Meet Mrs Dobble

Mrs Dobble arrived into my life unexpectedly. Naturally, she had no clue how long I’d been waiting for her to arrive, to emerge, to be here. I’ve been so enthusiastic to find her that it never occurred to me to stop and think what she would resemble, how she would sound, carry herself, or appear. I just saw her and when she told me her name, I said “Yes, of course,” as if I had already heard about her and known about her existence!

We met at a clock shop. I found her most fascinating. She knows much more about time than I ever cared to find out. I needed to replace my clock, which was why I went to the shop in the first place, but she was paid to study clock behavior – that was her job.

Mrs Dobble convinced me that atomic clocks should belong in my daily vocabulary because they’ve been around since 1948. I had no idea that atomic clocks had paved the way for geographic positioning systems, GPS technology. It made Mrs Dobble glow that I knew so little about time and technology. I barely understood what she was saying but later figured out that the clocks she was referring to are not as precise as we might imagine. Apparently, atomic clocks have a reputation for being half a second away from precision if their precision were to be measured starting from the beginning of time.

M.I.T researchers studying the atomic clock have reported that, taking a closer look at, entangled atoms may further minimize their imprecision down to only 100 milliseconds. It is hard to comprehend what exactly that means, but I’m guessing atoms have the capacity to get tangled up, like hair or string.

I’ve read several articles now, and have noticed that the number of seconds causing imprecision keeps changing “nominally”. The bottom line appears to be, that our clocks are imperfect even though they’ve come a long way from the ancient sun dial. At least that’s what Mrs Dobble said.

When Mrs Dobble first addressed me, I thought she was just trying to attract attention to herself. Later, I started listening and I must say she was good at provoking my curiosity. When I returned home, I looked up some information on the Internet. I discovered that none of this was new. Engineers and scientists have been trying to measure time more precisely ever since Christiaan Huygens invented the 17th century pendulum clock.

For most people, time is no more than the hands on a clock. Some argue, that time is of no consequence because it is a human invention. I’ve met many people who believe precision is a matter of common sense, and that navigation systems are part of elementary general knowledge. Yet, for many others, time is difficult to organize. It can be a mess to manage in daily life with or without any kind of clock.

The incapacity to manage time, despite the availability of measurements in many different forms, sizes, brands and devices, makes me wonder, how as humans we ever managed to get by without the clock. Could it be that the brightest of our ancient ancestors had the capacity to physically oscillate and sync into frequencies, like lasers do into the vibration of atoms, to measure time? Was that talent that led them to become heroes or leaders? Why don’t we hear more about them? I think Marvel Studios should look into the design of such characters from all around the world. Surely there must have been a few before our time.

Mrs Dobble raised her left eyebrow quite sharply when I made that suggestion to her. An elderly gentlemen happened to march into the shop, at that moment, asking in a loud voice if there were any GPS devices in stock. His interruption took away the magnetic connection I felt toward Mrs Dobble, and suddenly I felt rather awkward. It had never occurred to me that a clock shop would sell navigators, not even after that unusual exchange with Mrs Dobble. Well, it turned out the clock shop didn’t sell GPS devices anyway.

I paid the assistant, who made a timely appearance, from the back of the workshop with my mended clock in his hands. I smiled gratefully, looked over and nodded goodbye to Mrs Dobble. Then I headed for the exit. I couldn’t help overhearing the beginning of a conversation between the elderly gentleman and Mrs Dobble. It was about how a GPS receiver in an airplane determines its current position, and course, by comparing the time signals received from satellites, located in high orbits around our Earth. I couldn’t memorize the rest of what they said, but I looked it up and this is what I found. Each satellite carries with it an atomic clock, that runs with 1 nanosecond (1 billionth of a second) of nominal accuracy. My Math is not good enough for me to explain that, but I’ve noticed again that the numbers never cease to change. How I would have loved to stay on at the shop and listen to the end of that conversation. Alas, I’d run out of time, as we all do, and I’ve run out again just now so I won’t say much more except: if you want to find out about the leap second, look it up, but only if you’ve got the time.

Meet Mrs Dobble was written by Nightingale. Visit to discover more nerdy stories like this.

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