Workshop on “The Science of Time”

One of the cool things about Astronomy is the sheer, awesome, sweeping scale of the enterprise. We puny humans are in the picture, but we are such a tiny little part of the whole thing!

I once worked with folks who were booting up one of the earliest Web repositories of astronomical imagery. They had a simple graphic to represent the areas covered by the database at that time (I recall there was a large white square filled with red dots representing available data in that region of the sky). The awesome thing was, I realized, that this dataset covered the entire universe. Everything that it was possible to “see” was in there. Not just one city or one planet. Everything.  Wow!

Astronomy also introduced us all to four dimensional “space time”, and the unearthly weirdness of Martian days, light cones, and relativistic speeds, among other wonders. Astronomers use a variety of coordinate systems to locate objects in space time. Depending on what you are trying to talk about, the origin might be the Earth, the Sun, another planet or body, another star. Or it might be the center of the Milky way, or perhaps the center of a moving spacecraft.

In short, nothing will get you over yourself like considering astronomical data.

With this wide and deep perspective, there will be a workshop in Cambridge Mass, on “The Science of Time”. The workshop is to consider “Time in Astronomy & Society, Past, Present, and Future”, and it will be held, they tell us, “5-9 June 02016”. (The organizers note the use of ‘02016’: the “Y10K” problem, which will kick in in a mere 7984 years under the current calendar.)

This sounds like an interesting workshop, because it will include historical perspectives, scientific perspectives, and issues for general society.

As the workshop invitation says, “Time and its reciprocal, frequency, is the most accurately measurable quantity and often an important path to the frontiers of science.” As the measurement of time improves, the definition of “one second” will be revised and counted much more precisely. This precision is necessary and beneficial not just for scientists, but also for computer and communication systems, and for GPS and other navigation systems.

Of course, things are not so simple. Much of the world deals with time in periods of hours, days, and years. These quantities are intended to reflect the rotation and orbit of the Earth. But the Earth’s rotation is variable, and not a whole number of seconds long. Nor is the Earth’s orbit exactly a whole number of seconds. (And what about timekeeping on Mars and other places?)

Getting the obsessive precision of a GPS sattelite clock to translate into human scaled units (“lunchtime on Tuesday”), and getting all the people and machines to agree, is a big challenge.  Even slight differences in interpretation can cause chaos, as computers disagree on the date, and networks stop working.  These agreements are both technical and social (which is to say economic and political).

The symposium aims to set the stage for future timekeeping standards, infrastructure, and engineering best practices for astronomers and the broader society.”

Sounds pretty cool.



Space Saturday

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