Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to catch up with the real world... hah!

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My daughters bought me a pair of sweatpants this week, which reminded me of just how tricky a thing time is.

Time is almost beyond normal human comprehension, regardless of how many watches and clocks and cellphone alarms we may be surrounded by in the course of a day.

Even Free Press editorial writers can't really get their heads around more than 24 hours in their most heroic efforts, so to speak -- eight hours to meet a deadline, eight hours until last call at the local, eight hours for sleep and incidentals; that's about as much as anyone can cope with and probably a bit more than anyone needs to manage, or to know, for that matter.

In any case, whatever time you think it is, you are almost certainly wrong. Only God and the Cosmos know exactly what time it is. We are not even talking here about the Doomsday Clock or anything like that -- it recently moved closer to midnight, by the way, in case you have been worried -- or the End of Days, so if you are planning to greet Armageddon on a hilltop don't rely on your wristwatch, even if you think it's keeping time correctly, it is almost certainly running a few seconds, perhaps a couple of minutes late, and you will miss the Big Bang's Big Burp by nano-seconds at least.

The reason for this is so simple it is almost impossible to understand. There is actual time, which is measured by clocks of such high technology that even Rolex owners can't afford them, and then there is human time, which is more technically called solar time and is based on how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun. That time, however, is not always the same. It can be slowed by earthquakes or the moon's gravitational pull -- the Man-in-the-Moon effect, as scientists technically call the phenomenon.

So human time always runs a little slow. In fact, it loses at least about 15 seconds every 100 years, which may not seem like much to you when you're worried about your dinner reservations, but for the very few people who truly care about time it is a huge thing.

For the last 40 years, these people have been adding "leap seconds" to the atomic clocks and calendars that keep real time so that we don't get too far behind ourselves. Modern technology, however, has raised the question of whether we need leap seconds in the same way that we need to create leap years by adding a 29th day to February every fourth year -- this year, by the way, is one of them, which means that only this year are women, according to tradition, allowed to propose marriage to men, a fantastical calendar quaintness if ever there was one.

In our humdrum, lackadaisical, work-a-day lives we don't really pay nearly as much attention to leap seconds as we do to leap years, with all those women lying in wait and the occasional quadrennial birthday party for 10-year-old fathers of four, but there are serious people, very serious people, who hardly think about anything else.

This week, members of the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Assembly gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, to see if they could agree on a way to get rid of the leap second. The problem is that every time a leap second is added, and, unlike leap years, there is no regularity to that process, the world's atomic clocks, computers and pocket watches need to be manually readjusted. In the end, the "time lords," as they have been called, deferred the decision to a later date. It seems they need more time to think about it.

So let the ants worry about time in the grand sense; the rest of us grasshoppers can go back to dealing with it in 24-hour stretches, which is about as much as I, at least, can handle. When I was young, I read a lot of science fiction and particularly liked time-travel stories, except for the fact that I could never figure out the logic of them. If, as seems to be accepted wisdom, anything a time-traveller does in the past -- even accidentally stepping on a bug or breaking a branch -- can alter the course of everything that is to come, then might that act not also have altered the circumstances that allowed him to time-travel in the first place, in which case he couldn't have squashed that ancient bug and changed the course of history? But in that case, he could have discovered time travel and gone back and broke the branch, but then... It's not true that time eases all pain; it just makes your head hurt.

Which brings us back, of course, to my new sweatpants (which are black in colour and very manly looking, I might say) and the whole question of time. The two are directly connected. My wife and my daughters -- all fit as fiddles -- think that as I age I should exercise more. Hence the sweatpants. It will buy me time, they say, to better and longer enjoy my fast approaching dotage.

And they are right, of course. I should exercise more. What they don't realize is that I have more time than they think -- real-world time is ahead of me by at least 15 seconds, perhaps as much as two or three minutes (leap seconds don't seem to be an exact science.) Until I catch up with the real world, I may never have to use those sweatpants.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 A16

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