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Fish Or Cut Bait

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
by Bob Ciminel

November 14, 2005

As I was running around setting the clocks back one hour when we changed to standard time, which is no mean feat when you consider there are 27 clocks in our house, a thought occurred to me. I couldn't help it; I have thoughts all the time. Sometimes they just pop in there like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man in the first "Ghost Busters" movie. At work, my co-workers accuse me of "thinking off." I tell them I'm an intellectual and thinking is what intellectuals do, so leave me alone and let me think. It's a lie. I'm not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. I was lucky to graduate from high school. However, the folks at work haven't figured that out yet, so they think I'm an intellectual and they leave me alone. Most of my co-workers are engineers, and that explains a lot, if you know what I mean.

The F-1 cesium fountain atomic clock mentioned in the article.
Photo credit the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

So, getting back to time: my thought was: How do I know I'm really setting these clocks to the correct time? Each clock could be off my one or two seconds. What if the error is cumulative? The last clock I reset could be off as much as 27 seconds. More importantly, what if the clock in the kitchen is wrong? Twenty seven seconds seem like an eternity when you're waiting for supper, particularly when added to the 30 minutes I normally have to wait after the wife says, "I'll be down in a minute."

The dog can't tell time, but she knows when it's time to eat. Setting the clocks back didn't fool her. Saturday evening, before the time change, she looked at me with those sad brown eyes; her tongue part way out; her head cocked, and gave me that little whimper she uses when she's trying to attract my attention. I immediately picked up on her signals and went and fixed myself a sandwich. Sunday evening, after I had reset the clocks, she did it again, and at exactly 6 p.m. Now how in the heck did she know I set the clocks back an hour? She must have followed me around, that's it.

I'm convinced the dog is picking up the broadcast from WWVB, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's radio station out in Fort Collins, Colorado. WWVB provides time signals for all those "atomic clocks" everyone is selling these days. You can buy one at Wal-Mart for $19.95. I have five, including two wrist watches. The wife says she's going to start throwing them out if I buy another one. I tell her, "Honey, you're always asking me what time it is. We have 27 clocks in the house but you always ask me for the time. This way I can tell you it is exactly 7:15 p.m. and supper is late."

Thanks to their F-1 cesium fountain atomic clock, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) know exactly what time it is; at least within 0.0000000000000005 second. Representing state-of-the-art timekeeping, the F-1 clock will not lose or gain a second in 60 million years, which is good to know. After all, we wouldn't want to miss the thirty one millionth "Friends" rerun on TBS.

NIST scientists also are developing an atomic clock that is smaller than a grain of rice. Electronic components, such as global positioning systems, that require accurate timing will soon have atomic clocks built into their circuits. There is one minor problem; the miniature clock is only accurate to 0.000000001 second and could conceivably gain or lose a second every 300 years.

I can't wait until miniature atomic clocks are available to consumers. I'm sure the Chinese will soon be mass producing them for Wal-Mart and Target. Heck, I'd buy one even at the risk of ruining my 35-year marriage. It will be worth the risk to be able to tell my wife, "Honey, it is exactly 7:15 p.m., give or take a billionth of a second, and supper is late. Oh, and the dog agrees."


Bob Ciminel's articles may include satire and parody, and mix fact with fiction.
He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.

Bob lives in Roswell, Georgia, and works for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.  He is also a conductor on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.


Bob Ciminel ©2001 - 2005
All Rights Reserved

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