The Cheat Sheet

It’s time to rethink how Time works

Venky Vembu | Updated on September 05, 2019

Musing on heavy-duty philosophical matters?

Not at all. Actually, I missed making a pre-arranged phone call to an associate in California because I sloppily miscalculated the time zones. So, I was grappling with real-world problems arising from the complexity of time differences across geographies.

Do you have a better way of organising time zones?

I don’t, but keener minds than mine are offering an unconventional solution.

What might that be?

To abolish time zones in their entirety.

What a cuckoo idea!

Care to learn a bit more before dismissing it airily?

Okay, shoot.

It’s like this. Two Professors at Johns Hopkins University, Richard Conn Henry (in the Department of Physics and Astronomy) and Steve Hanke (in the Department of Economics), have proposed that we have only one time zone for the entire world: wherever in the world you are, the time is the same.

How is that possible?

All it requires is for the world’s clocks to be reset once — and for people to change the way they think of time.

I still can’t get my head around this.

Let me break it down. Suppose we agree that the whole world should switch to Greenwich Mean Time (also known as Universal Time), as Henry and Hanke suggest. Right now, when it’s midnight in London, it is 0530 across India, and we’re probably getting set for the day. But just suppose all of us in India (and indeed all over the world) reset our clocks to midnight UT.

I’m trying, so go on.

We’ll still follow the sun, and get up when day breaks here, except that clocks in India will say it’s midnight UT. So, illustratively, we might have breakfast at, say, 0300 UT, head out for work at 0330 UT, have lunch at 0730 UT, head back home at 1230 UT, have dinner by 1530 UT and, after catching a Netflix movie, might turn in by 1730 UT. Our 24-hour routine is still the same, only we’ve all, every one around the world, moved to Universal Time.

What’s the point of this?

It’ll take a while to get used to, but Henry and Hanke argue persuasively that it enhances business efficiency by avoiding time-zone confusion (of the sorts I faced). In fact, airlines around the world already use Universal Time (to avert the risk of plane collisions due to time-zone confusion!)

Is this practicable?

That’s another matter. Time is a political issue, and countries won’t be keen to fall in line. Even having an Indian Standard Time across the country has political underpinnings: the North-Eastern States, particularly Assam, have long been demanding a second time zone because the IST doesn’t suit their day-night cycle: in summer, the sun rises at 0400 IST there and sets by 1600 IST, which doesn’t enhance commercial efficiency in the North-East. Professors DP Sengupta and Dilip Ahuja at the National Institute of Advanced Studies have established that even advancing the IST by half an hour would make optimal use of daylight and help save 2.7 billion units of electricity every year.

Time for a change?

Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Still, tea estates in Assam informally follow a ‘chaibagaan time schedule’, which optimises daylight use.

Time sounds like funny business.

You bet. In the 1800s, Bombay alone had three concurrent time standards. It was so confusing that the Governor of Bombay missed trains twice because he didn’t budget for the time differences!

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Published on September 05, 2019

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