Hawaiian-born Reyn Nakamoto, 32, needs to know the time. Living in Pacific Standard Time and working in Japanese Standard Time while still keeping up with Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time, the Vancouver-based Japanese-American is one of many global citizens for whom tracking time is especially important.
“If I couldn’t tell the time, it would be pretty jarring,” says Nakamoto, who works as a software engineer for a Japanese IT company. After two years in a long-distance relationship, Nakamoto finally moved to Vancouver in 2011 to be with his girlfriend, whom he met in 2006.
According to timeanddate.com and thetimenow.com/, the number of standard time zones around the world is either 24 or 25, depending on one’s definition of time zones versus the International Date Line. The economic and political significance of time-zones, in addition to ever-increasing demands in communication technology, transportation and environmental systems, makes the job of the scientists at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada particularly crucial.
“[Time] is one of the most fundamental ways we organize the world,” says Prof. Russell Redman, a radio astronomer at the NRC, the organisation in charge of maintaining official time for the country.
Redman, who is based at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in his hometown of Victoria, B.C., emphasizes the historical and cultural significance of time measurement.
“We pick up strange threads of history with time-keeping,” he says.
The current internationally accepted scale of time, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), runs on atomic clocks, which are kept synchronized all over the world to a precision of about three nanoseconds – that is, three billionths of a second. For Redman, this precision is a profound development from the traditional method of using the day as the fundamental unit for time measurement.
“In precise time-keeping, the day is actually a sloppy unit,” says Redman, who points out that the changes in the length of the day over the course of a year are about 100,000 times larger than the precision of a second. In fact, due to a gradual slowing of the Earth’s rotation, the current day is off by almost eight hours from what it was during the Roman Empire.
For feng shui master Jerry King, the science of time measurement has different implications.
“When is it a good time for you to make high risk investments, to get married…[or] to buy property can all be calculated,” says King, founder and president of White Dragon Consulting.
King, who is fluent in English, Chinese and Spanish, and has knowledge of Arabic, is also a big fan of the history of time-keeping. According to the Vancouver-based polyglot, the Chinese calendar system founded on the Five Element Theory has been in use for over 4000 years in China.
The Five Element Theory is based on the idea that the energies of five elements – water, wood, earth, fire and metal – are all active to different degrees depending on the year, day, hour, place or direction. Originally used for agricultural purposes to determine the best planting and harvesting cycles, the theory was eventually found to be equally effective for individuals, whose luck could be calculated based on the specific interplay of energies present at the time of birth.
“This is all logic,” says King, who has written a number of articles with predictions about world leaders and celebrities, including Kim Jong-Un and Justin Bieber.
Another culture with a strong belief in the interconnectedness of nature, people and time is the Maya.
“The Maya think of time as divine,” says University of British Columbia professor Marvin Cohodas, an expert in Maya art history and an exhibited basket weaver. “All deities have life cycles and they are regenerated.”
Cohodas explains that an understanding of the Maya calendar, which consists of several cycles or counts of different lengths with no correlation to seasonal changes, depends on knowledge of the agricultural cycles of maize. From the annual planting, growing and ripening of their staple crop, the Maya draw parallel concepts of dying, transformation and rebirth.
“In the same way that maize sustains people, people sustain maize,” says Cohodas, indicating that such co-dependency blurs the distinction between agriculture and religion.
“Maize is divine… like the whole cosmos, it goes through cycles of destruction and creation,” he says.
As for the purported apocalypse at the end of the Maya long-count calendar on December 21, 2012, Cohodas makes some clarifications.
“The ancient Maya view was the cosmos would be recycled. The Maya today think it’s a good chance for a kind of renewal,” he says.
Nakamoto, who is not religious, is not worried about the end of the world. However, if given the opportunity, he would love to be able to travel back in time to explore the origins of such beliefs.
“I want to investigate…see what actually happened and how it affected people,” he says. For now, tracking the present is most important.