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Clockwatching

Andrew C. Thomas

It only hits me every so often how impatient I can get at times -- or, for that matter, how impatient any of us are. One simple example: At 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning, a countdown timer starts in our heads.

It begins at a reading of 104 hours.

This, of course, represents the amount of time left until Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. I once noticed a physical example of this timer on a downtown billboard. It was placed there courtesy of a beer company, to remind us that fun, relaxation, and the consumption of their particular brand of fine pilsner was only, say, 52 hours away, if noted on Wednesday around lunch time.

Once I’m aware of this timer -- or, any other society-, work-, or self-imposed countdown -- it occupies my field of vision.

Lectures, sadly, have the same condition, where the passage of the second hand of the clock becomes far more interesting than the lecturer’s words. Even at fun events like hockey games, as the clock drops slowly to zero, attention can often waver from the action on the ice to the countdown of the digits. Just to reinforce this, for some reason, the game clock will go from counting seconds to tenths of seconds at the one-minute mark. While this is done for scoring purposes, surely the organizers believe that the game will be more exciting if the clock, which at this point in the game has likely become a critical focus of attention, has become an order of magnitude more interesting.

Now, it seems that a vast number of people succumb to this condition of clockwatching, and determine the passage of their lives according to whatever chronometer they can follow. C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors, said in his novel The Screwtape Letters, “The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” As true as this statement is, it is nowhere near the truth of human experience, especially as seen by the hockey clock.

The entire experience of which I speak is directly reflective of our own interpretation of the world around us. Albert Einstein was an incredible scientist because of his imagination. A favorite quote of mine directly reflects human nature: “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” Certainly he understands the power within all of us to perceive the world at different rates. No doubt everyone has experienced the feeling that the first 10 minutes of an exam seem to go by at a much slower rate than the last 10.

A larger timescale imposes itself here at MIT, that of the long weekend. We have the luxury of an extra day of rest every few weeks, and a rather large number of MIT students set their internal calendars to the passing of these dates. Perhaps their workloads require them to work across normal weekends, and the extra day is somehow essential to their well-being. Maybe they just don’t know how to manage their time well enough in order to make use of the weekend in order to rest. But the beat of the MIT heart this November will certainly be calibrated to Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving.

Every time I walk through the Infinite Corridor, I make a point of checking the time twice -- once at Lobby 7, and once at the open nanotech lab in building 8. Perhaps I’m trying to calibrate my entire life to these two clocks. Maybe I should try to get distracted by many more interesting things that will draw my attention away. Try putting your watches in your pockets -- see how much different the world looks when you stop trying to line your view of it up to its physical rotation.

You might be amazed.