Sunday, 26 October 2014

Time is Relative

British Summertime: An Illusion

I get to ask a lot of questions about the start/end of British Summertime and the supposed reasons we put our clocks forwards one hour and then back one hour every Spring and Autumn.  There's not much we can do with the Earth's rotation around the sun and the amount of daylight we get depends on how close/further we are away from our winter and summer equinoxes. The continued argument about saving daylight would actually only make sense if by virtue of "springing forwards" and "falling back" we were making an impossible physical alteration by adding more sunlight to our days. What we do in our twice yearly clock adjustments, is create an illusion. The facts remain, that at this time of year, the days get shorter and the nights get longer, and of course because of the Earth's tilt, our northern hemisphere temperatures also drop, creating our long, dark and misty winters. 

So why all the fuss with adjusting the clocks? And for that matter, when we are already contending with temperature changes, harsher weather and adjusting our eyes to the dark, who cares about clocks? Does counting minutes and seconds make us happier or does it add to an already over-stressed society? Can we not challenge this Western notion of  time 'efficiency'? Perhaps, let physics and nature preside over this one.

Time is Relative

Why cannot we take a look back into the history of our ancestors?  After all, the winters were always harsh and there was less daylight (note I am speaking of the Northern European context here - but each society and part of the world would have made their own adjustments) and we exist today inspite of past hardships. As Muslims, there is always this continuing debate around our calendar - notably around Eid and right now, the exact start date for the New Year. I'm now largely of the belief that the 'exact' date/time matters only if you need to do some specific number crunching - maybe if something needs a precise mathematical measurement. For the rest of us - a date - a precise minute - counting time - has got to be fairly arbitary. 

There wisdom of our ancestors meant that 'time' was much more closely matched to our natural patterns. They also 'measured' time, true - Fajr, Zuhar, Asr, Maghrib and Isha were all good markers of the day, and were decided by amount of daylight, but clinical precision was not foremost when talking about time. "See you in the afternoon," meant that people would meet after Asr and before Maghrib, and not precisely at 3.15pm - woe betide anyone arriving for an appointment at 3.16pm. People, (again Northern Europe illustrates this very well) having reaped their harvests in autumn, would conserve their winter energy by getting up at dawn to feed their livestock and retire to their huts when it was dark to drink their hot broths and eat what they had put aside from their summer's stock, sleeping most of the winter out. In other words, over the winter, people had a different working pattern and lived according to the amount of light available. Different stresses, but compare that to waiting at bus stops in the rain trying to get home in the evening rush hour traffic when the world has gone dark. Who are we kidding? What makes that version of 'daylight' saving better and more efficient? 

At this point in the year, there is a collective slow down; hibernation for animals and stocking up for winter are natural phenomena. Apply that also to the human condition; our history bears witness to seasonal variation and not a constant mechanical expectation of the same levels of work output. What's wrong with admitting this? Would most of us not be happier simply to follow the natural patterns of daylight and live accordingly (yes, by working less) rather than attempting to manipulate time in order to drive 'efficiency'?

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