George Gamow, the famous astrophysicist and nuclear physicist, used to like telling the following anecdote. Shortly after moving to the USA, while his English was still quirky, he stopped a passer-by and politely enquired “Please, what is time?” The passer-by replied “Don’t ask me – that’s a philosophical question” and walked briskly on.
Gamow’s reluctant informant was of course right, according to his understanding of the question: the nature of time is a difficult and deeply philosophical one. There are many theories about time (for starters, try here), from complex mathematical ones through to those that assert that time doesn’t really exist at all but is a figment of our collective imagination.
I have to admit that, though I enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s justly famous opus, A Brief History of Time (one of the few I like well enough to put on my list of books to read again), I am still no closer to understanding what time really is.
What time does and what part it plays in our lives is altogether easier to describe. Time is what allows me to meet Tigger from work without hanging around on the off-chance that she will eventually emerge from her workplace. It is what makes me miss my train when I am late arriving at the station. It is time’s disappointingly one-way arrow that carries us inexorably towards life’s end and never in the opposite direction.
And then there is the measurement of time, a fascinating science in its own right. Our clocks may be based on the rotation of the earth but there is a lot more to horology than that. Modern city life requires us to take continual notice of the clock lest we miss appointments, overrun meetings or fail to make that all-important phone call. The only accessory more universal than the mobile phone is the wristwatch.
It is a true saying that wherever two or three are gathered together there will be an argument over whose watch is right. “Mine’s right – I checked it with the BBC this morning.” “So did I; yours must’ve stopped.” “You’re both wrong, I set mine by Big Ben as I went by.” And so on. We’ve all done it.
As you know (if you read my blog), I am fascinated by clocks and love them in all their manifestations. It’s just as well I am not rich, or any visitor to our flat would be deafened by the ticking of the countless clocks I would buy and run. When it comes to time-keeping, however, all my clocks and watches tend to be less than perfectly accurate, even in this age of precision engineering. Or they did, until Tigger bought me a little digital alarm clock.
You see, this device had two magic words inscribed on it: “Radio Controlled”! This opened a new era of time-keeping to me. I still have the alarm clock and a radio controlled watch and on the wall we have a radio controlled wall clock. (Or would have, if it wasn’t still in one of the packing cases.) Nowadays when I hear people arguing over whose watch is right, I snigger scornfully and say nothing.
Most radio controlled timepieces poll the transmitter (typically in Rugby or Stuttgart) once day, probably between 2 and 3 am, local time. Some do so more often but the ones I prefer are those that can be made to poll at any time, on the press of a button. I can do so and then face our time-conscious world with a Mr-Bean-like complacency.
My old chiming clock, nearly 100 years old, varies its pace with the seasons and the weather. Every time I wind it, I set it right and after that leave it to do whatever it pleases. It’s like living with an old friend. I love to wake up in the night and hear it chime, even if the time it expresses is notional. After all, you don’t need friends to tell you the time: that’s what radio controlled watches are for.