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Staying in Sync with the Cosmos

First published in the New York Times Magazine, Dec. 31, 1995. Eventually it led to Faster.

leapsecondI AM IN THE DIRECTORATE OF TIME. Naturally, I am running late. I hurry past a climate-controlled vault in which the world’s No. 1 clock is silently assembling each second from nine billion parts. I am ushered into the presence of Gernot M. R. Winkler, who recently retired as director of the Directorate of Time. (The Government has not been able to find a replacement.) He looks across his desk—sharp blue eyes, craggy features, white hair—and says, “We have to be fast.”

In the era of the nanosecond, timekeeping is serious business. The Directorate, a division of the United States Naval Observatory, has scattered its atomic clocks across a colorfully manicured hilltop near the Potomac River in Washington—the Master Clock and 53 others. This ensemble, consulting continuously with counterparts overseas, has achieved a precision in measurement that surpasses anything else in science. The seconds pass here with a margin of error each day that is smaller than a hairbreadth in the distance from the Earth to the Sun. In a million years, the Master Clock might gain or lose a second.

“I tell you, it wasn’t on a human scale when we were measuring time to a millisecond, and now we are down to a fraction of a nanosecond.”

Time used to be fixed by astronomical reference points — Earth spins once, call it a day. By consensus among scientists and military officials, the absolute reference frame has shifted from the stars to the atomic clocks in their vaults. Stars drift, and the Earth shivers ever so slightly — generally its rotation slows each year. Because the clocks, not the Earth, now provide the ultimate authority, the Earth gets out of sync.

To compensate, the official clocks will all perform a quick two-step tonight, New Year’s Eve, in unison, adding a leap second to the world’s calendar. That makes this, by one second, the longest day of the year. The New Year will click in somewhat sneakily: 11:59:58 P.M., 11:59:59, 11:59:60, 12:00:00 A.M., 12:00:01….

Leap seconds are growing more common. Eventually—in the distant future—there will be at least one every year, and then two, and so on, as the Earth continues to slow. It didn’t have to be that way—in fact, until 1970, the second was always one-86,400th of a real day. The atomic clocks were retuned. The second lengthened a tiny bit each year. This did not trouble most of us, but it did start to annoy physicists: Come on, guys, a second is a second—give me a real SECOND.

That the exactitude of modern timekeepers defies anything in human experience is cheerfully acknowledged here at the Directorate. When events occur within thousandths of a second, we cannot tell the past from the future. “I tell you, it wasn’t on a human scale when we were measuring time to a millisecond, and now we are down to a fraction of a nanosecond,” Winkler says. “Can you miss a plane by a millisecond? Of course not.” He pauses to think. “I missed one by five seconds once.”

Still, humans seem to crave the precision that is available. Internet users can set their computers to update their clocks according to the Directorate’s time signal—and the Directorate now fields more than 300,000 electronic queries each day. By pinging back and forth across the network, the software can correct for delays along the phone lines between the clocks and your PC. The truly time-obsessed used to keep their watches accurate to within seconds; now they keep their computers accurate to within milliseconds.

Nanosecond precision is needed for worldwide communications systems and for navigation by Global Positioning System satellite signals, where an error of a billionth of a second means an error of a foot—the distance light travels in that time. Cellular phone networks and television transmitters need fine timing to squeeze more and more channels of communication into precisely tuned bandwidths. The military, especially, finds ways to use superprecise timing. It is no accident that the Directorate of Time belongs to the Department of Defense. Knowing the exact time is an essential aspect of delivering airborne explosives to exact locations—individual buildings or parts of buildings—thus minimizing one of the department’s crucial euphemisms, collateral damage.

“This is extremely important,” Winkler says, the accent of his native Austria breaking through. He slashes his hand through the air in a karate gesture. “We want to be exact.”

It is often said ironically here, and Winkler says it again, that if you have only one clock, you automatically have perfect time. In the real world, no single clock can serve as a reference. The Directorate’s official collection of cesium atomic and hydrogen maser clocks—54 now, though clocks can come off the bench or get sent down to the minors as their performance warrants— serve as independent witnesses, consulting one another electronically every 100 seconds.

“Different power sources, diesel generators, individual batteries,” Winkler says. “Backup monitor stations. In case we are wiped out by some major disaster, we can carry on.” Official time comes not from the Master Clock alone but from the group, statistically merged. The United States’ statistical contribution to worldwide official time is 40 percent, by far the largest share, with the rest coming from time agencies in other nations.

Few scientific institutions are so intensely focused on so pure a goal. Keeping the right time brings together an assortment of technologies and sciences. The Directorate’s astronomers study the most distant quasars—not for the theoretical subtleties that interest astrophysicists, but for their fixedness in the sky. The stars may wander, but the Directorate’s favorite 462 quasars provide as rigid a frame as can be found. Earth scientists study the slowing rotation and the occasional wobble—a problem that comes down to watching the weather, because nothing affects the planet’s spin in any given year as much as wind blowing on mountains.

And atomic scientists continue to perfect those clocks.

“The clock is a machinery which repeats the same process over and over again,” Winkler says. “Now, the ‘same process’ means ‘undisturbed from the outside.’ The observation itself is a disturbance and we must keep that to a minimum. Magnetic fields, humidity. It’s really technology driven to the utmost perfection in respect to control of a process.”

I cannot resist asking a few questions about the director’s psychological motivation. He cooperates: “Accuracy, precision, control—this is something which is to me esthetically pleasing.”

Are you a punctual person?

“I try to be.”

What kind of watch do you wear?


Why is that?

“I don’t need to. This would be an admission of defeat.”

Nevertheless, there is a reasonably accurate clock on the wall just behind my left shoulder, and I see Winkler glance at it. My half-hour is up.

When You Can’t Find the Perfect Quotation

I’m reading some Edgar Allan Poe tales in anticipation of an outdoor discussion tomorrow in Bryant Park, and I am charmed to discover (in the helpful endnotes) his habit of making up epigraphs. Or at least no one seems to be able to find his sources. Maybe they just didn’t have Google.

I’m a sucker for a good epigraph myself. Every chapter of The Information has one. But I always thought the point was discovering people whose aphoristic talents I can’t match. It seems Poe has no lack of self-confidence in this regard—in English or in Latin.

Here are some of the “quotations” he uses, along with his attributions. Are any of them real? You tell me.

[quote]What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad!

He hath been bitten by the Tarantula. (All in the Wrong)[/quote] [quote]And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness, Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will. (Granville)[/quote] [quote]Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than cleverness. (Seneca)[/quote]



Message in an Interstellar Bottle

The Voyager spacecraft have been in the news lately, because their thirty-year journey has now taken them to something very like the edge of the Solar System. Of course, that’s something of an arbitrary boundary. It’s partly a matter of human-centered definition; and it has varied, too, because the Voyagers keep making new discoveries.Voyager 1 is beaming back data about the solar wind; it has reached a strange place, the “heliosheath,” a sort of solar bubble, described by Ed Stone, the chief project scientist, as “a sluggish, turbulent ring.”

Stone and I were on Science Friday last week with Ira Flatow. Stone explained that the fairly weak transmitter on board, at its current distance of 11 billion miles, still manages to send information earthbound at a rate of 160 bits per second, which reminded Ira of his ancient 300-baud modem.

It happens that Voyager makes a cameo appearance in The Information. That’s not because of any of its scientific discoveries but because it is carrying an outbound message—information from us (earthlings) to any faraway creatures who should chance to encounter this contraption in years to come.

The information is stored in what is called the “Golden Record.” It is a 12-inch disk, a phonograph record, not vinyl but gold-plated copper. (The record can be seen affixed to the spacecraft in the photo above.) A committee led by Carl Sagan chose sounds of the earth: greetings in fifty-five languages, the voices of whales and crickets, the tapping of a telegraph operator, and music of the West and East including the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by Glenn Gould.

It is worth remembering that as of 1977, the phonograph was the most popular technology in existence for the preservation of sound.

The question arises—and this is why I discuss it in The Information—assuming the alien spacefarers manage to play the disk, how much will they understand? What sort of implicit knowledge is required—what sort of shared code book? One would like to think that the Bach prelude, if not the chatter of crickets, will convey some meaning.

Gone Obsolete: Your Mother’s Maiden Name

[quote]Who’s there?

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Long live the King.[/quote] The business of challenge-response authentication used to be easier. They had swords; we have cryptography. Who’s better off?

We have passwords, which must never be simple enough to remember and must not be written down on a slip of paper in our desk drawer. So we forget them and call tech support.

But they don’t want us to call tech support (expensive) so they give us a back door: a “security question.” If we can just tell them our mother’s maiden name …

But anyone can find out our mother’s maiden name, so the security questions are getting tougher. And now we arrive at the problem. They are too tough for me.

What was the name of your first pet?

Do you mean my first serious pet, a beagle called Gibbs? Or the lizard I sometimes called Chameley (spelling unknown)? According to official government guidelines for authentication by federal financial institutions, this is an example of “shared secret” authentication. “Shared secrets (something a person knows) are information elements that are known or shared by both the customer and the authenticating entity.” Here are a few more from the current list used by the Department of the Treasury:

You were born in what city?

Read More

In an Appliance Store, 1960

[quote]We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographic and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of experience.[/quote]

Marshall McLuhan wrote that on the first page of his first great book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, printed in 1962. I quote these words in The Information because today, a half-century later, he seems to have been talking about our era, not his own. We are intensely self-conscious about the information age and feel ourselves to be experiencing confusions and indecisions.

But for McLuhan it was the electric age, which meant, mainly, TV. That comes into delightful focus in an eight-minute snippet of video that can be seen in the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an interview with McLuhan titled The Global Village.

It is 1960. We begin in an “appliance store.” The appliances appear to be mainly television sets and radios, but I can’t take my eyes off of the great black rotary-dial telephone, the size of a fire extinguisher, hanging prominently on the wall. The trappings of this segment are more fascinating than the interview itself. Our host, Alan Millar, a handsome, professorial announcer with a sonorous baritone, begins:

Well, there they are. Our new electronic media, or our new gadgets. You push a button—and the world’s yours.

For emphasis he thumbs an imaginary button. (Even though the button is invisible, it strikes me as very large.)

We are living in a “global village,” Alan tells us. The symbol of our new era is the appliance store. (Can you see why I’m loving this?)

What is the symbol of the era now past? “We used to have just one medium,” intones Alan, Read More

This Is Predation

I’m a fairly heavy customer of (among other booksellers), and I even provide links on this site for people who want to buy my books there (or elsewhere). So I have nothing against Amazon per se.

Last night an old half-forgotten book popped into my head, and I wanted to check its availability, so I fired up the Amazon app on my device, and this is what I saw:



A few thoughts flashed through my head, roughly in this order:

  • I could save myself ten or fifteen keystrokes by scanning the barcode.
  • I don’t have the barcode. If I had the barcode, I’d already have the book.
  • Q. Where would I be, if I were shopping for a book and found the barcode handy?
  • A. In a bookstore.

I am aware, because booksellers have told me, that people sometimes go into bookstores, browse, chat with the expert staff, handle the merchandise, and scan a barcode to buy the book online before they’ve even departed the premises.

This is not good. I don’t mean it’s immoral (I’ll leave that discussion for others). I mean Read More

Remind me: how dead is the Book again?

I’m meant to give a talk in Sydney called Perish the Thought, about the death (and/or resurrection) of the book, so I’ve been studying. Here’s a lovely eighty-year-old fragment of poetry on the subject, by one Bob Brown. It comes from his self-published book Words (1931). It’s a confident prediction of what lies ahead:
In the reading-machine future / Say by 1950 ...

Nineteen-fifty has come and gone. Have we arrived in the reading-machine future yet?

Always fun to consult the oracle regarding the future of the book. If you have favorite prophecies, I’d love to hear them.

Glimpse of the Past

I just found this photograph on my hard drive. I don’t know where it came from; I have no memory of seeing it before. It is a low-resolution image, grainy and shadowed. Three men on a bench: one wearing a suit and tie (you can almost make out the time on his wristwatch); one slouching in a white T-shirt; one with a cigarette in his left hand. Looking at the picture makes my heart pound.

I never met any of them (they died in 1957, 1987, and 1984), but I recognize their faces. A Hungarian, an American, a Pole. They appear in at least three of my books (prominently or in passing). I don’t know who made the photograph or when (maybe a reader can tell me)—except that once you know who they are, you know exactly where they are and you know the date, or pretty close.

There’s something awesome about a random glimpse into history. It’s just a point in spacetime. I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall.