Transcripts

DC Gigs: They Call Him 'Father Time'

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So it's been nearly a week since we official sprang forward, and moved our clocks ahead an hour. And that's made us here at "Metro Connection" think a lot about time, and how we keep track of it. Well, turns out, one of the people tasked with that very job lives and works right here in D.C. Demetrios Matsakis heads the Time Service Department at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Jocelyn Frank recently met up with Matsakis for this month's edition of D.C. Gigs. And she found out that to keep time from running away, the Time Service Department is locked up pretty tight.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:00:40
Now we're entering though one double locked door. And now if you look inside through this glass, you see what looks like a giant water heater. The parts cost about $600,000 for this clock. They consist of lasers. The technology behind it was the subject of maybe four or five Nobel prizes. It's a rubidium fountain. Atoms inside are treated just like a water fountain. They are shot up, and they come down, and they fall down, sprinkle down. And on the way, they are interrogated to get their time. One of these can measure time frequency to 16 decimal points. Therefore, you are now looking at the most precise operational instrument -- measurement system ever built by mankind.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:01:34
My name is Demetrios Matsakis. Some people call me Father Time, other people say I'm one of the time lords, which would be all the people around the world that do this. But my official title is Department Head of the Time Service Department at the Naval Observatory. And that's what I put down on my forms. I have no business cards.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:02:07
Here we maintain about 100 atomic clocks, and we use those clocks to measure those clocks to measure the time. I don't wear a watch, I never have worn a watch. I consider myself very punctual, but other people might not think so. There's a term called fashionably late, and sometimes that's appropriate.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:02:30
We're not entering in the chamber. Okay, this temperature is a little high for humans in here. This is a maser that generates a signal that it syncs, it's five megahertz. And some people think that's the master clock, but when it gets fed into the auxiliary output generator, it gets shifted by a little bit to generate five megahertz. So other people think that's the master clock. You have the output of another box, which generates one pulse per second, and other people think that's the master clock. But really, the master clock is everything together, including the humans, and the security guards that protect us, and the taxpayers that fund us.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:03:12
So I guess we are all on edge. Equipment breaks, that's why we have redundant equipment, so there's always something going. The master clock itself, the components that I showed you, have failed. They failed three times since I've been director. Two of the times, I was on an airplane, waiting to take off, and the other time, I was on my way to my son's marriage. People went and they dealt with it.

MR. DEMETRIOS MATSAKIS

00:03:36
I think of this movie, I think it was called "Ted and Somebody's Excellent Adventure," where they are wandering around time. And first when they're wandering, they see themselves coming back from the future, and those coming back from the future project great confidence, which inspires them, the original people, to continue. And so here we are struggling to understand what science is about, where the world is going, we can project great confidence to the world, but really we're just all struggling along, trying to figure out what's going on.

SHEIR

00:04:08
That was Demetrios Matsakis of the U.S. Naval Observatory's Time Service Department, speaking with reporter Jocelyn Frank. If you have a distinctively D.C. gig you think we should feature on the show, let us know. Send an email to metro@wamu.org, or send us a tweet, our handle is @wamumetro.

SHEIR

00:04:54
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Emily Berman, Jonathan Wilson and Kavitha Cardoza, along with reporter Jocelyn Frank. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Robbie Feinberg. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" is from the album Title Tracks by John Davis, and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. All the music we use is listed on our website, that's metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. Also on metroconnection.org you can read free transcripts of stories. And if you missed part of today's show, you can hear the whole thing online any time. You can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher.

SHEIR

00:05:45
We hope you can join us next week when we'll dive into the world of design. We'll check out the plans for a new monument to D.C.'s godfather of go-go, we'll learn about Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who not only designed dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln, but designed ways for freed slaves and wounded civil war soldiers to have a better life. Plus, we'll chronicle the rise of a certain structure you'll find all over Washington's urban landscape.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:06:10
There's some that move up and down, there's some that move to the side to side, there's some that have lights, there's some that don't have lights, and then there's some that are just immovable.

SHEIR

00:06:18
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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