We've Sprung Too Far Forward

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Daylight saving time is here already, weeks ahead of the normal schedule, rousting us from bed, speeding up an already accelerated existence. By government edict, the sun does not rise when it should, and you must emerge from your comfy bed in predawn darkness. The moment when the clocks move forward by an hour has been moved back by nearly a month. Forward: back. Confused? Temporally discombobulated? Can you honestly say what time it is "right now"?

No. You're not allowed to know. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the correct time is not determined by the spinning of Earth, but by the Office of the Vice President.

He lives at the U.S. Naval Observatory, where they keep the Master Clock. The vice president spends a lot of time in the Master Clock control room, playing with knobs. When he's in a really bad mood, he makes noon into midnight.

Daylight saving time is traditionally an artifact of spring and summer, and indeed is called "Summer Time" in Europe, but this year it arrives in winter. The Gregorian calendar was confusing enough before this latest change. For ages, scholars have tried to figure out why the dates of Easter and Passover change every year, but the Fourth of July is always celebrated on the same day.

Today the clock has leapt forward from 1:59:59 a.m. to 3:00:00 a.m., but there will be no explanation from anyone in authority about where the missing hour goes. Yes, it pops up again in November, but where is it in the meantime? Do we want an hour on the loose, where it could play into the hands of criminals?

Bad things could happen today. Computers could go haywire, and satellites could fall from space. Roosters may fail to crow. Farmers will be in their fields, plowing the earth, only to realize that they can't see because the sun hasn't risen and they're working at night. Aircraft will take off from runways even as the pilot and co-pilot are still racing on foot toward the departure gate.

Everyone listening to the tolling of distant cathedral bells will wonder if the hunchback remembered to add a toll. The hit show "24" will be missing the crucial hour between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, during which Jack Bauer kills seven terrorists with his bare teeth and conquers Russia.

Why must we endure this nightmare? Because powerful industries want to tamper with Time Itself. There is, for example, the charcoal industry, which wants more barbecues. You can spot its lobbyists because they're covered in soot. There is also the powerful softball lobby, the not-so-powerful but highly influential badminton lobby, the eccentric but oddly lovable croquet lobby, and the subversive and slightly scary lawn darts lobby.

Our government and the special interests who run it will not be satisfied until they've tinkered with the entire space-time continuum. They want control not only of time and space but also of causality, of chronology, of sequence, of the so-called "arrow of time," which they hope to use as a weapon.

Time has always been a philosophical challenge. It is not "real," the way, for example, a clock is real. All we can say is that there are coordinates in space-time that can be described by three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. Viewed in this strict fashion, "deadlines" for "columns" have no meaning, even though editors cling to the medieval notion that they should be finished "on time." Dream on.

There is not a person alive who has not, at some point, wondered, "What is time, exactly?" and, "Why are we alive now and not at some other time, like the 37th century, when everyone finally has his or her personal jet pack?" and, "Why are there three spatial dimensions but only one time dimension, and not the other way around, which would allow us to sit in one place, such as the couch, and watch Super Bowls XIII, XXVI and XXXIX simultaneously?"

These are the kind of questions that separate us from the beasts. Homo sapiens is unique among animals in possessing awareness of being late to an appointment. Dogs cannot comprehend past and future, much less Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time. The phrase " '60 Minutes' will follow the game, except on the West Coast" means nothing to a cat.

Time should not be altered seasonally, like the hemlines of dresses. There should be no fashions in time, nothing wobbly or slippery or arbitrary. Time belongs to the people. And with that thought, let's go back to sleep.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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