Time waits for all men in exhibit

March 23, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Washington -- It is supposed to be the great healer of all wounds, yet we often find ourselves killing it. Sometimes we try to save it -- but more often we can't find enough of it.

Although the race against time now can be calibrated down to the atomic second, it still remains a philosophical puzzle which preoccupies scientists, philosophers and poets alike.

Now, in an effort to understand exactly how time marches on, the National Geographic Society has opened "It's a Matter of Time," an exhibit that explores time from the Big Bang up to the very minute -- and beyond.

". . . Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years," a timely quote from the first chapter of Genesis, greets visitors at the exhibit's entrance.

What follows is a dizzying array of instruments and theories man has used over the centuries to track time, from the Egyptian shadow marker to the Elvis clock where the King's wiggling hips keep rhythm with the sweep second hand.

There are sundials, large and small, sacred and secular. There is an assortment of charts and calendars, from Mayan to Roman to Islamic, for chasing the seasons and stars.

"The Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling would feel right at home in the room filled with an array of pendulum, astronomical, digital and cuckoo clocks. Amid the bongs, chimes and ticking, an atomic clock silently calibrates itself every 20 seconds to Coordinated Universal Time.

There are metronomes for musicians, stopwatches for athletes and even a parking meter -- expired, of course -- for the urban driver.

An early telephone sits next to a satellite dish, exhibiting just how much faster sound is traveling these days.

And nearby, Salvador Dali's surreal masterpiece, "Disintegration of Persistence of Memory," hangs not far from a rare Faberge clock and a Mickey Mouse watch.

While the exhibit shows how humans attempt to break down time into hours, minutes and concepts, it is clear nothing can compare with Mother Nature's authority.

"Our concept of time is to explain the Earth and explain those things going on . . .," said Nancy Beers, exhibit organizer. "We can live longer because we can manipulate certain things, but not the Earth."

The exhibit tracks the relentless ticking of the Earth's biological clock, from the shifting of the continental plates to the migratory patterns of butterflies and the complicated biology that rules the human body's sleep cycle.

Inside the final gallery, where visitors stroll to tunes like "As Time Goes By" and "Time Is on Your Side," the exhibit looks at how we fight to reverse time -- or sometimes try to put it in fast-forward.

All the weapons used in the battle against aging are here, from wrinkle creams and mud baths to Estee Lauder skin gels and Grecian formula for men. In one corner stands the "time accelerator" from the television series "Quantum Leap." Nearby, another souped-up version of H.G. Wells' famous time machine can be seen in videos from the "Back to the Future" movies.

A final look toward the future is provided at the end of the exhibit with the display of a time capsule. Each visitor is offered a card and asked to write down something worth remembering about today's world.

The capsule will be opened in due time, the staff says -- in the year 2001.

"It's a Matter of Time" will be on display until June 14, at The National Geographic Society headquarters at 1145 17th St. N.W. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon-Sat., and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free.

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