What time is it?

Posted on 2018-July-09 in thoughts

  • Hello Mr. Engineer, can you tell me what time it is?
  • No I can't.
  • Why?
  • Well then. You see, my watch is an electronic and mechanic device based on the oscillation of a quartz that imprints a periodic movement to a set of cogs, which are then de-multiplied to lower the base quartz frequency from 32,758 Hz to exactly 1 Hz, i.e. one beat per second.
  • That's very nice. And what time does your watch show now?
  • I could tell you but it would not be useful. See, the quartz frequency is not exactly that power of two, it is itself oscillating with a larger period around that value, meaning that my watch can be ahead or behind by some amounts that are hard to measure, let alone predict.
  • So it is inaccurate?
  • Yes! You can never tell exactly the time with that kind of device.
  • Ok... Seriously, what time is it?
  • Not only are the watch mechanics imprecise, but they do not take relativistic effects into account.
  • That so?
  • Yep. Since Einstein we know time is nowhere absolute. When I put my arm up like this, time flows a little slower because of the Earth rotation, and if I put it down like this is goes a bit faster. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, my time reference is unlikely to be the same as yours since we are not moving around in sync.
  • Listen, this is all very nice but that was not my question. Will you tell me the time it shows now and I will deal with the imprecision myself?
  • No can't do.
  • Why is that?
  • Even if you discard all relativistic effects and frequency drifts, the notion of time is not something universal on Earth.
  • Care to explain?
  • Time is only valid in a given time zone. Since the end of the 19th century we have split world regions according to time zones which keep changing at regular intervals based on political choices. In order to be able to tell you the time of day, I need to know a reference time in a given place and convert that depending on your position on the planet. We could use GMT, which stands for Greenwich Mean Time, but it is not even indicating the current time in Greenwich UK. I could then program a microservice that could give you the current date/time based on an estimated position from your IPv4 address, provided you are not too close to a time border. But then that assumes you have Internet access. Oh wait, do you have an iPhone or an Android?
  • Er... Thanks mate. So let's say we use the current time zone, Ok?
  • Do you know if we apply Daylight Saving Time where you stand?
  • How would I know? Yes, probably!
  • Probably with what probability? Because we could weigh the answer depending on... Hey, where are you going?
  • To lunch. I just remembered I wanted to ask you if it was time for lunch.