Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Leap Years, Time and Richard Feynman

Tomorrow will be February 29th. As this day doesn’t exist 75% of the time it seems important to write something to mark it. I do understand that time has to be adjusted now and then to keep everything in sync or neatly stacked up on the Gregorian shelves. Every four years we need to go beyond our ordinary temporal selves and accumulate time. However that understanding doesn’t quite affect me as it should as I am a child of Star Trek and Dr Who where a temporal anomaly is always just around the corner and often they come in threes, like buses. Of course in Torchwood we have a rift in time and space in Cardiff. I like Cardiff, haven’t been for years not since it went upmarket but I’m sure the rift won’t significantly effect property prices in fact they may have the reverse effect. There are also tears in space and time in Primeval which seem to operate mainly in London or woods or shopping malls in the Home Counties. I have also found that shopping malls are a prime site for temporal shifts, you go in and suddenly you find yourself clutching a Le Cruset casserole dish, a pair of tights with a map of South America printed on them and the latest book by Alice Sebold. It is already time for coffee and you only had a full monty breakfast a couple of minutes ago, no wonder a Tyrannosaurus Rex could be pulled screaming and kicking through the shopping vortex into the twenty first century.

So here I sit at my computer in the fens pondering on the experience of time about to be conjured up, a whole twenty–four hours created only once every four years I feel I should do something spectacular but I am off to the cinema to sit in the dark and let the celluloid do the imaginative manipulation of time and space for me.

I gather that when the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the sixteenth century a whole ten days were skipped to get us back in line with what they thought was the year Christ was born. The Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius and the astronomer and physician Aloysius Lilius came up with a plan in response to a papal directive to sort time out as those in the know were perturbed enough by the temporal drift of the Julian Calendar to want to do something about it. They didn’t seem to bat an eye when they proposed making a whole ten days disappear into thin air. A Papal Bull was duly issued called Inter Gravissimas (which sounds like one of those songs by an operatic boy band). They had no qualms about that lost ten days but then of course the Pope was behind them and he was infallible. Imagine what chaos would ensue now if we were told that tomorrow when we woke up it would be Monday 10th March, two whole week-ends of fun and frolicking would have been lost and most of the computer systems in the world that coped so well with the millennium paranoia would just slip into real melt down.

I am tempted to write something about these men who sort to tweak time long before atomic clocks. All they had was a decent grasp of maths and pretty ropey telescopes yet a large part of the Western world followed them like lambs. I sense they might have been slightly compulsive obsessive types and would have always felt a strong need to straighten pictures and put right anyone who said that it wasn’t the amount of time you had but how you spent it that mattered.

People born on 29th February are apparently officially called Leaplings, which sounds like a small elvish people you might come across in Middle Earth. Tommy Dorsey the band leader was a leapling, as is the actor Joss Ackland and someone I knew who was less than elvish and relished the magic of having a disappearing birthday.

Cambridge University ,by the way, in its usual refusal to have anything to do with anything slightly papist ignored the Gregorian calendar when setting their term dates and hence the May Week balls are still held in June. Well it is the home of many a great physicist one of whom, Stephen Hawking wrote a brief history of time which didn’t seem to mention ignoring a whole ten days. I tried to read it once and failed and have now resorted to the bluffers guide to quantum mechanics or a long suffering physicist friend and poet, Peter Howard, when desperate to grasp Schrodinger’s cat by its hypothetical tail. In fact he tackled this hypothetical cat once via a sestina called Cat in Hell's. A sestina about theoretical physics and pokes fun at the sestina form itself is above and beyond the call of a poet's duty and the act of a brave mind of infinite complexity.

I did meet Richard Feynman once, who was one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists. Take the time to look at this old Horizon interview with him and click through to his very honest discussion about his role in the Manhatten project and the aftermath of Hiroshima. The clip about the photon bag and his attempt to explain how you can get something, in this case a photon, from nothing is also interesting as he uses the concept of the spoken word not existing before we utter them. That I am not sure of and need to think about, perhaps I should use this extra day tomorrow to think about that, it seems worthy of thought. I met Mr Feynman at a party many years ago and somewhere in the attic I have a postcard from him that he sent me afterwards. He was more interested in playing the bongos at the party at the time, I recall than discussing the nature of the universe, whatever that time was; perhaps he knew instinctively that time is relative. I shall attempt to make relative good use of the time this extra day has made available to me. Hope you have used it or will use it well too dear reader, it’s a precious commodity, these constant ticks of the clock.

* Strangely after posting this it appeared on the blog site dated as Wednesday 27th February when in fact I posted it on Thursday 28th February. I seem to have lost a whole day, where did that go, perhaps it disappeared just to balance the added day. Do we have an example of something that cannot really be created merely moved around?

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