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On May 4, time may tell - but only for a moment

It is just a brief blip of time, a blink of the eyelids in the middle of the night, but it is a moment nonetheless that will chime with anyone with a sense of the numerical in everyday life.

At 123 seconds past one o'clock on Thursday morning it will be 01:02:03 04/05/06, a moment of delicious chronological resolution for geeks, doomsayers, and anyone else awake at that hour of night with a date stamp on their digital camera.

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Of course, Americans have already enjoyed this peculiar alignment of time. Because of the US preference for writing month before day, this temporal conjunction occurred on April 5.

And judging by the rich seam of blogs marking the occasion last month, we have nothing to fear. The world didn't end. Things pretty much carried on as they were before, only the earth was another second older. There was a brief controversy when a columnist suggested this was the first and last time such digital perfection would ever be observed. But he was sharply admonished by those who don't do the 24-hour clock (it happened again 12 hours later). And by those already looking forward to the year 2106. And those who could remember 1906. Though in truth there were not too many of those.

What is it that makes us detect patterns and poetry in such random moments? That makes us erect giant clocks to count down to arbitrary points in time such as a new year or millennium or a birthday? Ian Stewart, a math professor with a special interest in pattern formation, says it's actually a skill that has been hard-wired into humans from early years of avoiding predators.

"The human brain is an amazing pattern-recognition machine," he enthuses. "Recognizing patterns is important to us for reasons of survival as much as anything. The outside world is full of all sorts of things that could sneak up on you if you're not very good at image processing."

What, like a particularly treacherous clock? Aha, he says, that's where our instincts fail us. "Our pattern recognition system runs in default mode. It's on all the time, and as soon as we see something happening, we ask if there is some significance." Indeed, dates in particular are always scrutinized for significance. Look at 9/11.

Yet we haven't always been as conscious of date and time. Go back to 1806, say, and no one would have been aware of the 01:02:03 04/05/06 coincidence. Accurate clocks did not exist then; people lived by very different pulses of time. "If you read letters from that period," notes British philosopher A.C. Grayling, "you find it was very rare for people to talk about specific hours of the clock. They would say 'he came in the forenoon, or he came for tea,' not 'he came at 9 or at 4.' "

Mr. Grayling says that while Western man has become enslaved by time, it does not necessarily diminish him. "It has made us ... more conscious of the fact that life is short, and to achieve we have to get on a bit."


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