A Biography of the One Thing We All Agree On
On behalf of: Spiegel & Grau
Who made the time? Who keeps the time? How is it that, in a world that is and always has been as fractious and divided and disagreeable as our world is, it came about that we all can agree on this one thing which happens to be a totally artificial construct? It’s a religion we all subscribe to. It’s amazing. And the history of the time—just like its future—is one of the weirdest histories in history. It started with the Egyptians, who may have come up with the concept of a year of roughly 365 days by observing the transit through the night sky of a sky goddess, but as recently as the early 20th century, time was so random that Newark’s day started one minute later than New York City’s day. In the late 19th century, you’d walk into any large, urban train station and there would be five or six different times, depending on which railroad’s clock you were looking at. It wasn’t until 1972 that all the countries of the world agreed on the same time.
As weird as the history of the time is, its present and future are even more surprising. We all assume that the time simply is. But the time is endlessly fragile. Google threatens it. Vladimir Putin threatens it. The efforts that go into the keeping of the time are Herculean and almost completely invisible, in the hands of a small society of timekeepers. Did you know that there is no master clock? No, there is a series of 80 master clocks scattered around the world, each master clock consisting of up to two dozen atomic clocks, each of which is powered by the outer electron of the Cesium-133 atom. None of these clocks agree. What we know as the time is an average. Who averages the time? A nice lady who lives on the outskirts of Paris. She is the ultimate arbiter of the time.
The time is also about to undergo a revolution as quantum physicists take control in the effort to make ever more accurate clocks that enable humankind to exert ever more control over nature. In the same way that the emergence of atomic clocks in the years following WWII enabled a whole spate of innovations—chief among them GPS—the new optical clocks will usher in a new, almost unimaginable era of invention.