The Myth of the Extra Hour

The selling point of an extra hour of sleep is, unfortunately, a myth.  I’m not talking about young people who can sleep on demand, but your average, everyday working body who adheres to a schedule set by the man.  Like many Americans I probably don’t get enough sleep.  Long years of habit are hard to break, and besides, I still have to commute into New York City.  Not every day, but every couple of weeks.  Still, my sleep-deprived brain knows that means awaking early on those days and since getting up extra-early is hard, why not maintain the status quo ante?  Habitual early risers don’t really benefit from setting the clocks back.  You see, you’re never given something without it being taken away again elsewhere.

Humans can’t seem to help themselves from messing with nature.  There’s always something to do on the farm, and other creatures don’t keep clocks.  Interestingly, standardized time (instead of the more natural local time) only came into being with the railroad.  Trains were scarce and to make sure those down the line didn’t miss one, time had to be synchronized.  Even earlier, the process of navigating the oceans required knowing what time it was back home—local time could be determined by the sun—to determine one’s longitude.   With railways, however, the nine-to-five could become the accepted norm so that business could be conducted and time could be divided into profitable and domestic.  And everyone knows which one is more lucrative.

No doubt some will wake this morning well rested.  Others will have stayed up later, knowing they’d have an extra hour this morning.  For the rest of us, biology moves us along the same trajectory it’d been keeping ever since March.  Daylight Saving Time could be instituted all year, you know.  When we set the clocks back in March we could just keep them there.  The slow, steady rhythms of time would adjust.  Yes, the gods of Greenwich would be annoyed, but mean time could mean time that is useable.  The modern commuter lives by the clock.  Work depended on that train or bus or camel.  You don’t want to miss it.  And if you think camels are an odd addition to the list, it could be that the present writer isn’t getting enough sleep.  No matter what longitude, or mass transit schedule, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.  And changing clocks doesn’t help.

Clockwork Universe

longitudeIn a clockwork universe, time is an essential interpretive factor. Those of us constantly crushed for time hardly realize just how recent of an invention it is. Time has, of course, been around forever. Human interaction with it, in the daily sense of what defines work and what defines leisure, dates only to modernity. Train schedules, in the Victorian Era, led to the need for standardized time across large land masses such as North America. Prior to that, with an uncanny precision to those of us who infrequently take the time even to look at the sky, clocks across the nation were set at noon by observing the sun at its zenith. Even though the concept of longitude existed, its measurement at sea was maddeningly difficult. The Phoenicians, the ancient mariners who circumnavigated Africa, did so by staying in sight of land as much as possible. The open ocean gives few clues as to those imaginary lines we assign to keep our location certain.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is, despite the lengthy title, a brief book laying out the story of John Harrison. Harrison, a clock-maker whose precision clocks made the calculation of longitude a much more precise science, was in a race for a royal grant to reward the discoverer of a method for giving precision to ships at sea. Harrison represented those who believed accurate clocks could solve the problem, while others argued that mapping the heavens would give sailors the best chance. Often we forget that loss of life greater than that on the Titanic could occur when ships ran aground, due to lack of knowledge concerning their longitude. Navigating the seas before GPS and before accurate watches, was often a matter of informed guessing with very high stakes. Harrison never did get to claim fully what he’d earned and we’ve all but forgotten how difficult finding the correct time was when our computers remind us, to the second, of precisely when we are.

Prior to science, the keeping of time was a religious function. Sacred calendars marked holidays—often with the ulterior motive of keeping farmers on track for when planting time for various crops, and their harvests, should commence. Telling the change of seasons by when to add or discard a layer of clothing seems eminently practical, but it doesn’t help an agricultural society to plan ahead adequately. The gods would give the time, and all they would require was a cut of the profits. It was, all things considered, a reasonable trade-off. And now holidays have mostly slipped their religious moorings to become times when we simply don’t have to go to work. Speaking of which—look at the time…