Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Forward

SO DID ALL my readers in the United States remember to adjust their clocks yesterday for Daylight Saving Time? Or rather, those American readers not in the States of Arizona and Hawaii since they do not participate in Daylight Saving Time, although Arizonans in the Navaho Indian Reservation should have changed their clocks, but those in the Hopi enclave within the Navaho Reservation do not. Also, my deepest sympathies to Alaskan readers who did in fact change their clocks, even though it is quite unnecessary for them to do so since their extreme length of day in the summertime makes it superfluous. My sympathies also go to readers in Indiana who may have confusion as to which time zone their particular county happens to reside in at this time, since it is often changed.

I did not change my clocks on time, having only found out about the change just before going to bed, and I was too tired (or rather too lazy) to make the change until it was too late. The rules of the Daylight Saving dates have changed lately, and as my alarm clock automatically resets itself, but according to the old rules, I have to change it four times a year.

The sun rises, and the sun sets every day. But because the Earth rotates on an axis which is not perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun, the length of day varies according to season; when the Earth's axis points to the Sun, the days are longer and warmer, and so also the opposite. And due to this, the days hardly change in length at the equator while day length varies tremendously at the poles, and only on at the Equinoxes is the day length the same throughout the world. I ought to note that the mathematical equations of a rotating body in space, like the Earth, are extremely complex and even professional physicists find that they are counterintuitive and so have to take them on faith.  But I digress.

The natural definition of a day is sunrise and sunset. Back in the days of slow travel and communications, the difference in the time of day between places was of little importance. What really mattered was the light of the sun for going about one's business, and the day was divided into various parts for the convenience of people who wanted to meet at some point in time.

Now it is somewhat mysterious that in all major cultures of the world, the length of daylight was fixed into 12 equal periods or hours, or the entire day with 24 periods, with the starting point being either sunrise or sunset. Over much of Europe, sunrise marked the beginning of the first hour, noon being the end of the sixth hour, and sunset being end of the twelfth hour. We still see this in the Church's Divine Office, the cycle of prayers said throughout the day: Mid-morning prayer is called Terce, Noontime prayer is called Sext, and Mid-afternoon prayer is named None, after the third, sixth, and ninth hours according to this old system. When we consider that Lauds is traditionally prayed just before sunrise, and Vespers just after sunset, we see that the Church's daily pray or Liturgy of the Hours fits quite well with the natural day and the kind of work needed according to season.  This can be seen in the Rule of Saint Benedict, where more prayer and less work is done during Winter. It seems to me that there is a kind of natural harmony when using this kind of cycle of hours, which is lost when using clock time, and that people pursuing holiness may want to observe natural time in accord with their state in life.

It was practical men and women who developed the idea of using fixed hours, which do not vary according to season; early mechanical clocks that observed temporal hours had to be periodically adjusted according to season, whereas fixed-hour clocks worked the same way throughout the year. We should not be surprised that two similar kinds of professionals — lawyers and prostitutes — were early adopters of fixed-hour clocks.

Noon became the practical time of day when mechanical clocks were synchronized, and many public buildings had solar noon marks built into them to help in this purpose; from this use of noon it seems to be natural that midnight was later taken to be the start of a new day, as sunrise and sunset no longer had a fixed relationship with clock time. However, it was known that when using fixed hours, the actual clock time when the sun is highest in the sky would also vary according to the seasons, so clock noon is not noon according to the sun, and the variation is called the Equation of Time.

Fast transportation led to the desire for standardized times, starting with precise shipboard chronometers which would accurately determine a ship's longitude — or distance east or west of home port — with Greenwich, England, becoming the standard time for the Royal Navy: this Greenwich time remains the standard for the world today. Telegraphy and train transportation led to the creation of time zones, where all points within a certain geography would have a fixed time, somewhat divorced from the sun. Some clocks made during this transition period actually had two minute hands, one showing local time, the other showing standard time.

The allocation of the world according to time zones is a political matter, and practical men like things to be as uniform as possible, so time zones often do not synchronize with local sun time very well. Here in Saint Louis, the 90 degree meridian is only about 17 geographical minutes to the east of my home (the actual meridian is about two blocks east of Saint Mary's church in Belleville), so during standard time my clocks aren't too far removed from solar time. But in some extreme examples in the world, clock time can be three hours from local sun time, much to the annoyance of locals.

In the revolutionary days of the late 18th century, freethinkers would spend their nights carousing and drinking strong coffee until all hours of the night, and would often not crawl out of bed until noontime, thereby wasting half the day, and most critically, the daylight hours. American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, while visiting Paris, noted this in a satirical letter:
...An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o'clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o'clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them,
that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result...
Franklin suggested that people ought to get up earlier in the day, his reasoning was that it is far more efficient using daylight than using artificial lighting. This is the same argument used today for using Daylight Saving Time: the daylight hours are used more effectively, and so less energy is used during the dark hours.  However, the results of this are mixed; an experiment in the 1970s with using Daylight Saving Time year-round ended when it was noticed that children were leaving for school in the dark and were getting involved in more accidents; common sense and an almanac would have prevented this, of course.

Daylight Saving Time was first implemented in the early 20th century during the First World War, as a cost-savings measure.  Opposition came from those who felt that this was just Puritan meddling, an attempt to extract more productivity from workers who were forced to observe 'Daylight Slaving Time', where extended daylight hours were allocated to labor rather than leisure. Even today, it is commercial interests who lobby for this time change, and economic factors are always of utmost importance in the debate. Please recall that of all factors that lead to happiness, money is the least of them.

The change-over to Daylight Saving Time and back actually caused a labor dispute where I used to work; a shift where the time would change would have a greater or lesser bonus.

Some say that the preference of some people to stay up at night instead of sleeping is evidence that humanity is evolving to a new level. This seems rather ridiculous, confusing technology use and late-night revelry with biological change, although I too spend many waking hours at work during the quiet of the night. Certainly most spiritual authorities state that staying awake during daylight hours is a good thing — while using night hours for prayer and sleep. But the continual, sometimes nonsensical meddling with the measurement of time often belies a contempt for human nature and nature in general.

As this is also the Ides of March, you might want to read my article on the subject from last year.

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