Artists To The Moon And How Railroads Altered Time

 

Vineyard sunrise

Before discussing time, here are a few words about space.

SPACE

In this video conference, Elon Musk announces that he has a paying customer who wants to take a flight around the moon. This Japanese chap, about 40 years old, made a zillion dollars with some app. He has offered to pay Elon Musk for all eight seats when Musk’s rocket flies around the moon in 2023. This ticket buyer said he wants to fill the spacecraft with artists.

This is actually quite fitting.

Timeless Havana

I you listen to his various talks, you realize that Elon gives credit for developing his rockets to inspiration he received from reading. He cites books that include the Foundation science fiction series written by Isaac Asimov, as well as the cartoon Tintin (which inspired the shape of his rocket), as well Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

All books. All fiction. All creative fantasy. All helped inspire this man to reach for sending others toward the moon. He (or at least his rockets) will do so in the relatively near future.

This reflects the power of words and stories and the power of books to stretch our minds in new, often elaborate directions. It helps us to remember to Dream Big.

Artists to the moon…Why not?

Railroad time in Pakistan

Now, a few words about time.

TIME

Last July I drove from Ohio to New Mexico. On the way I listened to the radio. While in New Mexico I heard an intriguing National Public Radio segment about how railroads helped push the standardization of time.

Before railroads crossed the country of the United States, the time in any town differed somewhat than time in other towns. In fact, time at varying locations in the same town often differed. That’s because time was based on the sun’s position. If a clock in Wichita differed by some minutes than one in Kansas City—who cared?

But railroads had to adhere to schedules. This meant that time needed to be standardized.

People protested at the prospect. Many simply ignored this ‘new time.’

Between the 1840’s (when a railroad schedule was published in New England) and 1883 (when railroad officials created five time zones in the United States) there were often vehement arguments about the differences between ‘local time’ and ‘railroad time.’

The brief overview of this story is here—just click.

The longer, and exceedingly intriguingly thought-altering podcast about the concept of time, is here.

Click to hear about railways and time.

Listening to this entire episode is worthwhile. It was actually recorded in 2007, but gets repeated because it is well, timeless.

This subject reminds me of how, when I worked in the southwestern country of Namibia in the 1990’s, the government adopted daylight savings time.

It was disastrous.

People woke at sunrise. Period. And clock changing be dammed.

A Himba elder

Rural Himba and Herero communities became confused when stores opened later. Some store managers, in order not to alienate customers, simply ignored this new daylight savings time. Probably half the country ignored clock changes, while the other half paid attention to this alteration of time, although confusedly so.

At the time I managed a team that drilled and installed deep wells. One foreman laughed about others messing up work hours, and mentioned that some people were on ‘old time.’ For him, ‘old time’ was, well, different.

No wonder the Himba people of northern Namibia (where topless women smear their bodies with mixtures of butter fat and ochre) consider time as a river. In my book The Deep Sand of Damaraland, I wrote:

The Himba consider that in the desert of life, time is a river. They watch the past swirl downstream while the future — behind their backs and out of sight — flows by of its own accord. In a universe where ancestors guide fortune, a desire to discard the past and ‘start anew’ is both alien and ludicrous. For them, the present conveys sense only when looked at in context of the past.

Time is a river, or perhaps sometimes a canal

Our regard to time has changed over time. Before the 1880’s, our regard for minutes and seconds, as measured on a watch, mattered little.

I recently read an article in Scientific American [‘Split-Second Reactions’] about how scientists wanting to film chemical reactions (such as photosynthesis) bombard molecules with X-Rays to film them, but must do the filming before these same X-Ray destroy the molecules. The time difference between X-Ray contact and destruction is measured in femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second. Put it this way: the difference between one femtosecond and one second is equivalent to the difference between one second and 32 million years.

Imagine: 150 years ago our general regard was for hours, at best. Minutes and seconds were abstractions. Today, some have mastered ‘serial femtosecond crystallography’ to witness events occurring in a millionth of billionth of a second.

Times have changed.

Time as central to any village or city

Because time and space are interconnected, it is unsurprising that on a personal level some days appear to pass rapidly while others move more slowly.

I’m now reading a boot titled Exactly—How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (published last year). He tells of how Saint Augustine once mentioned that although he could not explain time, he certainly knew what it was. Sounds familiar, yes? Winchester also notes that although our counting system begins at zero (0, 1, 2, 3 …) as do our clocks (00.30 being half past midnight), our calendars do not. They, instead, begin at 1 (January 1st, but never January 0th).

My winemaker friend Robyn, who has been traveling in a camper van across Australia for over a year, recently posted a photograph of a road sign—located between Cocklebiddy campground and Fraser Range Station reading: Central Western Time Zone – Advance Clocks 45 minutes.

45 minutes? What gives?

It’s complicated (Photo Credit: Robyn Drayton)

Investigating this, I found out that many world regions are still parochially odd about their time zones. Consider that before the Second World War, Amsterdam’s time was 20 minutes ahead of that in London.

And although the distance east to west across China is 3,250 miles (while the greatest distance between any two mainland points in the U.S. is some 2,900 miles), China only has one time zone.

One.

There used to be five.

But in  1949 Chairman Mao Zedong put the entire country on Beijing time for the sake of ‘national unity.’

Actually, the Uighur’s time in the northwest of the country is unofficially two hours behind that of Beijing. Yet one man was detained for changing the time on his watch to reflect this because it was considered a form of ‘resistance’ to the central government.

Ah, time as a form of silent subversion.

We can now film photosynthetic reactions on a molecular level

Newfoundland in Canada is a half hour different than adjacent time zones. If you cross from Afghanistan to China, the time difference immediately changes 3.5 hours, while crossing the border from India to Nepal changes time by 15 minutes.

These inefficient blips are attractive because they don’t sing the same song as the usual choir. They reflect diversity, and almost disdain for doing the same as everyone else.

In a hyper-connected world of nanometer precision where we can edit genes and land spacecraft on distant planets, it’s somewhat refreshing to learn of quirks, oddities and regional characteristics that ignore efficiency. It’s a reflection of how sometimes character counts more than conformity, that sameness is not necessarily sane, and that time and space are often still regarded more as subjective than objective.

Instead of sending scientists to outer space, a module full of artists will, in a few years, zip into zero gravity for a few days.

Why not?

It will be trying something different.

It’s about time.

 

 

 

 

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