Monday, June 14, 2010

Time keeps on ticking away

Monday night.  Monday nights are not exceptionally exciting in any particular way.  It's time to recover from the shock that you, once again, must face the fact that another weekend is over and work must happen.  This time of year, there's not even Monday Night Football to soothe your pain.  Or even "Dancing with the Stars" or "How I Met Your Mother" (and just when is this mother going to show up?!?  I'm losing patience).  Yes, I often turn to mindless television at night.  It's a nice escape mechanism.

So what do you do in order to jazz up a Monday night?  Find a new TV show...or take a tour of the U.S. Naval Observatory.  Granted, this may not sound very exciting, but it's definitely a step above re-runs.  And besides...I have a fascination, some might even say an obsession, with organization and scheduling out my entire life day.  Mom even says my first word was "clock," which frightens me a little bit - hard consonants, really?  Probably scared her, too.  So, what better place for me to visit than where they keep official time?  Fascinating!!

This is one of those random "hey, you should do this in D.C.!" things I discovered, and about three months ago I submitted my name for a tour.  Three months.  There are apparently a lot of people out there just as fascinated with clocks as I am.  I mean, when you're promised "a presentation of the mission and history of the Naval Observatory, a view of USNO's timekeeping responsibilities with a presentation/explanation of the Master Clock System, and (weather permitting) viewing of celestial objects with the 12-inch Alvan Clark refractor with an astronomer," and they only happen on Monday nights, then I guess you get a backlog of nerds people really interested in this kind of thing.

Stephanie and I met up after work last week to embark on this DC adventure, and after being mildly admonished by security from walking straight up the driveway instead of through the scary pedestrian gate, we proceeded to make it through the rest of our security checkpoints without incident.  We then spent a little too much time in a room with thirty-five other people while our fearless leader proceeded to tell us pretty much everything you'd ever want to know about how time has been kept (remarkably precisely, I might add) over the years while waiting for the sun to set so we could see cool things through the super-old telescope (built in 1892!).

I could go into a fantastically long diatribe on time right now, but I'll refrain - the much cooler part of the night was looking through the telescope.  Just know that the USNO Master Clock (currently a system of dozens of independently operating cesium atomic clocks and a dozen hydrogen maser clocks) ensures that the USNO time scale's rate does not change by more than about 100 picoseconds (0.0000000001 seconds!!) per day.

Fortunately, the weather was cooperating (exceptionally well, actually - it was freakishly cool after about a few too many steamy days that felt like August AND the sky was clear!  woohoo!), so we made our way over to the crazy-old, super-cool telescope and saw Venus and Saturn.  Rings, moons, everything.  Sciencetastic!

Stephanie checking out Venus

Apparently I was on the "Al Observatory Tour" - nice work, thumb

It's the government - of course they take this tour business very seriously

After some quality telescope time, we shifted over to the other end of the building to check out another crazy-old telescope and pay a visit to the James Melville Gilliss Library, home to a smorgasbord of old and impressive stuff )other than just old and impressive books and journals), including a selection of clocks, engravings, globes, and an adorable fountain in the middle that helped serve as temperature/humidity control back in the days before good ol' central air.  We saw a copy of Newton's Arithmetica Universalis, flipped through the 2010 Nautical Almanac, and got a quick lesson in how to use a sextant (you know, in case any of us end up lost at sea but just happen to have this handy device around).

After a little bit of science overload, we thanked our guides for the evening and headed toward the gate...and were nearly attacked by a deer.  Ok, perhaps a little dramatic, but seeing as how the USNO is surrounded by forest and it was dark on the walk back, the smallish deer that made a brief scamper in the general direction of the path was enough to provoke a couple of girlish squeals and gasps.  Little touches o' nature, right here in the city.  With the telescopes.  And the time ball that drops at noon.  And oodles of atomic clocks, enabling us to use things like GPS.  Science is cool.

1 comment:

Girl Interrupted said...

Woah! And time always seems like such a simple thing! Bet it was interesting though.

Ps: The wording on that badge scared me a little bit, the US Government really ought to add a knock-knock joke on the end, or a slightly risque limerick, just to lighten things up a little.