There’s a story in The Australian today about a proposal to abolish the “leap seconds” that keep “official” time in line with the turning of the Earth around the sun. Instead, “official” time will be tied to the oscillations of Caesium atoms, and we’ll wait till there’s a whole hour’s difference before adding a “leap”.
The story mentions in passing that this change would have significant cultural implications: “We’d be decoupling our clocks from what the Sun is telling us”, says Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society. I think this thought could (should?) be more thoroughly explored.
We define things by what we think is most important. That technical details and oscillations of atoms are more important than the length of time it takes the actual Earth to rotate and to orbit the actual Sun suggests to me that the “real world” is less culturally important than the “technicalities”. The model is more important than the reality that it is modelling. More than that, it suggests that the real world is not just less important, it’s unimportant. And a culture which prefers conceptualisations rather than the “real” world has the potential to get itself in big trouble.
Just look at our current financial crisis, for example. The “model” for wealth and success – capitalism, consumerism, share prices and image before all else – has not matched reality. The trouble is that now we need to break out of our comfortable little model and look hard at what’s happening in the real world. We also need to look at the definitions our model gave the word success and importance. An exclusive focus on money, at the expense of ethics, fairness, health, etc, has produced a model that judges success by money alone. The new model we need needs to start from some different and more socially aware definitions of “important”. Even better, our new model would include “looking clearly at reality” as something that’s important.
* Pun intended.