Thursday, December 06, 2007

2. TIME - for geeks

(c) By Harendra Alwis

If the rising of the sun, the changing faces of the moon, seasonal rains, red autumn leaves and blossoming buds of spring made time’s first impressions on the emerging human conscience, the earliest and most primitive manifestations of our time-consciousness was through song and dance. With it, we could capture, embody and express time as a form of art and art in the form of time. The sweetest songs and the most elegant dances reflect the natural frequency of the human body, the varying speeds of the human mind and the mysterious rhythms of the soul. The precise reading of time is however more critical for governments, business and the military, than it is for musicians and dancers whose biggest loss as a result of a mistimed beat or step would be a song being labelled as ‘hip-hop’ or a dance partner tripping over.

That is why, one of the fastest loops of electronic communication networks in the world are dedicated to the simple task of keeping time. Busily talking to each other through fibre-optic veins that carry infinitesimally short pulses of light and checking, rechecking and correcting each other many million times each second, are atomic clocks, which an ordinary person would probably mistake for a stack of computers. Inside them, vibrating Caesium-133 atoms split each second into 9,192,631,770 parts – conforming to our absolute definition of time. They announce to the world with sureness and authority, the single piece of information that they preserve within – the absolute and most accurate reading of time available to mankind. These are the timekeepers of the world. Heavily armed soldiers that stand guard outside the buildings that house these clocks can only hint at the importance and value of what is contained within. They are protecting an element of the universe that none of them can see or touch, yet it is not an exaggeration to say that time has become perhaps the most ‘valuable’ and critical among all of humanity’s inventions.

If such an accurate reading of time was not available, the first noticeable changes that would debilitate the hastened world we now live in, would be a breakdown in radio broadcasts and telecommunications. That is because radio and TV broadcasts as well as telecommunications operators are trapped in the tight grip of the hands of time, because broadcasts from adjacent towers must be synchronised with great precision to avoid the signals – which are electromagnetic waves - from cancelling out each other. Given the speed of light at which they operate, their clocks have to be constantly synchronised with readings from a network of atomic clocks.

Computers more than any other device are defined by time. With processor speeds doubling almost every eighteen months, modern computers are capable of splitting each second into many millions of parts. Together with fast broadband communication networks, even a simple home computer can be used by a skilful programmer to exploit the time difference of a few millionth of a second between two servers of a bank’s computer system, for money laundering by making double withdrawals from the same account – seemingly at the same time. Unless computer systems in banks and stock-markets around the world are not synchronised with the precision of atomic clocks, most of the largest financial assets of the world will instantly become vulnerable to vandalism and fraud.

There are even more critical reasons that necessitate accurate timekeeping than the synchronization of radio broadcasts, stock-markets and banks. Governments and especially the military depend on the most accurate timekeeping devices ever made to coordinate military operations. The measurements of these clocks are not available for civilian use as the most advanced precision weapons systems including missile guiding systems and aircraft bombers depend on the accuracy of their clocks. It is the accuracy with which they can read time, and thus the accuracy with which they can derive their exact position and velocity aided by the time-stamped pulses of GPS satellites, which ultimately guides them and their deadly cargo, to their intended target. The precision with which time is read by a bomber aircraft can mean the difference between life and death to those who live in warzones.

Civilisation in essence has created a world that is more reliant on time than any other single factor. If we were to be deprived of the simple yet extremely critical wisdom of the atomic clocks for any significant amount of time – paradoxically, perhaps as short a duration as a few seconds - life on earth, or at least a significant portion of the technological and economic advancements we have achieved, will immediately be pushed back by many decades. These atomic clocks directly or indirectly influence -if not regulate- the actions, lifestyles, decisions and choices of individuals and governments, including war and peace.

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