Passing time

By Daniel Holz | June 5, 2009 2:10 pm

Flip through a random magazine, and you are likely to be confronted by one of the great mysteries of modern times: an ad for a mechanical watch. Breitling watch adFor the past 30 years it has been possible to acquire a watch with a quartz movement for a minimal investment. These watches are small and light, and do an extraordinary job of keeping time (i.e, drifting by roughly one minute a year). Nonetheless, there is a flourishing market for watches with mechanical movements. These watches are generally large and heavy, are significantly more expensive, and most importantly, are far inferior as time pieces: easily a factor of ten worse than their quartz counterparts. How could there still exist a market for these obviously inferior watches? The answer lies somewhere in the unfathomable realm of fashion and marketing.

Last week’s New Yorker has an article [pay per view] by Patricia Marx about Baselworld 2009, the annual watch fair. Although I find the article annoyingly cutesy, it has some interesting tidbits. I guess there’s little reason to buy these watches besides the ineffable associations with the brand. So watchmakers go to extraordinary lengths to craft and define their brands:

Among the countless blowouts at Baselword, Breitling’s is considered to be the most lavish. A few years back, guests were taken in buses to a quarry that had been transformed into a mythical Persian landscape, appointed with sandpits and palm trees. Camels and white stallions roamed the premises, as did chickens. Guests were given flowing robes and head scarves to wear, and sat on cushions, where they were entertained by belly dancers while being served a Middle Eastern banquet and forbidden hooch. Hookahs were passed around. “Just when you thought it was over,” Roberta Naas, a watch-industry writer, told me, “one of the walls disappeared, revealing Siberian tigers and tiger tamers in cages.” After the animal act, the cages vanished in a puff of smoke, and, lo, another wall lifted and the pseudo oasis turned into a pseudo disco. Another year, at what the Breitling people call their “terrorist party,” the buses were pulled over at an abandoned warehouse by men in full military garb with machine guns, who subjected the passengers to interrogations. Afterward, there was dinner and dancing.

This was all in the middle of Switzerland. For a Swiss watch company. To what end exactly? You obviously can’t sell your watches on the basis of their time-keeping ability, so you craft a completely arbitrary image. And, amazingly, it actually works. Fortunes are being made selling bulky, antiquated, unreliable time pieces. The last paragraph of the article pays homage to the fact that time belongs to physicists:

It turns out that memories may be a thing of the future, if as some physicists believe, time runs backward (backward wristwatch,, $28.95). More bad news: time may be running out of time. Other physicists speculate that our universe could mutate from space-time to just plain space. Time itself would cease to exist. Even your platinum Sotirio Bulgari with a perpetual calendar will be no good then ($212,000).

I have no idea what she’s talking about. Maybe our local expert on the arrow of time will chime in?

Modern humans have a fascination with time: how quickly it passes, what happened yesterday, what will happen tomorrow. I like to believe that physics has a role to play in this. On the one hand, Einstein was so kind as to show that time is a fairly complicated, observer-dependent quantity. And thus the only time that is really meaningful is, in some sense, the time we measure on our own watches. So we had better keep track! On the other hand, we have now firmly established that the Universe has not been around forever. It is only 14 billion years old. There is a huge psychological difference between living in an eternal Universe and one that has a finite history. It’s now incumbent upon us to keep track of the Universe’s age. Unfortunately, we’re still a little unclear as to the Universe’s life expectancy. Current indications are that the dark energy will continue to accelerate the Universe’s expansion, and therefore the Universe will last forever (instead of ending in a Big Crunch). However, given how little we understand about dark energy, this is at best an educated guess—nobody would be all that surprised if it turned out to be a much more complicated scenario. And so, in this framework of a Universe with a finite age, and an uncertain future, it makes sense to keep careful track of the passage of time. It is now 3:10:12 PM Mountain Standard Time on Friday, June 5. I need to get back to work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Miscellany

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