Thursday, May 7, 2009

Time Travel

I was awake a bit before 5 this morning. It was on account of the cat, but since this post is about time travel rather than alien beings, I'll say no more about that.

Anyway, since I was up, I thought I'd check to see if my son, Evan, was online. Given the modern miracle of instant messaging, I was able to text Evan the question this morning, "Are you still awake tomorrow?", to which he could have replied, "Yes, what are you doing up so early yesterday?". 

You see, Evan is spending an academic year in Wellington, New Zealand. Due to the difference in hemisphere, the academic year in New Zealand is from March through November, and May is the onset of autumn. Confused? We're just getting started....
Wellington is five hours behind Spokane on the clock at present, but one day ahead on the calendar. I say "at present", because Wellington was but three hours behind Spokane in clock time when Evan arrived in New Zealand in February. Then we shifted to Daylight Savings Time in March, and he shifted off of it in April, bringing us to the five hour difference.

The calendar difference between Wellington and Spokane is the result of our being on opposite sides of the International Date Line. Until Evan's trip I had but the scarcest awareness of its reality, and no understanding of its history. The former started to sink in when we noted on Evan's itinerary that he flew out of Los Angeles on January 31st, and landed in Auckland on February 2nd. Were he asked by some prosecutor where he was on February 1st, 2009, he could rightly answer that he had experienced no such day.

Apparently written speculation about the International Date Line goes back to at least the 14th century, where a Jewish Talmudic commentary refers to the beginning of day six hours east of Jerusalem. Later, Magellan's voyage took his ship and crew across the International Date Line from east to west. This was experienced as the "loss" of a day, for whereas the chronicler of the voyage had tracked the passage of days for three years, and knew that the date of the ship's arrival in the Cape Verde Islands was Wednesday, July 9, 1522, a Portuguese resident of the islands claimed that it was Thursday, July 10th. This was initially determined to be the result of cultural differences between the Spanish and the Portuguese, not unlike the experience of flying back to Indiana and feeling that the calendar has been turned back twenty years.

Magellan was not the last of the great explorers to experience the International Date Line. Sir Francis Drake's crew lost a day sailing westward around the world in 1577-1580. And of course, Evan Bredeweg missed out on February 1st.

I can't help but wonder what it feels like to make this crossing, which I hope to accomplish in November. If one were at sea level, instead of 35,000 feet, would there be any sensation of time's passage? Would there be a blurring of vision or strange musical interlude as in science fiction movies? I imagine the crossing to feel like going over a high spot on a country road, or the apex of a roller coaster rise. I imagine Magellan's crew and Drake's crew sailing merrily back and forth, north-south along the Date Line squealing and laughing until grog came out of their noses. But that's just me.

We'll see how our crossing feels in November. For now I'm left calculating what Evan is doing tomorrow, glad that he will think of us and maybe give us a call yesterday. And I'm happy that love and caring are realities that extend beyond place and time. Come to think of it, we knew that even before the 14th century.

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