Zoned out on timezones

Time zones are weird and full of contradictions, approximations and exceptions, but manage to work surprisingly well.

by Henry Albert

Culture 30 January 2020

5°38′30″S 155°52′40″W

Starbuck Island, Republic of Kiribati

(GMT +14)

Starbuck Island is a coral island in the Pacific Ocean, part of the Republic of Kiribati. It’s a wild, barren place, with little vegetation and no freshwater. It hosts a huge number of seabirds: three to six million of them: black and white sooty terns. On October 22, 1884, the sun rose over Starbuck and its birds, as it usually did. Nobody on the island knew—or cared—that a bunch of humans, 9,440 kilometers away, had just made their home the first place in the world to see the start of a new day.

43°43’02.8″N 10°22’59.9″E

Pisa, Italy

(GMT +2)

Time zones are weird and endearing. They’re full of contradictions, approximations and exceptions, but manage to work surprisingly well. They’re obviously unnatural; a clear mark on the world, the scars of the moment we stopped relying on the sun to measure time, and started using something we had created ourselves—clocks.

For thousands of years, time had been local and solar: Towns would set their clocks at noon, when the sun reached its zenith. But as we started moving faster, and across greater distances, the sun grew too slow to set our pace. In the 1800s, railroads spread across the globe, moving people and goods, and civilization and industrialization, on the threads of its growing web of steel. The UK, USA, and Canada all had a bad case of the railroads. Stations would set their own clocks and schedules—the USA alone offered an incredible selection of 300 local times. As a result, nothing and nobody got anywhere on time. This mess needed to be fixed: there were cities to be built and money to be made. Not surprisingly, all who helped give birth to standardized time were involved with trains.

Charles F. Dowd was the first man to propose time zones for the United States, in 1863. The first people he told were the girls he was teaching at Temple Grove Ladies Seminary. He died under a locomotive in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1904. Quirico Filopanti (not his real name), an Italian mathematician and politician, suggested expanding time zones to the whole world in his book “Miranda!”, before failing to find funding for a train line between Rome and Civitavecchia, and then getting himself exiled for entirely unrelated reasons.

In 1878, Sir Sanford Fleming actually made time zones happen. In his memoir “Terrestrial Time,” he observed that the earth measures 360º of longitude, indicating that the planet moves 1/24th of a circle, i.e. 15º, each hour. This means that we can divide the world into 24 neat time zones, spaced 15 degrees of longitude apart. By 1884, everybody more or less agreed this was a great idea. The International Prime Meridian conference held in Washington D.C. that October, established the Greenwich Meridian as 0º and Greenwich Mean Time as GMT 0, the world’s first time standard. Time zones were born—a construct of time and geography at the service of transport—and their creation spawned singular hybrids.

 31°40′30″S 128°52′59″E

Eucla, Australia

(GMT +8:45)

In 1972 GMT stopped being a time standard and was downgraded to a regular time zone. The new time standard, Coordinated Universal Time or UTC, was calculated by means of fancy atomic clocks and included leap seconds to correct Earth’s slowing rotation. Although UTC and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time, London) represent the same time, UTC is a standard while GMT is a time zone. But nobody really noticed any change when UTC was established. By then, time zones had become as natural for people as sunrises to Starbuck Island seabirds—except maybe for the French, who waited to use UTC until August 1978.

To be fair, the French aren’t the only ones who got particular about their time zones. Iran uses GMT +4:30, North Korea’s standard time is GMT +8:30, Nepal is stuck with GMT +5:45. Sir Fleming’s ideal time zones turned out to be, well, ideal. Instead of 24 fractions, we ended up with 37. Greenland, the biggest island in the world, is in the GMT -3 time zone, four hours behind the kingdom it belongs to (talking about Denmark). Greenland’s 18th-largest city, Ittoqqortoormiit (population 425), follows GMT -1, while the American Thule Air Base, on the northwest coast, is GMT -4. The Danmarkshavn weather station (run by a staff of eight) has its clocks set to exactly GMT. As small as they are, these time zones are officially sanctioned, and they all have vaguely symbolic or barely practical reasons to justify their existence.

Some people don’t need authorities to tell them what time it is. For instance, a few settlements in a southeastern corner of Western Australia and a roadhouse just over the border in South Australia use Central Western Standard Time (GMT+8:45) (CWST). CWST, which has never received formal recognition, marks the official road signs of Eucla (population 56), Madura (18), and Mundrabilla (23).

Time zone anomalies can be as tiny as a weather station, as small as a desert village, or as big as a country. The huge territory of China should be chopped up into five time zones, but instead, it uses a single time zone. It’s the same time in Beijing as in Ürümqi, 3,200 kilometers to the west, so living in the latter gets you summer sunsets at midnight. National exams are occasionally held at night, you can get 11pm-7pm shifts, and by the way, if you cross the Afghan border, remember to set your clock back three and a half hours.

As pointed out by Matt Schiavenza in an article for The Atlantic, China’s specificity has political implications: the exclusive time zone aims to favor national unity. Still, it doesn’t sit well with everybody. China hides an ethnic split in its communal time. The Uighur population, natives of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, keep using their own time, which is two hours earlier and more in tune with the solar day. It’s a form of opposition to Beijing policies—they feel it’s a way to resist the progressive choking off of their cultural and religious autonomy. Han Chinese (the country’s predominant ethnic group) living in Xinjiang Uyghur usually stick to Beijing time. But it’s not just China: For example the Eastern-Pamir village of Langar, Tajikistan, is located in the GMT +5 time zone, but, given that the village is mainly inhabited by people of Kyrgyz extraction, they prefer to follow the Kyrgyz time (GMT +6). And the list could go on.

Time zones create social borders, both influencing and being influenced by politics. Spain’s awkward time zone placement in 1941 was part of efforts by Francisco Franco to express solidarity to Hitler. Crimea moved two hours ahead in 2014 to join Moscow and its time zone.

Courtesy of Mike Kelley

52°23’51.7″N 4°55’46.5″E

Amsterdam, Netherlands

GMT +2

Time zones were created to help the world travel faster and communicate over longer distances. Back in 1884, nobody expected how quickly we would manage to do both things. Jet lag, also known as time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis, is the clearest symptom of the complicated relationship between our bodies and the speeds at which we choose to travel through time. Our circadian rhythm, a natural process which regulates our sleep-wake cycles, is deeply linked to daylight and nighttime. We need regular sleep for our health. That’s why working on one side or another of a time zone can make a huge difference. Two parallel studies, conducted in the USA and in Russia, correctly predicted that the risk of cancer would increase the farther west people lived in a time zone. Getting to wake up for work with sunshine for most of the year significantly improves the welfare of day shift workers.

Building on these studies, Osea Giuntella of the University of Pittsburgh and Fabrizio Mazzonna of Università della Svizzera suggest, in an article for the Journal of Health Economics, that time zones also influence economic welfare. Self-imposed jet lag deriving from poor sleep patterns can also severely impact individual productivity; furthermore, the health consequences are expensive: Giuntella and Mazzona estimate $2.3 billion in yearly health care costs for the western United States time zones. That means bad sleep makes these areas poorer and unhealthier.

Maulik Jagnani, an economist at Cornell University, advances a similar case against India’s single time zone. Schools start more or less at the same time all over the country, but kids living in places where the sun sets later get to class with less sleep. These kids are also less likely to complete their education. Jagnani elaborated with a mathematical correlation—an hour’s delay in annual average sunset time reduces education by 0.8 year. This time zone sleep deprivation is more prevalent among poorer households. By switching to two time zones, Mr. Jagnani suggests that India would collect annual human capital gains of over $4.2 billion. Would new issues develop west of these new time zones?

Although disregarding our personal clock to follow standard times negatively impacts our physical and financial wellbeing, society makes this seem inevitable. Nobody feels this more than long haul airline pilots and flight attendants. Airplanes pierce through time zones at impossible speeds, carrying cargo and souls, representing the means and the symbol of humanity’s inhuman velocity.

Boaz Reizel, 32 years-old

Long haul pilot in training for a major European airline

What does time feel like in the cockpit?

Time is a constant. We do everything according to time in aviation. Strict schedules and tight connections make us very aware of every minute we gain or lose. However, time as a rhythm is often completely lost. On a flight back from Japan, it can be possible to watch the sun set and rise multiple times. Your biological clock is never in sync with the world you observe. Time becomes a way to measure distance, and your body is the only real way to measure time.

Are you aware of any health risks related to your job?

Of course. About every week you miss a full night of sleep—and this changes you on a structural level. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night is slowly robbing your future self of health. Stress and fatigue pile up easily, in some cases, people end up needing pills to sleep.

Do airlines take these risks seriously?

They do, to a certain degree, and they’ve addressed them more than in the past. At the same time, it’s abundantly clear what you’re getting into when you choose this line of work. It would be like a firefighter being surprised to encounter smoke.

How do you manage?

A healthy lifestyle, a lot of sports, and intermittent fasting. The basic idea is that I only eat in a specific timeframe and let my body use up all the energy. This means I have to be very rigid with the times when I eat. I try to eat when the sun is out and my digestive system is ready. If I have to get up at 1 am, I’ll just drink some water.

What makes it worth it?

The perspective you gain on being a human on this planet.

Courtesy of Mike Kelley

43°10’04.5″N 131°56’15.2″E

Vladivostok, Russia

GMT +10

Conventional time, which helps us understand the physical space in which we realize our daily activities, is in a constant struggle with standard(ized) time zones. Today, standard time is getting gobbled up by the Internet’s bigger fish, the non-existent, zero time of instantaneous communication. Friction between conventional time and standard time creates health problems; friction between conventional time and zero time causes social issues:

Mischievous ones. Korean students in the USA are exploiting the 14 to 17 hour time difference with their home country to cheat on their SATs. A student from Seoul called a friend in New York in the afternoon, as soon as he was done with his exams so he could feed him the questions the night before the test.

Serious ones. Companies in the developed world, especially tech and digital companies, have started rethinking employee work hours. Flexibility is at the core of a better work-life balance—giving people the chance to attune to their circadian rhythm makes them happier and healthier. Happy and healthy workers earn companies more money. This came about by massive advancements in communication technology, which have also skyrocketed outsourcing. The “network time of corporate globalization” hasn’t dissipated, it’s been transferred elsewhere.

In Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves, author Shehzad Nadeem points out how Indian call center workers are stuck in a temporal displacement, having to live and work in their time zone during American East Coast office hours. This causes predictable health issues, but also a growing sense of alienation from their family and friends.

Time can also be dangerous. Velocity is distance over time; when time turns to zero, the whole equation gets really messy. Velocity becomes undefined, and space (velocity × time) is also zero. But space can never be null outside of the digital world: we are still very much defined by physical boundaries, first and foremost the one represented by our body, and the way we interact with it. As our relationship with the world and its resources grows steadily more complex, we can’t allow ourselves to grow detached from physical places, their rules, and the respect that we owe them. We should be worried instead about alienation.

Vladimir Lorenzin, 64-years-old

Export area manager for Eastern Europe and Russia, Fapim

Does traveling through time zones change the way you think?

I feel like I’m always traveling through multiple aspects of time. I have my zero time on my watch, the time back home, and the local time—work time—on my phone. I’m also constantly balancing my personal time and the time I have to spend doing my job.

What are the hard parts?

The most challenging aspect of my work isn’t so much about getting on a decent sleep schedule, but constantly readjusting to different cultures as I move from place to place. So it’s not the time difference, but the difference in understanding time; people’s varying ideas of punctuality, organization, or acceptable meeting lengths change, and so must I when I’m with them. It’s interesting to explore these cultural correlations, and it’s part of what I look for in these trips—communication, even sometimes tortuous communication.

Has the advent of the internet changed the way you work?

Honestly? It changed things for the better. It has made me more organized—I could be naked with my phone in my hand, and have access to my whole office. It has also made the delivery of messages a certainty. That being said, the time it takes and the way people answer has not changed that much. Contracts are always signed face to face, after real human contact. This way of doing business has actually grown stronger.

How do you feel about personal travel?

There are two maps I’m constantly moving across, my personal one and the objective map of the world. I try to adapt the objective map to mine, using a crystallized version of myself as a catalyst for inner movement. That being said, I have yet to find a time zone as bad as working in a restaurant!

International Space Station


“In summary, we have time zones because there was once a time when people could travel about as fast as they could communicate. Time had to be standardized and agreed upon prior to travel” writes Matt Bernhard in his essay Time Zones are Dumb. Critics of time zones, such as Bernhard, usually propose a single GMT-based time as an alternative. Instantaneous communication, powered by autonomous computers, doesn’t require haywire fragmentation—one time zone is enough for the whole planet. The International Space Station uses simple GMT to get things done outside the atmosphere.

An Earth Time Standard would likely make programming and traveling easier, and perhaps help us structure our days around natural cycles of light and darkness. Its implementation would require overcoming massive culture shifts and bureaucratic hurdles, and China and India are strong reminders that huge time zones aren’t necessarily an improvement.

All things considered, time zones work pretty well. They completely erased thousands of years of anarchy, syncing up billions of people in about two centuries, while still staying open enough to be confusing and frequently inefficient. It’s a stalemate in an exciting match. If our future lies beyond our planet, any solar referenced time system will eventually become obsolete, and we’ll have to come up with a whole new playing board. Until then, we don’t need to transform time zones; we need to get better at interpreting them. Time zones are a reminder of our power and our limitations in this world— we’re free to go wherever we please, but doing so too fast will hurt us.

Considering how complicated our presence on the planet is becoming, perhaps we need to stop trying to adapt to our growing speed and readjust our velocity towards a more human stride. There is no need to quit traveling forwards and upwards. We can certainly change our pace, and time it to our inner clock—which isn’t some dumb new-age concept, but literally our natural circadian rhythm. There’s abundant evidence that this is a good thing. It all begins by reevaluating the purpose of waiting. It takes time to travel humanely to distant places as it takes time to produce things within healthy working hours.

In 1873, Jules Verne conveniently published Around the World in 80 Days. In the final plot twist, protagonist Phileas Fogg realizes he hasn’t lost the bet after all. Since he always traveled eastwards, his days were shortened by four minutes for each degree of longitude crossed— although he is experiencing the same amount of time as the Reform Club members in the novel, he has an extra sunrise to spare.

We know we can travel the world in 80 days. But there’s no rush anymore; there is nobody to prove a point to, there is no need to blow loads of money and lose track of whole days. There’s no anxiety. It takes time to do things right—measuring each step is the best way to get somewhere exactly when you’re supposed to.

Time zones are weird and endearing because they’re a reminder that efficiency isn’t the point of our existence on this planet.