Once upon a time, man was synchronized with the universe. We did not need to know what time it was. We rose with the sun, retired when it disappeared and like the rest of nature, which continues to follow cycles established billions of years ago, we did what came naturally. That is getting harder to do.

Now the moon no longer uniformly commands the attention of every woman's menstrual cycle. Now men and women both suffer from insomnia in the middle of the night. Now, when we snap on the light and want to know what time it is, we peer obediently at quartz-vibrating digital clocks. And if we really need to have the time precisely, we can call the U.S. Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue. That's where they really know.

Day and night, powerful observatory telescopes are trained upward into the pastures of heaven. Various moons, planets and "grazing occultations of stars" are converted from poetry into usable data, enabling scientists to get a fix on where we are, in time. Which is more important than you think.

The good news is that we have more of it. It once took the earth only 20 hours to make a complete turn about its axis, while it now requires 24 hours to make the same round trip. The bad news is that it took the earth about 400 billion years to accrue those hours. And while the world is slowing down, man's need for accurate time is accelerating with the rapid development of computers. Modern computers allow us to use very fine time indeed.

Time is measured in different ways. There is universal time, based on the period of rotation of the earth about its axis. Ephemeris time is defined by the orbital motion of the earth around the sun. And the newest, most exciting time is atomic time. The cesium-beam atomic clock has a frequency of 9,192,631,770 cycles per second of ephemeris time. It can measure a day to within one nanosecond (one billionth of a second). Since atomic clocks were installed at the Naval Observatory in 1958, atomic time has more or less replaced the stars.

At the top of the time pyramid at the Naval Observatory is Dr. Gernot Winkler. As the director of the department of time frequency and distribution, Winkler dispenses time to some of its more sophisticated users, which one day, gentle reader, may include you.

For someone who is wound up in time all day, it seems odd that Winkler does not even wear a watch."I don't need one," he smiled. "I try not to have my life governed by a watch."

Winkler is asked what, given the nature of his job, does govern him?

"To do what I do," he answered, "requires someone who enjoys and gets an esthetic pleasure from being exact."

Although Winkler has all the outward signs of employment, a desk, a phone and a chair, it was not clear exactly what he did all day with his and the U.S. government's time. The hope was that a friendly conversation would resolve certain questions.

Unfortunately, Winkler already had been interviewed by a few too many people. He had, it developed, prepared a few questions of his own.

"Perhaps," he suggested, passing a sheet of paper across his desk, "we might begin here." On the paper were 12 typed questions, including: "What is the law of decedence? Who was Voltaire? How is money created?" And, "What is an intellectual?"

"Excuse me, Dr. Winkler, but am I supposed to ask you these questions or are you asking me?"

Winkler reached out and retrieved the questions. "We won't use them at all," he said, somewhat apologetically. "But so many people come up here thinking they know all about time that is is sometimes necessary to talk about what is not known before real communication can take place."

And so, having watered the ground with humility, we began.

Winkler began with the observatory itself. It has three main functions: to produce up-to-date almanacs for air, sea and space navigation, to track and measure star positions, and--most important--to maintain accurate time- keeping. It is an ongoing job.

Winkler, who has a PhD. in astronomy and theoretical physics, is not, heaven forbid, against the stars. Stars have their place, although nowadays atomic clocks simply check in with them every once in awhile, to make sure that what the clocks have already decided, the stars abide by. But the atomic clocks (of which there are at least 40 pulsing away on the observatory grounds) make Winkler's job easier. The earth is a beautiful but rather undependable twirling ball.

The earth is never the same size from one day to the next, for example. It expands or contracts about 30 centimeters (or one foot) every day, depending upon the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Then too, the rotational speed of the world changes. Scientists must carefully add or subtract a "leap second" every so often to ensure that everyone's clock will, theoretically, be the same. "Actually," said Winkler, "the ordinary clock is useless for scientific purposes. Most of us could get by with a sundial. But an astronaut would be helpless in space with such an imprecise device. "The astronaut," explained Winkler, "navigates by computers that provide him with directions measured against the time elapsed between fixed points, or stars, in space. If we could not provide him with precise time measurements, he would never get home."

Winkler is a startlingly intelligent and charming man, not the sort of person one might imagine as a director of time frequency who had gone milky-faced from staring at the moon. Born in Austria, the recipient of a classical education, he could parachute into Sir Kenneth Clark's drawing room and land quite neatly on his feet. But he is descended from a line of professional and amateur tinkerers. His father operated a ham radio. One uncle is a geophysist. Another is an architect. At the age of 7, Winkler discovered Jules Verne. He has been enthralled by space and its crucial component, time, since.

"The reason time is so popular," said Winkler, assuming everybody who kept up on things was aware of the bandwagon, "is because time is an abstraction. It doesn't exist, except as a measure of change and a way of ordering events. And so, we can measure it far more accurately than anything else around."

This seemed a bit like the tailor of the emperor's new clothes extolling the merits of seamless garments because there were no seams. And if time does not exist, was the government, as sometimes charged, caring for nothing? The answer, of course, is no.

Winkler picked up a stapler and dropped it, kerplunk, on his desk. "We can measure something material but with far less accuracy, because its molecular density is always changing."

Actually, the stapler looked just about the same as it had before it left Winkler's hand, but in the finely tuned world of high-speed communications, a few molecules can make a sack full of potatoes worth of difference. Time, unlike potatoes, has no molecules to interfere with its division, and this is a distinct advantage to the pilot of a 747 who must land on time, on a dime.

Winkler jumped up from his desk, eager to display the observatory's most cherished hardware, the atomic clocks themselves. Striding down the corridor, like a pediatrician en route to a nursery full of his deliveries, he passed a display case full of antique timepieces, meant to show how far, in time-keeping, inventive man had come.

The atomic clocks are square, gray and graceless. They sit, shoulder to shoulder, behind glass windows that line the corridors, creating a dark arcade of machines, each one soundlessly blipping with universal time. Without sufficient training to read the red computer numbers on their faces, it would be impossible to know when it was time to go ty, we began.

Winklto lunch.

An atomic clock is expensive. The smallest model costs about $8,000 and would not look attractive on the mantle. But while ugly, it is wondrously exact, and most countries use them, supporting the same-time same-station point of view.

But not all countries. Several cling to different clocks.

"Iran is not on universal time," said Winkler. "They are about a half-hour off."

Winkler tried, with great patiernce, to demonstrate how the atomic clocks work. Deftly plugging in cables, pressing buttons, and comparing read- outs, he played them like harpsichords, with delicacy and skill.

"A computer is extremely stupid," he said. "They only know how to do a few things. But it would be utterly impossible to be a scientist without knowing exactly how they work." The question was asked whether most scientists who work with them are of a particular type.

"A scientist," answered Winkler, "tends to find objective reality more interesting than his own little self. But there is always the danger that you will become possessive of what you know, or think that you understand it better than anyone else. We all have to work very hard against that tendency."

"That is why," he said, "that scientists consider it bad form to submit a paper that lists his or her credentials. Because it would prejudice other people to either accept or reject the findings, where credentials ought not to be a factor at all."

Winkler is asked what would happen if all the atomic clocks in the world suddenly stopped. Would we ever be able to get back on the right time track again?

"Oh yes, that would be easy. We would just pick out a star." And so the same navigational lights that comforted Antoine de Saint-Exup,ery on the Sahara have a place in the universe after all.

"Time," said Winkler "is a riddle. The mind is in time and time is in the mind." These are labyrinths that only mystics may transcend. But it would seem inevitable that scientists continually exposed to the unfolding wonders of the cosmos might be dragged toward some kind of mystical contemplation of their own-- by the nature of nature itself. Winkler agreed.

"Every scientist," he said, "of any real stature that I know--like Einstein or Poincar,e--inevitably begins to think seriously about his own personal relationship with the universe."

Winkler is no snob about who is qualified to be a profound thinker on this subject. "The guard at the bottom of the observatory hill," said Winkler, "is one of the most thoughtful and deeply intelligent men I know."

Winkler passes by Officer Chapman Stephens at least twice a day. But it is safe to say that not much else gets by Stephens, who has been guarding time and, more recently, vice presidents at the observatory for 32 mean solar years.

What motivates you to manifest your interest in me?" he inquired. "Are you going to interrelate the security of the Naval Observatory with the care and maintenance of the cesium-generated atomic clock?"

Fortunately, the phone rang in the guard booth. Stephens answered it--with zest.

"Stephens speaking most invigoratingly. Ah, yes, that would be delightful. I wonder if you would crystallize your thoughts as to what form of restorative you would like me to bring?"

Stephens is asked if that is a fancy way of asking what kind of liquor to buy for a party?

"No," he answered. "Alcohol, as you know, is a depressant, destructive to bodily tissues. A restorative might be some kind of protein."

Milk?

Stephens nodded.

Stephens is a self-made man. "I do not think that it is imperative that a person receive a formal education," he said. "We all have a natural propensity for abstract reasoning and problem-solving." Stephens has been educating himself, on the side, for a longer time than his face reveals. He is 52 and looks less.

"There are three kinds of age," he said, interrupting his thought to dash out and process another auto entering the grounds.

"May I see some form of, we began.

Winkl identification please? Ah yes. That is a fair representation of your physiognomy. Proceed, my friend." The woman at the wheel, her physiognomy visibly altered at this exchange, crept past.

"As I was saying," he continued, "there is psychological, physical and chronological age. I consider chronological age a myth."

Stephens is a round, cheerful, pleasantly gap-toothed fellow, with a full head of hair and spring in his feet.

"Of course," he amended, "one must be given one thing --superb genetic conditioning!" Stephens has it. He also lifts weights.

"I am a pragmatic hedonist," he announced cheerfully. "I believe in exorcising all unpleasant sensations and controlling what would heretofore be labeled adversity."

Another car, full of Chinese diplomats, drives up to the guard house. They need directions. What they need, Stephens has.

"All right, gentleman," says Stephens, in kind stentorian tones. "I want for you to follow that yellow line." The Chinese look obediently through the windshield. The yellow line is right there. "It is going to lead you to the top of the hill where you will see, directly in front of you, a grayish white structure. Your destination is immediately behind that building. You will bear to the right and find yourself facing a woods. Do not go into them. Bear to the left. There you will see a two-story, also gray, structure. You will be facing east, the same direction as your vehicle currrently is headed. You will park parallel to the yellow line on the curb to your right. Good day, gentlemen. Proceed."

The Chinese tried, diplomatically, to wipe the shock off their faces. But it was not possible. Officer Stephens returned.

"I believe," he said, "that one ought to extract the greatest amount of pleasure out of every moment of our visit on this planet."

"I believe we are on a journey that ends in death (Stephens hissed the word slightly). We are progressing, nanosecond by nanosecond, to that end. But I do not fear death, because the moment is so full of pleasure. I do not flinch."

Stephens flinches at nothing. The conversation covers a broad range of controversial topics, including language, computers, vice presidents and people who drive you nuts.

Language: "I don't consider it fancy, when you have a thought, to transmit it in the florid manner in which you are entertaining it."

Computers: Computers should not frighten you. Nothing can dehumanize you; you allow things to dehumanize you. Of course, the person these days who knows how to operate a computer will always have a job. But the person who knows why will always be in charge of the person who knows how."

Vice presidents: "There have been four vice presidents here while I have been a guard. The Fords left, of course, after Nixon resigned. The Rockefellers only stayed over for one night. Now the Mondales, they were moved in by 3:30 Inauguration Day. They weren't like the Rockefellers. And the Bushes--I see Mrs. Bush oftentimes, walking her dog. We talk. She has started to drop by."

People who drive you nuts: "If you allow another person to cause you anger, vexation, or any other negative emotion, you are a slave to that person. So, when you find this happening, you must find out the genesis of your reaction. Perhaps someone hit you on the head with a baseball bat and called you 'stupid' at the same time--and now you react to anyone who is arrogant in an inappropriate way."

(The interviewer tries to interrupt.)

"I know what you're going to say, so allow me to interrupt you," Stephens said softly. "Most people are motivated to be the center of their small, microcosmic universe. Now! When you are with someone who is this way, you must not laugh at him, anymore than you would laugh at someone who is crippled and limps. But you say to him: 'My friend, we are sufficiently generous so that we will now give you sufficient time, in our presence, to reinflate your faltering ego. Proceed.'" Stephens leaned back against thm of, we began. Winkle wall in front of the mythical person who drives you nuts and smiled angelically.

Stephens is not married, nor does he have any children, although he has his views on both those subjects. But he has thought long and hard about what it means to be a human being.

"I consider myself supremely fortunate to be a visitor on this planet, but most people are occupied with things that don't give them pleasure here. I know this because I see so many people come through these gates who think they are invisible behind the wheel. I catch them when they are not 'on.' But if you are to make the most of your visit to this planet, you must make a decision--to love. If you love you must be willing to pay the price."

Does he admit, then, to the negative emotion of grief? "Yes," he said. "The pain you experience grieving is predicated upon your ability to love."

"But pride?" exclaimed Stephens, simultaneously waving a limousine full of polo coats and importance past his booth. "I do not believe in pride, only self-confidence." And, "One must not be afraid to be ignorant. Ignorance comes from the Latin word 'unknown.'" He took a deep chestful of air. "How can we not be ignorant." He exhaled. "There is so much in this universe that is unknown!"