When astronaut John Glenn commenced mission Mercury-Atlas 6 to become the first American to orbit the Earth, he had something strange strapped to his silver spacesuit: a stopwatch.
Seconds after launch, Glenn starts the stopwatch in sync with tracking stations across the world and at that moment Mission Elapsed Time begins counting up from zero. And so a new timezone shared between a handful of specialists on Earth and one man in space is created: a new epoch.
An epoch is an instant in time chosen as the origin of a particular era […] The epoch moment […] defined from a specific, clear event of change.
That’s the premise behind Time Since Launch, a long-scale clock made by US indy design duo CW&T that I purchased at the start of the month. Functioning like a stopwatch grenade, pulling its pin burns into the Time Since Launch chip that very moment – an action that cannot be undone.
The counter will then tick up for just shy of one million days: 2,739 years.
I pulled my pin at an entirely arbitary time: September 15th 2021 at 05:32. I’ve also done a range of non-pin-pulling related things including decking the house out with Philips Hue lightbulbs and Eve Cameras – I manage the whole lot in Apple’s HomeKit – and I laid my hands on the Astrohaus Freewrite Traveller, an offline ‘smart’ typewriter. I hope it’ll help me write better in a more distraction-free environment.
As well as writing, I’ve been reading. Walking Home by Simon Armitage and Anna McNuff’s trilogy of adventure books – The Pants of Perspective, Fifty Shades of the USA, and Llama Drama – are all fantastic. Anna and I have spoken on a couple of occasions and she’s bloody lovely.
There’s also About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks by David Rooney which unpicks humankind’s fascination with measuring and studying time from GMT to GPS, time as a means to oppress, liberate, time as a weapon, and as a peacekeeping tool. If you’re after a 30-minute viewable version instead, David’s seminar provides a nice overview.
I’m in London for the first time in four months today visiting both the Science Museum and Royal Observatory for a project I’m launching in the new year.
The Science Museum is home to the Clock of the Long Now prototype; a 10,000-year timepiece designed by the Long Now Foundation to tick once a year and chime a unique permutation of bells every day. January 07003 is the Brian Eno album that explores those bells and you can jump to specific dates here.
Another ‘slow clock’ lives at Bristol’s We The Curious which has a whole section dedicated to the exploration of time and our perception of it. I visited to experience their awe-inspiring planetarium and new exhibition, Project What If, for the Activity Quest podcast.
If we truly aspire to a more objective understanding of the world, we have to make use of the advantages to be gained by occupying different intellectual places.
That’s a quote from How The World Thinks by Julian Baggini, another book I’ve been reading this month. With the COP26 climate summit happening in just a few short weeks, our leaders need to fast reckon with the long term effects of short term thinking. Occupying different intellectual places and witnessing different perspectives is perhaps more vital than ever.
The Mysteries of Science team wrapped up season one of their podcast and extended an invitation to write for their Science and Nature magazine a few months ago. Astronauts get a literal different perspective and often come back psychologically changed from seeing the world from afar. It’s a phenomenon known as the Overview Effect and has fascinated me ever since I saw Gaia at Gloucester Cathedral in 2020. That’s what I wrote about and my piece on the Overview Effect is due to be published in The Week Junior’s Science and Nature magazine in the coming weeks. Look for it on better newsstands.
A renewed perspective is also the theme of Russell Brand’s new live show which I saw at Cheltenham Town Hall on the 23rd. Called 33, it’s all about the strangeness of lockdown: What have we learned? What have we not? And how do you ‘get back to normal’ if you’ve never been normal?
Talk of ‘the new normal’ is gauche this far since the epoch moment of March 23rd 2020 when the UK entered its first lockdown. Yet, over the past few weeks, in conversations with friends and colleagues, and as I walk around London and visit museums and galleries and live comedy shows, a realisation has come to pass: the pandemic is over.
Not scientifically – the pandemic is still there – but attitudes towards it have changed. Gradually, we’ve shifted our perspective. The news agenda has moved on, offices have re-opened, restrictions relaxed, the vast majority of people have the most effective vaccine in them, and we’re emerging from the nineteen month tunnel dazzled by a new dawn.
Mercury-Atlas 6 was the name of the mission. The spacecraft itself John got to name. He chose Friendship 7. After three orbits – 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds – John splashed down safely in the North Atlantic. After, he uttered just a few simple words:
We have an infinite amount to learn from both nature and from each other.
I think that sentiment is just as poignant today as it was when John uttered it 59 years ago.
We are in a new epoch – post-pandemic – and we have an infinite amount still to learn.
You’ll next hear from me on November 1st 2021.
01 October 2021