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Keeping track of time

Helen Czerski Helen Czerski | 18:00 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

Distance travelled ~ 773'769'600 km

Noon is personal. It's the time of day when the sun is highest in the sky and your shadow is shortest. It's the reference point for a clock that is always with you, because you can be your own sundial. The spinning Earth provides us with a built-in natural chronometer. Brilliant!

That clock has served nature well for millennia - birds sing at dawn, foxes come out at dusk, humans go to sleep when it gets dark, and we all live day to day. One daily cycle follows another. But the growth of human civilizations and the need for greater co-operation than ever before meant that humans had to control time instead of being controlled by it. Clocks were standardized. The day was split up into hours, and humans had to agree to start work, meet or provide services at specific times. It was the only way of co-ordinating a civilization. But the Sun was still the reference point.

Faster travel, and inventions like the radio and telephones, meant that time zones had to be invented. Local noon where I am, in Southampton, happens four minutes later than local noon in London, so society agreed that all of the UK would be in a single time zone, for convenience. 12 o'clock in Southampton now happens at the same time as 12 o'clock in London. The Sun is no longer the reference point. The shortest shadows still happen around lunchtime, but you can't set your watch by that any more. And as clocks got more and more accurate, we discovered that the shape of Earth's orbit means that the length of a day varies by about a minute over the course of each year. Solar time seemed to be almost unhelpful in our standardized world.

So humans weren't living and working according to the Sun any more, but sunlight hadn't gone away.

The standardization of time meant that some people were sleeping when it was light and working when it was dark. And so Daylight Savings Time was invented, to try and compensate for the limitations imposed by standard time. The clocks go back in the UK Sunday 30 October 02:00am in a return to GMT, after a summer of allowing us an extra hour of daylight in the evenings (upcoming DST times). Of course, we don't actually get an extra hour of daylight - we just move our time reference to take that hour off the start of the day and tack it on the end. We couldn't have built the modern world without standardized time, and now we're trying to patch up some of its inconveniences.

daylight saving maps

Image courtesy of C.G.P Grey. For more on daylight saving watch his video.

Should we bother? Every clock change causes sleep deprivation, a demonstrated drop in productivity and a day where the whole country risks turning up at the wrong time. It's a nice ritual to mark the changing of the seasons, but is it worth it?

I think that the crux of the argument might be in how society is changing. Fifty years ago, a giant siren marked the time when work began and ended in factories. The development of our society relied on us all working together, at the same time. It was an enormous example of human co-operation. But now, we live less constrained lives. We work flexibly, and internationally. The standardization of the working day is disappearing - some businesses start work at 8am, some at 10am. I adapt my daily routine so that I can go running when it's light, whether that's in the morning or the evening.

As long as I get my work done, maybe it doesn't matter when I do it. So I can choose for myself what I do with my daylight hours, irrespective of the official time that they start and end.

Do we even need time zones any more? Maybe the logical end to this argument is that we could have just one Earth time, so that everyone has lunch at a different official time, but it's still when the sun is more or less overhead. I'm not necessarily advocating for that, but it's not as close to science fiction as you might think. Scientists in every country frequently record data using "Universal Time" or Zulu time, which is GMT. That way there's no confusion at all over when it was recorded, wherever you were on the planet.

So, is the era of British Summer Time/Daylight saving time over? What do you think?


  • Comment number 1.

    I have always failed to see the logic of moving the clocks and can't believe the argument people put forward about cows in Scotland needing the clocks moved so that they can be milked - I have never seen a cow wear a watch. This is my suggestion just leave the clocks set to the time GMT all year round, and for those parts of of the UK that don't have much light early in the morning then they can just move the time that they start work/school/opening times i.e. start school an hour later in winter. This way computer systems don't get confused, clocks watches etc don't need changing and we stop having this stupid argument each year, funny no one brings up the subject when we move to summer time , why because everyone is happy in that zone so leave it alone. For everyone who says Oh I remember when we didn't move the clocks it was dark when the kids went to school well I was there and you know what the kids didn't mind one bit in fact we quite enjoyed walking to school with our fluorescent arm bands on. Rant over

  • Comment number 2.

    I think steveb is a bit confused about when GMT occurs. GMT, which is our "natural" time because solar noon occurs at 12.00 midday on the Greenwich meridian, is used over the winter, i.e. from October to March. If we set the time to GMT all year round then we wouldn't put our clocks forward in March, so we'd have earlier sunsets during the summer. It would not affect the timing of daylight hours during the winter, however, which is already on GMT.

  • Comment number 3.

    Its complete rubbish and bloody annoying just set the clocks at 12 o'clock at midday and live within the natural cycle.

  • Comment number 4.

    "one Earth time" is a possibility, if measured in for example degrees.

    So when the sun is low in the horizon, it is just after 0 degrees, at noon it would be 90 degrees, at 'sunset' 180 degrees, and midnight would be 270 degrees. This would be true from Tokyo to Toronto, or Lagos to Lisbon. If I rang you up, and you said "do you realise it's 290 degrees here?!" then instantly I'd realise you were in the wee small hours of the morning.

    There would be no time zones, no watch changing, no Daylight Saving, no need for differences between East / West coast.

    Everyone could have the same 360 degree watch, with minutes and seconds as well.

  • Comment number 5.

    Time is an illusion & 'clock watching' is very bad for the health. As long as you take care of responsibilities, it shouldn't matter when you do it; that's down to the individual.
    Ban clocks & watches, stop being obsessed with time, slow down, chill out, de-stress, relax. You'll be far more efficient for it!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Once again we see the loss of loved ones contact at times that are far more suited to a modern world, after all its not as if we have to book phone calls any more. Once again the short sightedness of our government, setting our clock's back, preventing active trade with Asia, so why are we stupid enough to do this yet again???

    It not as if we are going through a GEC "Global Economic Crisis" or anything like that???

  • Comment number 7.

    most of the comments seem rather eccentric! Daylight saving is basically to save electricity used for lighting . More of us stay up late than get up early in summer, so daylight is available when we're awake. Now when we're all worried about energy saving it makes more sense than ever.

  • Comment number 8.

    I've never understood the need to change the clocks. All BST does is to force us to get up an hour earlier in the summer.

    There might be advantages if the whole of the UK went to bed an hour earlier and got up an hour earlier, but if so let's just do it. Changing the clocks is a bizarre way of going about it.

    Those who think that "getting up an hour earlier in the summer" is a good idea are very welcome to get up at, say, 5:30 instead of 6:30. If enough people do it the rest of us will have to follow. But until then, leave the rest of us alone, please!

  • Comment number 9.

    We can't change the stars, and will never change when the sun shines, noon has always been when the sun is highest, and that equates to 12:00.
    The GMT system was originated in the UK, and we should be proud of this by keeping our time to GMT all year, doing anything else messes with our body clock, deprives us of sleep during the summer.
    Also there is a huge cost of changing essential clocks, i used to be one guy that had to spend a day on our estate just doing that.
    Added to that, behind the scenes of international flights or communications, they run to GMT, those into amateur radio log all conversations in GMT, the whole world references their time to GMT (though it's called UTC), there's even talk of being 2 hours ahead to align with europe (2 hours in summer).
    So lets put this argument to bed once and for all, keep GMT

  • Comment number 10.

    I've only made this comment to see what time is recorded. Is it apparently 'before' PatrickJ's, timed at 01:46?

  • Comment number 11.

    We should stay on GMT the whole year, its hard enough getting up in the gloom of morning in midwinter as it is. Now some numpties want to make that gloom last even longer so they can squeeze a bit extra from an evening they'll be spending indoors with the curtains shut against the cold anyway. Keep winter on GMT, the little extra boost in the morning is far more noticeable than the lost last scraps of the evening.

  • Comment number 12.

    Yep, it is.

  • Comment number 13.

    I usually don't wade into discussions of this kind but I felt I had to stand up for the sane majority. In no particular order:

    Comment 4: no time zones? Lets think about this. If I stood in the UK at "0 degrees" someone on the eastern seaboard of the US at the same time would see roughly "300 degrees" as the sun rises in the east. I now take a business trip from the UK to the US, I still have to overcome "60 degrees" of time change from UK to US time.

    Comment 1: Scottish cows are actually hindered by this change as are all solar dependent activities, but the good news is you can still wear your florescent bands when its dark, that's not going anywhere. (See also Comment 9)

    Comment 9: Get up an hour earlier/later and go to bed an hour earlier/later on the same time scale would still result in lost attendance, computer error and general idiocy. Quote: Teacher: "James, your an hour late for class, why?" James: "Sorry Miss, I forgot we started school at nine, I thought it was ten!" (see also, man turns up for meeting 1 hour early)

    Comment 5: Time keeping is a human condition, we need order and structure to stay efficient and make the most of our existence even though our bodies still react to the same light and dark cycle as all the other animals, watches and clocks help. Plus, what else could we wear on our wrists that has such an iconic, yet humble, status?

    Comment 6: Just... no!

    Comment 7: Finally someone clever, although energy efficiency is only a by-product of the clock-change. It also has economic and political implications.

    For all readers, yes GMT and BST have their problems which are highlighted every time we go through this change, and sudden change is not natural, we are used to natural change over thousands of years or even millennia. As with any human creation the collective "we" have a right to question what we have made, but not like this. We need constructive, well thought-out critiques, in-depth study, and an assessment of the whole before we can truly understand its imperfections However, as I am a recent ex-student, I still love to hear the phrase uttered by broadcasters everywhere..."so, are you looking forward to your extra hour in bed?". The answer is always YES!

  • Comment number 14.

    someone forgot to tell the dogs and my 1 year old that i was due an extra hour in bed this morning...

  • Comment number 15.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my extra hour in bed. The thought of giving that up fills me with horror ;-) I'm also not too enamoured with facing the prospect of waking up before the sun for 80% of the year (yes, Victoria in comment #7, I'm definitely a lark, not an owl). Can't say I relish the prospect of my child going to school in the dark for 3 months either, fluorescent armbands or not. I'm with Skeerbs (#11)- leave the system as it is. Having day light in the evening in Jan/Feb just means you can see the snow and ice better.

  • Comment number 16.

    I clicked on this article expecting to see a massive digital clock telling me the right time. Now I'm more confused than ever.

  • Comment number 17.

    "As long as I get my work done, maybe it doesn't matter when I do it. So I can choose for myself what I do with my daylight hours, irrespective of the official time that they start and end." I assume Helen is a journalist and it doesn't matter when she does her work but would she say the same for the people who work on public transport, hospitals, shops and council offices. I'm sure she would soon change her ideas, if when going to her local shop, she found it shut and only opened when the shop assistants decided to turn up. As for changing the clocks backward and forward, leave well alone and I for one, do not want to be on Central European Time.

  • Comment number 18.

    On the bright side, I heard about the BBC's Give an Hour campaign on Something for the Weekend earlier- great idea - Use the extra hour to help someone get online. I think my mum needs some coaching on email so no more excuses mum! What's the web address again Beeb?

  • Comment number 19.

    I should have added that i worked on a large farm estate, during the summer the farm workers had to get up an hour earlier to feed animals and milk the cows, cows don't know that some silly humans decided to put the clocks forward in summer.
    When clocks go forward, you are not just losing an hour on that day, but your time has shifted one hour every day (you get up an hour early each day)
    In the world of 24/7 there is no reason to shift time to make things easier, many people get up in the dark every day.
    When the shift was introduced there weren't so many good street lights, less people had cars.
    Find a happy medium that works all year (maybe starting at half past the hour) and stick with it.


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