Monday, January 28, 2008

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

People ask you what time it is all the time on the plane. I have never known what to say. Seems like you should just be able to say it's 2:30. But I discovered early on that it's more complicated than just adjusting for time zones. There is a very simple and eerily sci-fi truth to telling time on an aircraft: there is no time in the air. Think about it. If you're on the ground, you're in either one time zone or another. But off the ground, you're technically in neither; your old time doesn't apply, but you're not in your new time yet.
That's the cheap answer. The real grit lies, again, in quantum mechanics. Ever heard of Schrödinger's Cat? Well, it's an interesting but fundamentally silly model of what's called superposition in quantum kinematics. Superposition (as it relates to quantum mechanics) is all the states a subatomic particle can be in, all at once. This guy Erwin Schrödinger, in an effort to prove that the Copenhagen interpretation (which says that superposition stops being all the states and settles on an actual state only when it's observed) was kind of a wonky model, so he came up with his cat idea. There's a cat, an atom, and a Geiger counter wired to some poison, all sealed in a box. If the atom is not radioactive (one of its states), nothing happens, and that's good for the cat. But if the atom is radioactive (another state), it sets off the Geiger counter, which releases the poison and BOOP dead cat. What he's saying is that, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of superposition, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive, and will remain that way indefinitely until you open the box.
Schrödinger's Cat is a perfect model for non-Greenwich time in an aircraft. Inside the sealed cabin, which is within the continental United States, time could be expressed in one of four time zones, the superposition of which tells us that if it's one in the afternoon in LA, it's one, two, three, and four in the afternoon in the cabin. And according to the Copenhagen interpretation, it will remain all four times continually until we land, open the door, and a passenger sees a clock on land. This is why I refuse to cross the international date line.
I could explain all this whenever a passenger asks me what time it is. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg really want me to. But I never do. Instead, I lie like a cheap rug and say it's 2:30.


Blogger AkuTyger said...

Good explanation! I like the idea of being a time bubble while flying. It must keep you young - imagine spending at that time with no existence of time! Of course, one of our best friends here just says that time doesn't exist when he's on the ground either - time was created to make us feel stressed out and meet deadlines. Time is the reason we have no utopias and never will. Time is our enemy.

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love it when you use words i cannot pronounce out loud (or even in my head, really.) they exist simultaneously in their spoken state which i cannot experience and in their un-pronounceable state which is also simultaneously understandable or not depending on whether i do or do not have wikipedia open in a parallel universe or window or...


11:38 PM  
Blogger Phil said...


There, I've ruined it for you. And I bet you also had the same thing going on with Hermione until the first Harry Potter movie came out, ha ha.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it GUY-GER? GEE-GER sounds so festive, and I think you would want to avoid that.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

I know, it seems like it would be GUY-GER. But all you have to do is imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger with his hand held in a vise by Panamania bad guys, shouting, "GEIGER! GEIGER!" and you'll know which one is correct.

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm still freaked out that you know about my hermoine thing. i was reading that book out loud to my kids for months INCORRECTLY! and i have a grad degree in english lit. i should have gone for the phd and become a flight attendant.


10:20 PM  
Blogger Head in the Clouds said...

OK- so I realize that this comment is way out of date-- but I got hooked on your blog after reading about it on Aviatrix's (is that the proper grammar?) blog. Since you're on an airplane-- you could always respond in zulu time. That's what we're taught in flight training- everything in the air is given in zulu (GMT) time. Depending on the time of year, it's either four or five hours ahead of Eastern time. Either way, it's constant-- doesn't change with your time zone!

12:34 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

If I were a jumpmaster on a C-130 headed into a combat zone, you can be assured that's the way I'd do things. But I have enough trouble with people freaking out when I tell them what time they already THINK it is. If I said 'zulu' to them, they'd look for my spear.
But to be fair, I freaked out when I saw the G.M.T. clock in the flight deck for the first time. And don't worry about being out of date... I'm reading this from the future.

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't you just say, "It's 20 after," or "quarter 'till," or something, without reference to the small hand?

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never mind, I know the answer to that. They'd ask, "20 after WHAT?"

10:12 AM  

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