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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
The perfect time
By John Hand
BBC News

Check the clocks, you'll need to be spot on to celebrate

For those working through the night or just staying up late, it promises to be a time when clockwatching should be positively encouraged.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, the clock ticks past a time which is sure to appeal to the statistically-minded or just those who like a little bit of order in their lives.

For just a second - naturally - the time will be exactly 01:02:03 on 04/05/06.

Or at least it will be in the UK and the majority of countries which list dates in day and month order. In the US, the same phenomenon was observed on 5 April.

And, boy, was it observed. Hundreds of American bloggers took the opportunity to pay their own tribute to this segment of time, with many aiming to upload updates at the precise second it occurred.

The blogs also prompted plenty of debate as to how often such times come about.

22,880 is earned
22,800 is spent
174 credit and debit card transactions
One in 44 chance someone will be born
Six people start plane journeys, 69 catch a train and 145 hop on a bus
Britons travel an average 4.2cm
150 donated to charity
One in 102 chance of a wedding taking place
881.53 spent on alcohol and cigarettes
(Based on Office of National Statistics annual figures)

For fans of "sequential times" - the Oxford English Dictionary has no official term but this is the most common tag - the grandest of all came in 1989, when clock-watchers enjoyed the spectacle of 01:23:45 on 6/7/89.

That was hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience - although quite a few people got excited 13 months later when 12:34:56 on 7/8/90 ticked by.

And at the start of the new millennium, when many ushered in a new era with loved ones or savoured the hyperextended licensing hours, clock-watchers held out an extra two minutes to welcome the start of a whole plethora of palindromes.

First there was 00:02:11 on 1/1/2000, which was itself overshadowed 10 days later at 00:02:10 on 11/01/2000, the first fully palindromic time (with all units written in full) of the 21st Century.

In fact there have been so many palindromic times since then, that there must surely be a young Bob, Eve, Elle or Hannah out there who can claim to have had a truly symmetrical birth.

Test yourself

Recurring patterns in our times and dates are also occurring more frequently in this decade. Labour seized the opportunity to seek a third electoral success on 05/05/05, although the fact there were no polling booths open at 05:05:05 must have spoiled many a voter's plans.

Johnny Ball
How much time will elapse between 01:02:03 and 03:02:01?
Answer at bottom of page

And with the onset on 06:06:06 on 06/06/06 this summer, there are tabloid reports of mothers-to-be seeking to induce their labour before that time - if only to avoid constant cracks about "the number of the beast" from relatives.

But now that no-one seriously expects the world's computers to go into Millennium Bug-style meltdown when confronted with such sequences, do such times hold any significance?

Even at the UK's home of time - the Greenwich Royal Observatory - staff are divided on how much attention they should give to tonight's notable run of numbers.

Senior astronomer Dr Robert Massey is definitely in the enthusiastic camp: "This reflects the beauty of mathematics. If I'm awake and I remember, I'll diligently watch that second tick by. We'll have an overnight team here and we'll make sure to tell them to watch the clock.

"It's a bit of fun but it's also a reflection that in this digital age we can all measure time a lot more accurately than we could have when this kind of sequence happened in previous centuries."

However, the man responsible for ensuring all the clocks at Greenwich are accurate - Jonathan Betts, the curator of horology - is less easily impressed.

"I'm a bit too practical about such things. This kind of thing is quite an artificial concept - you can spin these numbers so many ways - so it doesn't mean too much to me. There won't be too many of us getting misty eyed at the passing of that particular second."

One man who could be relied on to show some enthusiasm and to point the way to some equally significant times to come in the long-term future is that hero of thirtysomething maths geeks everywhere, Johnny Ball.

The former host of BBC One's Think Of A Number series says of the 01:02:03 04/05/06 time: "That really is a beautiful time. Being a mathematician, I am of course happier when we have a true sequence with the units also ascending from smallest to largest so I'll be celebrating at 03:02:01 as well.

"In fact, your readers may like to mark the occasion by working how much time will elapse between 01:02:03 and 03:02:01 - they should be quite pleased when they discover the answer." (Answer at the bottom of this page if you're still scratching your head.)

BBC Radio 2's Janice Long

Listeners of Janice Long's Radio 2 show suggested these songs:

5-4-3-2-1 - Manfred Mann
Once In A Lifetime - Talking Heads
Rock Around The Clock - Bill Haley
The Timewarp - Rocky Horror Cast
Time After Time - Cyndi Lauper
Living Numbers - New Musik
Any song by The Magic Numbers

"Being a mathematician, I remember being quite struck when my son was born on 19/8/76. He wasn't born at 5:43:21 but I did make sure I went to the pub five minutes and 43 seconds after his arrival.

"These numbers are always fascinating. I was at Butlins in 1961 when I was just starting out in showbusiness and I made a special sign marking the year which you could flip upside down to show it was a reverse palindrome.

"I had to take my chance then because it was a long time to the next one. 2005 just about works but only in this digital age (ie if you're looking at it on a calculator rather than writing it down). If you don't count twos and fives, then the next date you can turn upside down without changing it is 8008, although 6009 is quite exciting as it's a revolving palindrome."

For those in Britain who want to mark the occasion, BBC Radio 2's night-time DJ Janice Long says her listeners would not want such an esteemed second to slip by unnoticed and have been e-mailing with suggestions of suitable records to play immediately after the 1am news bulletin.

Answer: one hour, 59 minutes, 58 seconds

Long said: "It's quite a unique moment and quite a special moment when you think about it because at that time of night, more people are actually listening rather than having the radio on as background. So there'll be plenty of people celebrating with us when the time comes."

Did you stay up to witness the moment? Did it show the "beauty of mathematics"? Are you a fan of sequential times?

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