Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

24 MARCH, 2014

The Timekeeper: Behind the Scenes of Humanity’s Most Accurate Atomic Clocks, Which Dictate Our Daily Lives

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“Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.”

Since the beginning of human existence, we have sought to understand time, to map it, to hack it, to standardize it, and to perfect our bodily experience of it. We have turned it into our civilization’s greatest meme and have probed it with our most unrelenting scientific rigor. Today, time not only dictates the rhythms of our daily lives but is also at the center of our digital universe — and yet it remains largely misunderstood by us lay people.

In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.

Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.

[…]

In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.

Complement it with Dan Falk’s excellent In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, a fine addition to these 7 excellent books about time, then revisit the curious psychology of why we experience time as elastic.

via The Dish

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21 MARCH, 2014

We Are Made of Dead Stuff: Amazing Animation Made of Leaves

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“You and most of the matter in your body are just two or three degrees of separation from things like pond scum.”

The notion that we are all stardust, a poetic observation we owe to Carl Sagan, is among the most inspired insights of modern science — an essential reminder that the atoms in our bodies are made of really old stuff, stuff as old as the universe. But while dead stars in our distant past may be poetic, dead stuff in our immediate present is not so much. And yet, it turns out, you and everyone else you know are just two degrees of separation from detritus — the decomposing matter, or dead stuff, that is the secret ingredient of the food chain. That’s exactly what John C. Moore explores in this short film from TED Ed, directed by Biljana Labovic and featuring intricate, impossibly lovely foliage creatures designed by Celeste Lai based on animator Lisa LaBracio’s lifelong leaf collection.

You and most of the matter in your body are just two or three degrees of separation from things like pond scum. All species in an ecosystem — from the creatures in a coral leaf to the fish in a lake to the lions in the savannah — are directly or indirectly nourished by dead stuff.

Complement with Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem’s poignant and poetic account of the ecosystem of which we are a part — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes neglectfully, but always inescapably — then revisit Whale Fall, a lyrical animation about the afterlife of dying whales.

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19 MARCH, 2014

Happy Birthday, Standard Time: How the Railroads Gave Us Time Zones

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How the quest to prevent train collisions forever changed the global clock.

Our internal time, distorted as it is, may dictate a great deal of our lives, but it is external time — the scientific and cultural conventions of timekeeping — that anchors the rhythms of society. One of those most central timekeeping anchors was born on March 19, 1918, when the United States government passed the Standard Time Act — a federal law formalizing the concept of time zones. In this short animation from TED Ed, historian William Heuisler tells the fascinating story of how the railroad revolution led to the establishment of Standard Time, a seemingly simple development the impact of which profoundly shaped our everyday lives:

Complement with the curious psychology of time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped when we’re on vacation, then revisit these 7 excellent books about time.

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