A (Really) Brief History of Time

Kristen Lippincott, director of the Royal Observatory Greenwich and curator of an exhibit called "The Story of Time," doesn't set her watch by Internet time. So take some time to consider her ideas.

Kristen Lippincott sits at the center of time -- literally. For the past 10 years, she has been studying time and astronomy at the Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, England. She is also curator of "The Story of Time" at the National Maritime Museum -- an exhibit that explores how societies relate to time.

Where better than Greenwich to tell the story of time? Since 1884, it has been the place where time begins and ends every day. Before then, most towns and cities kept their own time. But the creation of the prime meridian helped set international standards for how time is measured, for when a day begins and ends -- even for how long an hour is. Today, every place on Earth sets its clocks according to its distance from Greenwich.

In an interview with Fast Company, Lippincott, 45, offered a (really) brief history of time -- and the validity (if any) of the hot concept of "Internet time."

Why are we all so fascinated by time?

The clock is a symbol of authority: We all want to "control" time. In many instances, when a revolutionary government has come to power, one of its first acts has been to change the calendar -- to recalibrate time. That's what happened during the French Revolution. The regime didn't like the 12-base, or duodecimal, calendar (inherited from antiquity and early Christianity) , so it tried to impose a decimal calendar. A similar attempt to control the calendar occurred during the Russian Revolution.

But trying to mold time to the whims of people just hasn't worked. The duodecimal calendar has survived since Babylonian times for a reason. There are certain truths about how long it takes the sun and the moon to pass across the sky that you can't escape -- no matter how hard you try to remake the calendar to suit your needs.

Do people really have less time today than they used to have?

How we experience time depends on whether we're engaged in what we're doing, whether we're organized about what we're doing -- even whether we're physically fit. A wise man I know, who worked in government, structured his day so that he always had time to sit with his feet up. He said that if you're always chasing the next problem, you don't see three problems ahead.

Is time an abstraction, or is it real?

Time affects your body, your health, the rhythms of your life. An endocrinologist at the University of Sussex has said, "You can have a 24-hour society, but you can't have a 24-hour body." Whether we like it or not, the melatonin levels in our bodies follow the movement of the sun. Even living with electric light puts stress on our bodies, because it keeps melatonin from responding to light cues in the way that it should. So, in response, people take melatonin supplements. Meanwhile, increases in our cortisol levels get us excited at times when we should be quieting down. It's not healthy.

One of the most interesting papers that I've read recently was about sleeping and waking patterns in humans. Apparently, humans have sleeping and waking patterns that closely resemble those of chipmunks. Therefore, the paper concluded, we should sleep more in the winter -- we should almost hibernate -- and we should be extremely active in the summer. It's a good reminder: We are just a species of animal that lives on a rock that revolves around the sun. No matter how fast the Internet gets, we can't change that reality.

What's next for how people relate to time?

We're going to see the emergence of two drastically different streams of people. We're going to see people who are working in Internet businesses or in telecommunications, who are going to go fast because they want to go fast. But we're also going to see plenty of people who will want to go slow. Today, most of the money out there is flowing into the fast stream. But what if the world's resources began to dwindle? It's possible that people who invest in the slow stream could become the next millionaires.

Learn more about the "Story of Time" exhibit on the Web (www.rog.nmm.ac.uk/index.html) .

Sidebar: Time for Internet Time?

As a high-profile expert on the history of time, Kristen Lippincott, the curator of the "Story of Time" exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, England, hears a lot about the unique properties of Internet time. So what does she think of this newfangled idea? As we found out, she doesn't exactly set her watch by it.

"I don't know what 'Internet time' means. People who use the Internet are interested in fast responses, so they plug into that speed-driven system and find what they want. But they also seem to be the kind of people who respond quickly when questions are posed to them -- who say yes or no without really thinking carefully about what their response should be.

"What's really different about email isn't that it's a faster medium than conventional pen and paper. What's different -- and dangerous -- is that email is a disposable medium. It just doesn't provoke the same degree of reflection and consideration from its user that paper does. If I have an important message that I want someone to grapple with, I'll still use paper to communicate it.

"I worry that we've become enamored with deadlines. We want to feel an adrenaline rush. We believe that if we're always chasing the next deadline, we must be important. A lot of our 'busy-ness' is a way for us to avoid thinking about what is most important. There's a difference between being busy and being productive."

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