Sorting out daylight-saving time, time zones, even time travel

Posted Friday, Nov. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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According to the calculator at (Warning: This is a potential Time Suck) there are 8,766 hours, 525,960 minutes or 31,557,600 seconds in an average year.

If you can get to a computer, this is a really cool piece of film about time travel. An Irish filmmaker claims he was watching a DVD documentary about a Charlie Chaplin movie when he noticed in the background a woman walking along talking on ... a cellphone?

So what time is it in ...

If it's noon in Fort Worth, it's noon in Chicago, 1 p.m. in New York, 6 p.m. in Congo, 1 a.m. tomorrow in Hong Kong, 6 a.m. tomorrow in McMurdo, Antarctica, and 10:45 p.m. tonight in Kathmandu, Nepal. Yes, 10:45.

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When you get down to it, time is a completely made-up thing. Without clocks and calendars to measure it -- or impatient human brains to stress about it -- time would pass over and around us in invisible, immaterial waves of progress. Like the tree falling in the forest with no ears to perceive the noise, time would continue to march on, but we would notice it only as our bodies mature in age and our fruit rots on the kitchen counter.

But measure it we do, every nanosecond of it, and at 2 a.m. Sunday, daylight-saving time ends and we "fall back" an hour in our humble human effort to manipulate the natural forces of time and sunshine to our benefit. But what is this daylight-saving time anyway? And why doesn't Arizona fall back with the rest of us?

We suddenly realized that we had many burning questions about time, and set out to discover the elusive answers. Got a minute?

Where did daylight-saving time come from?

Daylight-saving time was the big idea of Ben Franklin, who reasoned that people could save on candles if the clocks were adjusted to maximize daily sunshine. The Colonials blew him off.

But eventually the U.S., or most of it, came around to the idea.

DST was made law in 1918 in the U.S. and lasted seven months before it was repealed. Then President Franklin Roosevelt declared "War Time" during World War II to save coal, making DST law again from 1942 to 1945, says Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World (St. Martin's Press).

In the 1960s, local governments could make DST the law if they liked, but since there wasn't a uniform start and end date, the country was in chronological chaos. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson's administration gave the responsibility of enforcing DST with uniform calendar dates to the new Department of Transportation (the Interstate Commerce Commission was, we imagine, not unhappy to be relieved of this task) -- but only if localities wanted to participate.

DST used to go from the last Sunday in April through the last Sunday in October; in 1986, that changed to the first Sunday in April. However, in 2005, Congress set the second Sunday of March at 2 a.m. as the beginning of DST and the first Sunday of November at 2 a.m. as the return to standard time. That went into effect in 2007.

Who has time to keep up with all these changes?

By the way, DST is called "Summer Time" by most of the rest of the world.

But why do we do it?

"Daylight-saving time essentially is economic, to save energy," Hohlbaum says. More daylight in the evening hours is also believed to decrease traffic wrecks and crime.

Why doesn't Arizona play along with DST?

Arizona does not observe DST -- they feel they have enough sunshine -- so residents there don't fall back or spring forward. But it gets even more confusing: The Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona does observe DST (we guess they get less sunshine for some reason), but the Hopi Reservation within the Navajo Reservation does not observe DST. Which means that, should you be traveling through northern Arizona, it may be necessary to change your watch three times in the same section of the state. "It's really bizarre," says Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, who two years ago published a paper examining time-zone issues. "When the rest of the country goes on DST, Arizonans have to get up earlier so they coordinate their activities with the rest of the country. They have to get up earlier, go to work earlier and go to sleep earlier. And these are complete artifices, but they're real things."

Any other states that don't do DST?

Until 2005, Indiana did not observe DST. Well, some of Indiana did, but the state has two time zones to make things even more confusing. Hawaii still does not observe DST.

And what about our neighbors to the north and south? Do they have DST?

Mexico joined the party in 1996, making it easier to figure out when to take spring break in Cancun. Most of Canada goes to DST, although as in the U.S., it is not nationally mandated and some local governments decide not to participate.

So we're leaving DST and returning to standard time. What is standard time?

We can thank the railroad industry for bringing some sort of time system to our country. The trains needed to run on time, and that meant that the country needed a uniform system of time instead of letting each area set its own, which was the case in the wild days of the early 1800s. The railroad industry set standard times within each time zone in 1883. In 1918, those standard times became law.

OK. So Indiana has two time zones, you say. How did that happen?

The world is divided into 24 time zones that run north to south from pole to pole. They are 15 degrees apart, longitudinally speaking, the distance the Earth turns in an hour in relation to the sun. Because of this, countries are often divided into different zones (Russia has the most zones with 11; Canada has six), and sometimes states have different zones, too.

Time zones are said to begin at the Prime Meridian, at 0 degrees longitude, which happened to zoom through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, a borough of London, giving rise to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). These days GMT is called Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC. The official UTC is based on atomic clocks.

What really happens when you cross the International Date Line?

The International Date Line is the invisible line -- at 180 degrees longitude -- that runs down the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If you travel east to west, you gain a day; that is, you arrive tomorrow. If you travel west to east, you lose a day; that is, you arrive the day before you departed. It is possible to commute two hours daily from Tonga in the west to Samoa in the east and ... oy, what? Never have a birthday? "That's not true," Hamermesh says. "If you go one way you lose the day and then you gain it back the other way. It washes out. That's not really an issue." What is an issue is thinking about it. "The thing to do basically is never mentally go west. I'm serious. If you mentally go west, your mind gets screwed up."

Does the Date Line cut through any countries?

Before 1995, the International Date Line ran down the middle of Kiribati (pronounced kiri-bas), which made the clocks on the eastern side of the island nation two hours behind the western side. Some bureaucrat who was tired of being late for meetings every day decided to move the IDL to the way east so both sides of the island are in the same time zone. Now the IDL zigzags through the Pacific Ocean around Kiribati. The result? Even though Kiribati and Hawaii to the north are longitudinal neighbors, they are on different days of the week. So if you go to Honolulu from Kiribati on Sunday, you arrive Saturday.

Why does time seem to go faster the older we get?

"The reason things seem to go faster as we get older is because we aren't experiencing things for the first time, so time seems to speed up," says Hohlbaum, who also has a website, "Think about your first kiss, your first date, your first day of school. They are deeply memorable experiences that seem 'like yesterday' because they were firsts, which tend to give us the sense of time slowing down. It also has to do with the amount of information we are encoding in our brains for the first time. We take in everything without filter -- the brain works 'overtime' trying to take it all in. As we get older, we pay attention less to certain details because our brains have a recognition mechanism. 'Oh yeah, been there, done that, have that T-shirt.'

"A year for a 5-year-old turning 6 is a really long time, as in 20 percent of his entire lifetime thus far," Hohlbaum says. "By the time we are 50, a year is merely 2 percent of our lifetime. Einstein was right about the relativity of time. Time, and our relationship to it, is relative to everything else in our lives."

How can we develop a good relationship with time?

"Stress is an emotional response to things that we think are true," Hohlbaum says. "We engage in what I call 'clock combat' all the time, trying to race and work and fight against the clock instead of working with it. We created it, after all. If this is going to be a construct we made up, why not make it positive?" For those with no time to read the book, here's the gist: "Your relationship with time impacts every other relationship that you have," she says. "If you have a negative relationship with time, that's going to inform your life. If you have a positive relationship with time, that is, you feel you have more time and you're not stressed out, that will inform how your life is. The bottom line: If you improve your relationship with time and make it more positive, you will have more of it. I promise you that."

So what's the bottom line on time?

"I always say, 'Thank you for the gift of your time,' because I do believe it is a gift, it's a resource," Hohlbaum says. "We are defined by time; time equals your existence. What that really means is your life is defined by two time notations: the date and time of your birth, and the date and time of your passing. What are you going to do between those two notations?"


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