Take five!

If you have a wristwatch, glance at it now and mark the time. Alternatively check your phone or the task bar of your computer screen. What time is it?

As I write, the latest Spacex / NASA mission is preparing to launch four astronauts to the ISS. It was due to take place yesterday but was postponed due to unfavourable weather conditions. With all the accuracy of the instruments on board, the computers charged with manning the mission and the lives of the people involved, it was still feasible to postpone due to the weather.

Timekeeping, as we know it, was really only significantly developed by the Egyptians about 3,000 years ago when, using a primitive sundial, they first divided the hours of sunlight into twelve distinct segments. The further division of those hours into minutes and seconds really only became possible with the invention of mechanical clocks which could maintain a consistent ‘beat’ or’ tick’. How we keep time now and the intricacies of Universal Time Code (UTC) are superfluous to this discussion, suffice to note the stark contrast between the accuracy of a modern-day atomic clock and the observation of a shadow cast by a stick in the ground.

It is easy to imagine prehistoric man heading off for a day’s hunting and telling his ‘wife’ that he would be home before the shadow of the tree pointed to the large black rock on the other side of the clearing. She no doubt would have had some approximate idea as to when she should expect him to return but would not necessarily begin to fret were he a few ‘minutes’ late. The accuracy of their clock was open to a little interpretation. Although it is equally easy to imagine her remonstrations if his return was delayed beyond the setting of the sun – at which time she would justifiably begin to wonder if he had taken up residence in the cave of her younger and infinitely better-looking neighbour. I digress!

Let me get back on track by posing a question based on the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’

Although unconfirmed, it certainly appears possible that the Egyptians realised the need for a better method of delineating the hours of the day out of sheer and continuous frustration with the fact that they were unable to arrange (and attend) important meetings with sufficient accuracy. If the shadow stick in the centre of the city was the only point of reference, it meant that anyone wishing to know the time would first have to travel to the stick to observe the shadows. Rather than just glancing at the watch on your wrist, if you lived in Egypt back in the day, a trip to the city centre was required – to view the shadow cast by the stick.

But what if, when you arrived, you were early – or even worse, late? The Egyptians obviously resolved to define the day in terms of twelve segments – to make more efficient use of the daylight hours. As a society develops, interactions between its members become more frequent and the necessity to efficiently delineate the day into some commonly-agreed segments becomes critical. We have been getting increasingly ‘accurate’ in our timekeeping ever since which, naturally, brings with it an inherent frustration when good timekeeping is absent.

A couple of years ago I was able to claim €400 when my Ryanair flight was delayed for over four hours. Clearly the airline industry relies on exacting standards of timekeeping to maintain services at optimum levels but it is not just the airline industry that suffers when standards lapse. Virtually every item of digital equipment we take for granted in our modern lives has some sort of timekeeping device underlying its operation. From the microwave oven in the kitchen to the communications satellite orbiting the planet, the exact marking of the time of day is virtually ubiquitous.

Ultra-exact timekeeping devices of today rely on the electromagnetic signal emitted from a Caesium atom (to an inaccuracy of perhaps 1 second in 30 millions years) whereas those of our ancestral cave-dwellers were based solely on the length or direction of a shadow, determined by the position of the planet with respect to the sun.

Somewhere in between these two timekeeping methods we now live our lives but, admittedly, it would be unfair to request a meeting with someone at 12:03.

So, for the convenience of both parties, we round our meetings to the nearest hour, half, quarter, sixth or twelfth of an hour. It is notable that we have not yet become so busy as to begin requesting meetings in terms of less than a five minute window. Were someone to ask to see me at 12:03 I would happily walk into the meeting at 12:00 or 12:05 without feeling the need to apologise for the lapse in my timekeeping. In fact, I would probably feel obliged to make some throwaway comment on their own timekeeping system!

But, if we are becoming increasingly accurate in our observance of time, there is no reason to believe that this trend might not continue – to the point that those sub-five-minute time slots for meetings start becoming commonplace. I, for one, do not wish to live in a world where one is so busy that five minutes one way or the other becomes critical to success or failure.

As a kid, I used to run everywhere – constantly afraid I was going to be late for something. I rarely was and that running behaviour has long-since ceased. If I arrive a little late (usually due to some uncontrollable external influence) I will make my apologies but it is typically of no great catastrophe and of no real consequence in the overall scheme of things.

Man invented the concept of an hour, a minute, a second, a millisecond and so on down to the single electromagnetic pulse from the Caesium atom but, thus far, the five minute segment has stood us in good stead. If Spacex and NASA can wait 24 hours, surely you can take 5 minutes for yourself!

Note: this article should take an average reader less than 5 minutes to read.