The Future of Atomic Clocks

Tom O’Brian is the Chief of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Quantum Physics Division (QPD). O’Brian oversees America’s master clock. In an interview with NPR, he discusses what the future of atomic clocks is going to be. A bit mind-bending:

Right now, on the top of Mount Everest, time is passing just a little bit faster than it is in Death Valley. That’s because speed at which time passes depends on the strength of gravity. Einstein himself discovered this dependence as part of his theory of relativity, and it is a very real effect.

The relative nature of time isn’t just something seen in the extreme. If you take a clock off the floor, and hang it on the wall, Ye says, “the time will speed up by about one part in 1016.”

The world’s most precise atomic clock is a mess to look at. But it can tick for billions of years without losing a second.

That is a sliver of a second. But this isn’t some effect of gravity on the clock’s machinery. Time itself is flowing more quickly on the wall than on the floor. These differences didn’t really matter until now. But this new clock is so sensitive, little changes in height throw it way off. Lift it just a couple of centimeters, Ye says, “and you will start to see that difference.”

So, this new clock would be able to sense the pace of time speeding up as it moves inch by inch away from the earth’s core.

What’s the point of having such high precision clocks? The extreme level of sensitivity to gravity might allow scientists to map the interior of Earth or help scientists find water and other resources underground.

Richard Lewis Explains How Cultures Interpret Time

In this fascinating post, Richard Lewis (author of When Cultures Collide) explains how various cultures consider/view/understand time. Most of us in the West are used to “Linear Time” (i.e., event A happens, followed by event B, and so on) whereas people in southern Europe interpret time as being “multi-active”:

Southern Europeans are multi-active, rather than linear-active [read Lewis’s analysis of cultures as multi-active, linear-active, and reactive]. The more things they can do at the same time, the happier and the more fulfilled they feel. They organize their time (and lives) in an entirely different way from Americans, Germans and the Swiss. Multi-active peoples are not very interested in schedules or punctuality. They pretend to observe them, especially if a linear-active partner or colleague insists on it, but they consider the present reality to be more important than appointments. In their ordering of things, priority is given to the relative thrill or significance of each meeting.

In countries inhabited by linear-active people, time is clock- and calendar- related, segmented in an abstract manner for our convenience, measurement, and disposal. In multi-active cultures like the Arab and Latin spheres, time is event- or personality-related, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, molded, stretched, or dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says.

“I have to rush,” says the American, “my time is up.” The Spaniard or Arab, scornful of this submissive attitude to schedules, would only use this expression if death were imminent.

There are also other great bits from the piece. This part about Japanese culture I had never known before:

Another example is the start and finish of all types of classes in Japan, where the lesson cannot begin without being preceded by a formal request on the part of the students for the teacher to start. Similarly, they must offer a ritualistic expression of appreciation at the end of the class.

Read the rest here.

Kevin Kelly on Time vs. Money

Insightful take from Kevin Kelly on the valuation of time vs. money:

When you are older, you tend to have more money than time. If you have only two week vacation, you need to rush things so you can keep your job. You’ll pay to fly in to the hotspot rather than spend your two weeks in the back of the bus getting there. You’ll pay extra for the express train because it will save you a day — and its clean bathrooms will delight your 12-year-old daughter. Maybe you hire a guide to take you directly to the festival instead of wasting an afternoon wandering around. With money you can eat whatever you desire.

Here is what I learned from 40 years of traveling: Of the two modes, it is far better to have more time than money.

Time is the one thing you can give yourself in abundance. It is often the one resource the young own…

Creator of xkcd Reveals Backstory of His Epic 3,990-Panel Comic, “Time”

Randall Munroe, the man behind the xkcd web comic has been publishing to an ever-expanding comic called “Time” since March 2013. It finally saw its last addition last week, after four months of hourly updates. Munroe spoke with Wired about the backstory of “Time”:

“In my comic, our civilization is long gone. Every civilization with written records has existed for less than 5,000 years; it seems optimistic to hope that the current one will last for 10,000 more,” Munroe told WIRED. “And as astronomer Fred Hoyle has pointed out, since we’ve stripped away the easily-accessed fossil fuels, whatever civilization comes along next won’t be able to jump-start an industrial revolution the way we did.”

Although the comic takes place many millennia in the future, its setting is modeled on a geological event that took place more than 5 million years ago, when tectonic activity sealed off the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, causing the sea to evaporate and leave a basin of dry land two miles below sea level. In Munroe’s comic, the same geologic shifts have reoccured in the distant future, and that’s where we find the characters when the comic opens: in the bottom of the desiccated Mediterranean Sea, building castles out of sand.

One of the most fascinating parts about “Time” was the community that developed around it:

The obsessive devotees of the comic-within-a-comic created a discussion thread that exceeded 1,300 pages, a “Time”-specific Wikipedia, and even made a glossary of the lexicon they invented to describe the world of “Time” and their experiences with it. While they refer to Munroe  simply as “OTA” (the One True Author), a “newpic” (plural: “newpix”) is defined as the unit of time that elapses between updates, also known as “outsider minutes.” True to its name, “Time”–where a single step could last an hour, and a night could last days–took on its own internal sense of chronological speed: glacially slow for animation, but imbued with a continual sense of motion that felt utterly unique for a comic.

Certainly one of the coolest online projects I’ve seen this year.

The “I Don’t Have Time” Myth

Matt Swanson, with a few examples, highlights the notion that “slow and steady” is the path to getting things done, perhaps even reaching mastery of a skill or concept:

How do you get the inertia to start when the finish line seems so far away?

                   I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.

But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today? How about emailing five bloggers that might be interested in reviewing your book this week?

Nathan Barry, a normal guy from Idaho with a wife and kid, found the time to write his book inthousand word chunks.

                      I’d really like to start drawing, but I’m no good and don’t have time to learn.

Do you have time to draw one sketch today? And again tomorrow? Could you steal enough time to read a chapter in a book every week? To visit an art museum once a month?

Jonathan Hardesty, an aspiring artist who started at “rock bottom”, did one sketch or painting every day. It took him years of work, but he went from untrained to professional artist.

You really should follow the links above for some perspective of those people were able to accomplish.

I don’t believe in the “I don’t have the time” mantra. We all have the same amount of time every day. It’s how we choose to allocate our time that matters. What you choose to do with the limited time you have speaks of your priorities in life.

Montblanc Film Contest: The Beauty of a Second

Almost two hundred years ago, Nicolas Rieussec recorded time to an accuracy of a fifth second for the first time, and the chronograph was born. To celebrate this unique invention, Montblanc announced a one-of-a-kind “The Beauty of a Second” short-film contest presented by the famous film director Wim Wenders:

[vimeo h=400 w=600]

Since then, there have been three iterations of the contest, with the winning entries shown below. All of them are beautiful and inspiring. How much can you tell in one second? A lot.

[vimeo h=400 w=600]


[vimeo h=400 w=600]


[vimeo h=400 w=600]


What would your one second story be?

On Investments and Time

Paul Graham, in this essay from 2010, makes a great point on investments (both in terms of money and our use of time):

In most people’s minds, spending money on luxuries sets off alarms that making investments doesn’t. Luxuries seem self-indulgent. And unless you got the money by inheriting it or winning a lottery, you’ve already been thoroughly trained that self-indulgence leads to trouble. Investing bypasses those alarms. You’re not spending the money; you’re just moving it from one asset to another. Which is why people trying to sell you expensive things say “it’s an investment.”

The solution is to develop new alarms. This can be a tricky business, because while the alarms that prevent you from overspending are so basic that they may even be in our DNA, the ones that prevent you from making bad investments have to be learned, and are sometimes fairly counterintuitive.

A few days ago I realized something surprising: the situation with time is much the same as with money. The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work. When you spend time having fun, you know you’re being self-indulgent. Alarms start to go off fairly quickly. If I woke up one morning and sat down on the sofa and watched TV all day, I’d feel like something was terribly wrong. Just thinking about it makes me wince. I’d start to feel uncomfortable after sitting on a sofa watching TV for 2 hours, let alone a whole day.

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

With time, as with money, avoiding pleasure is no longer enough to protect you. It probably was enough to protect hunter-gatherers, and perhaps all pre-industrial societies. So nature and nurture combine to make us avoid self-indulgence. But the world has gotten more complicated: the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types. And the worst thing is, they’re not even fun.

Do you have days like the ones Paul describes? The day breezes by, and you seem like you’ve accomplished nothing?

Procrastination as Deception

In a 1996 essay by John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, he writes about so-called structured procrastination:

To make structured procrastination work for you, begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important. Even though the most-important tasks are on top, you have worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

So, is procrastination also known as deception?

At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This clears the way to accomplish several apparently less urgent, but eminently achievable, tasks.

Also, do not miss James Surowiecki on procrastination.