Against Universal Time
Time zones were a good idea when they were invented in 1883. But today, they cause more trouble than they're worth. pic.twitter.com/w5OoBYSyYV
— Vox (@voxdotcom) March 11, 2018
Sunday morning, in the wake of our yearly leap forward to Daylight Savings Time, Vox ran the above video arguing that we should simply abolish time zones and establish a universal time. Their argument is that this would simplify a lot of things. For example, if I set up a teleconference at 1 pm, I wouldn’t need to tell people what time zone that is. They would all just call in at 1 pm, whether that corresponds to morning, evening or afternoon at their location.
At first blush, this doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. Our time zones are rather arbitrary in some ways, put together mainly to eliminate the confusion of cities all over the world having their own local time. It is a bit of pain to coordinate things like teleconference and remind everyone of what local time it corresponds to for them. Moreover, this would not be unprecedented. China has one time zone for the entire country and it appears to be a mild inconvenience at worst.
On the other hand, China only covers three to five possible time zones and much of its population is concentrated in the Eastern half of country. It’s not clear you can apply that lesson the United States, let alone the entire world.
I have some experience in this. I work for a NASA mission and, to keep things clear, all mission-related work is done in Universal Time (UT) — which is essentially Greenwich Mean Time. This makes sense for a space mission because the spacecraft has no “time zone”, orbiting the Earth every 96 minutes. It’s a bit confusing at times — when planning observations, I have to constantly remind myself that “tomorrow” starts in the early evening. But I’m sure, like the metric system, use would make it familiar.
But the real problem is this: while time zones may be arbitrary, our sense of time is not. Our sense of time is related to the motion of the sun. We defined our system of time-keeping such that the sun was roughly overhead at noon. This isn’t the case now, since we have time zones and fixed clocks which don’t changed based on the Earth’s orbital eccentricity or our location within a broad time zone. But the idea of setting our clocks by where the Sun is in the sky is the foundation of our system of time-keeping.
And this is important because the Sun, for most of us, defines our circadian rhythms. Absent alarm clocks, we wake up depending on when the Sun is the sky. We go to sleep based on how long ago it set. Our energy levels and work productivity can vary through the day. Deprived of this information, our bodies tend to do weird things. Our current time-keeping system is designed to roughly mimic that circadian rhythm for everyone living on a spherical planet.
By contrast, a universal time would be more arbitrary. The time of day wouldn’t get less confusing, it would get more confusing. Because it would no longer be defined by the position of the Sun at our location but by the position of the Sun somewhere else on the globe and our location relative to it (two variables we can not measure without computers). The only way to get a sense of what time of day it is would be to either have an electronic device or make a mental conversion based on your location.
And now we see the problem. No matter where I am in the world, noon is when the Sun is (kinda) directly overhead. Seven to eight in the morning is when the kids wake up. Midnight is time for me to hit the sack. Nine to five is work. These aren’t just arbitrary numbers; they are defined by our biological rhythms and by the position of the Sun. I have to make some adjustments when I travel (I married into an Australian family and go there every few years). But after a week, at most, my body settles into the local rhythm, based on where the Sun is at that location.
With a universal time, these rhythms are now disconnected. So nine-to-five is work … in England. If I visit Israel, work is now seven to three. If I’m in Australia, work is now 10 pm to 4 am. The clock loses all meaning.
And, returning to the example of a teleconference, it arguably makes things worse. I regularly schedule international teleconferences and the time zones help with that because I know that a teleconference is only tenable when it is working hours in both locations. Knowing that 11 am on the East Coast is 8 am on the West Coast and 4 pm in the UK tells me that’s a reasonable meeting time. Knowing it is 11 am everywhere doesn’t change anything — I still need to make some adjustment based on the circadian rhythms of the people at each location; it’s just now a little harder to figure out.
In short, changing everyone to universal time doesn’t “solve” the problem of time zones, even assuming that is a problem. It merely turns it upside down. Ultimately, there is no way to work around two basic facts of human beings: we live on a spherical planet and our circadian rhythms are defined by the location of the Sun relative to our location on that spherical planet.
Image by FOTOGRAFIA.Nelo.Esteves