Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Sometimes, in my private moments, I find myself speculating about really important things. Not things about me and my insignificant little life here in a small section of a big city in the middle of a large country that's part of a much bigger world - but important things. Like how to tell time in space.

Thinking about it made my head hurt.

Let’s say you’re floating about in space. Maybe you’re flying in a ship of some kind, or taking a nice, relaxing float in the tightly swaddled comfort of a boundless, black cosmos.


Now let’s say your watch stops. Batteries die or something. You tap it a few times, but nothing. It's done. Digital instrumentation and communications with mission control back on earth would help you keep track, but what if those too failed. What if you're out there and you have no idea what time it is. Does time even matter? And if it doesn't really matter out there, does it really matter down here?

Imagine being alone in space. Time as you know it would come to mean less and less. Sunrise and sunset really don’t apply in the way that they do now. Way out in deep space you’re surrounded by tons of flickering little specks – none quite so helpful as our own flickering little speck, the sun, at giving us the time. So drifting about in space, I imagine, isn’t a whole lot unlike spending a week inside a casino…minus the clanging jackpots and flashing lights.

No clocks. No windows to the sun. No sense for time at all. Just two hands in front of you and a laundry list of biological needs and urges.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Time as we know it – the 24-hour cycle we have neatly broken up into morning, afternoon, and night – is irrelevant in space!

Of course, we would still experience the linear passing of time from now to now-again-but-later to now-again-but-later-than-later, and so on. But without a clock or a sun to set and keep time by, there would be no way (or need) to schedule anything. No meetings to miss. No appointments to keep. No dates to circle on the calendar.

Because there's nothing to keep track of passing time. Even talking in terms of the increments we use today would be pointless. Seconds, minutes, and hours are all derived from a 24-hour day, which only matters here on earth. Out in space, everything is now or never. What is natural here becomes synthetic and man-made as soon as you leave orbit.


Interestingly, a recent 60 Minutes report on an indigenous tribe in the south Pacific made note of the fascinating fact that the natives did not have a word in their language equivalent to our word for “when.” They had no need for one because they don't project things out in time. Everything is now. They don’t experience time in the same way that those of us in the hustling, bustling “civilized” world do. Marooned in space, they’d probably far a lot better than we would.

I’d go insane. I am all about time. It drives me up a wall to be late to anything. I would rather be an hour early than a minute late. Wow. Read that again, will ya. Seeing that in print made me realize that maybe I already AM insane. And maybe my relationship with clocks has made me so.

So here I am, thinking about very important things, and I just realized how much time I’ve spent doing it. Was it too much time? Too little? Just enough? I guess when I put things in perspective and remember that I’m really just floating around in space on a spinning chunk of matter, time isn’t the important thing.

The important thing is that I’m floating around in space on a spinning chunk of matter.

And that's pretty cool.

1 comment:

adam said...

I have the same time complex. Me in space would be like Harland Williams in "Rocketman".

--wasn't me.