Time is on professor’s side

Prof. Adam Barrows examines why people are fascinated with the concept of time. (Chris King Photo)

When you look at your watch and see that it’s 12 p.m., you probably think one thing: it’s lunch time. Well, two things: it’s time to eat that delicious sandwich in the fridge and it’s the midpoint of the day.


But depending on where you live – and eat lunch – it probably isn’t really 12 p.m. At least not exactly.


Carleton English Prof. Adam Barrows thinks a lot about things like this.


“We’re used to the ease of never touching our minute hands (when we travel),” says Barrows, author of the book The Cosmic Time of Empire: Modern Britain and World Literature. “But it isn’t like that by nature.”


Barrows will be lecturing on time and culture this fall in Carleton’s Technology, Society, and Environmental Studies Aspects of Time course.


To most people, time isn’t a subjective thing. Time just is. But since the early part of the 19th century – believe it or not – it has actually been a highly politicized issue.


To put it simply, local time is determined by the position of the sun in the sky. When the sun is directly overhead, it’s noon. To keep things simple, however, a standard world time was implemented in 1884, based on the time of day Greenwich, England experiences noon.


Practically, this just means we don’t have to change our minute hand when we travel between Ottawa and Toronto. But politically, it has other implications.


“It’s not by accident that the time meridian is not in Oshawa, Ontario,” says Barrows. “It’s in Greenwich, England – from when England was at the height of its (empire).”


For this reason, Barrows says standard time has always been controversial. It sends the message that “your observation of what you perceive to be the correct time … doesn’t matter.”


“If the world’s standard time is a completely arbitrary, artificial standard made for convenience, why should it be centred in Greenwich?”


The biggest challenger to time as we know it lies in the Muslim world. Some Muslims believe that Mecca is the true centre of the Earth, and should therefore be the basis of the world’s time zones.


Until recently, it also looked as if the world’s tallest clock, built on top of the King Abdulaziz Endowment project in Saudi Arabia, would be set to Mecca Time – 21 minutes behind. It turned out to be a baseless threat, says Barrows. The clock, which ticked for three months last year during a trial run, followed standard time.


But the threat, if ever actualized, has no real teeth, says Barrows.


“If everyone agreed to observe Mecca Time, we would all globally set our clocks 21 minutes ahead and we’d forget about it.”


If only a segment of the population chose to stray from the dominant system of time management, they’d be 21 minutes late for a heck of a lot of meetings for the rest of their lives.


Rather, Mecca Time sends a “huge political message of non-compliance” with the rest of the world, says Barrows.


It may be under attack, but our global standard time has been useful for everything from travel to precision military tactics and doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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