on 11 July 1979 were that it should start breaking up before it crossed the east coast of the United States. Radar tracking from Bermuda and Ascension Island indicated it had not broken up, and even the fragile solar arrays were still in place. Source: Living And Working In Space: A History of Skylab, W David Compson, Charles D Benson. NASA SP-4208.

Currently Reading: The Guns of August, Barbara W Tuchman.


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