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Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich Mean Time’

I have all sorts of philosophical anxieties about disconnecting ‘official time’ from the ‘real time’ that we experience through the rising of the sun and the arc of the stars – I’ll try to post about these anxieties another day.

But there is a huge historical irony in the fact that Greenwich Mean Time will most likely be replaced by Coordinated Universal Time, which is determined by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris, a city that lost its own right to determine the world’s time to London many years ago.

In case you missed the details of the recent recommendations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Tony Todd reports:

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) may be consigned to history as increasingly complex communications technologies require a more accurate system of measuring the time.

International clocks are set according to Greenwich Mean Time, a system that measures time against the rotation of the earth according to the movement of the sun over a meridian (north-south) line that goes through the Greenwich district of London.

The problem for the scientific community is that the earth’s rotation is not constant: it slows down by about a second every year.

US Navy scientist Ronald Beard chaired the working group at the ITU in Geneva which that last week recommended GMT be scrapped as the global time standard.

He told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday: “GMT has been recognised as flawed by scientists since the 1920s, and since the introduction of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) [measured by highly accurate atomic clocks] in 1972 it has effectively been obsolete.”

UTC solved the problem of earth’s uneven rotation by adding the occasional “leap second” at the end of certain years to keep GMT accurate.

But this piecemeal system is no longer suited to the increasingly sophisticated communications technology and the needs of the scientific community.

“With the development of satellite navigation systems, the internet and mobile phones, timekeeping needs to be accurate to within a thousandth of a second,” said Beard. “It is now more important than ever that this should be done on a continual timescale.”

In effect, what the ITU is proposing is that atomic clocks should govern world time. Instead of using the GMT system and adding leap seconds, time should be allowed to be measured without interruption.

Beard explained that large-scale changes could be made (very occasionally) so that, for example, in 40,000 years time people would not be eating their lunch in the sunshine at “midnight”.

Do you notice that phrase: “Time should be allowed to be measured without interruption”? As if the passage of time itself (the spinning of the earth, the passing of days, the passage of seasons) somehow gets in the way of ‘official’ time – the time on the dial of an atomic clock.

OK, I admit it. As an Englishman I reel at the thought that the ultimate reference point for everything that happens, and in effect for the whole of human history, should be a memorandum issued by a committee in Paris, rather than a line carved into the ground in London.

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Just a few weeks ago, on 31st October 2010, at 01:59 and 59 seconds in the morning, millions of us in Britain, and many millions more throughout Europe, travelled back in time by one hour, and found ourselves in the same position in the same bed, but now – instantaneously – at exactly the same time we were one hour before. I wanted to say this took place at exactly 2 o’clock in the morning, but that’s the point: this particular 2 o’clock in the morning never arrives, it doesn’t exist; it’s lost in an alternative universe, and we have to wait another hour for another 2 o’clock, when the new time pretends it has caught up with the old.

This isn’t science fiction, it’s the twilight zone of moving from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, when the clocks change each autumn. An event so ordinary and yet so mysterious that we hardly think about it. Or dream about it. I’ve never been awake when the clock actually changes – and I have one of those digital radio clocks by my bed, so in theory I would see it change before my eyes.

We can just change time. How staggering! Or is it just a great act of make-believe? Most of us are so disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world that we don’t notice whether this ‘conventional’ time fits in with ‘real’ time or not.

One of my obsessions when I was studying philosophy was the notion of ‘measure’, and how important it is that we have rival and non-standard units of measurement, to remind us that a unit is simply a convention, that there is no intrinsic truth to any one way of mapping the world, and that each form of measurement allows us to see the world in a particular way. Thank goodness that in Britain we still have both metres and yards, litres and pints, kilogrammes and pounds.

My only sadness, in the context of this post, is that we don’t have alternative ways of measuring time. Or do we? ‘Noon’, possibly, means ‘when the sun is at its height’, and not necessarily 12.00 – which no longer has any natural connection with the height of the sun. It’s a miracle that we haven’t got metric time – that we still stick to units of 24, 12, 60, etc. Although we have creeping metricisation (is that a word?) with the millisecond.

I started all these thoughts about the clocks because we are now one small step closer to tinkering with time even further, and keeping British Summer Time throughout the winter too. Which would mean darker mornings and brighter evenings in the winter.

What’s not to like? The Independent gives the arguments for:

Almost unheralded, the question of daylight saving is back on to the agenda – and a very good thing that is, too. A Private Member’s Bill, which passed its second reading [on 4 Dec], would require the Government to open an inquiry into the benefits of keeping British Summer Time throughout the year.

There is, of course, a nostalgia issue here. In some ways it would be a pity to lose Greenwich Mean Time, which has such resonance both in Britain and around the world. This, however, is a detail compared with the many advantages that would accrue from a switch to year-round BST. Road safety groups say that 100 road deaths could be prevented every year. There would be significant economies on energy consumption, as the daylight hours would match most people’s waking and working hours more closely than they do in winter at present. And organisations as diverse as the Football Association, green groups and tourist concerns are also in favour. An additional plus is psychological: it would eliminate the damper that early darkness puts on the national mood each autumn.

The Daily Mail gives the arguments against. And instead of calling it ‘Year Long British Summer Time’ it prefers ‘Berlin Time’.

Britain has been warned that switching to Berlin Time could have a damaging effect on health, education, energy consumption and commerce.

As MPs prepare to vote on the proposal this week, warning bells were sounded in Portugal, which went through a disastrous four-year experiment with Berlin Time in the Nineties.

The official line in Portugal was that moving the clocks forward by one hour would create jobs, reduce road deaths and encourage participation in sport. But the opposite proved to be the case and the government had to heed public opinion and return to GMT.

Opponents [to the British plan] point out that millions more people all over Britain would have to go to work and school in the dark.

London would be in semi-darkness at 9am on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and the sun would not appear in Carlisle on that day until 9.34am.

There is also concern that the longer summer evenings could lead to more outdoor drinking and anti-social behaviour. Sunset in Glasgow on the longest day of the year, June 21, would not take place until 11.06pm, while in Nottingham it would be at 10.34pm and in Dover it would be at 10.14pm.

The Portuguese found that changing to Berlin Time – officially known as Continental Time – led to poorer exam results as children could not get to sleep because of the lighter evenings and were therefore tired at school the following day.

There was also an increase in stress levels, insomnia and consumption of sleeping pills. More road accidents occurred during the darker winter mornings and energy bills rose because households used more electricity.

I’m for it. Longer evenings. That’s the clincher. What do you think?

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