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The world may soon have only one time zone (and a new calender)

12 June 2019 7:14 PM
Digital technology

You may think that the time and date is unchanging, but it does change, and it might do so again.

Consider working out when to take leave each year or when to plan your birthday. It changes each year. Similarly, when arranging a meeting with people in other countries, you need to determine what the time difference is and arrange that the time you plan to meet is converted to a suitable time in their timezone.

When a plane takes off, they use Universal Co-ordinated Time, which is based on the Greenwich Mean Time or longitude zero. Rather than amending the time into zones, the UTC clock uses the same time everywhere, and locals get used to when the sun rises and sets related to that time. Should you travel that will still change but the time won’t.

So our calendar and time changes every year and depending on where you are, it is not very convenient although it is an improvement on the systems used in the past. Two academics hope to make it easier still by getting rid of time zones and making the calendar the same most years.

Before we look at their proposal, it helps to know how we got our current time and calendar.

How time works

Let’s begin with time. We have always based it on day and night (actually just the day) and only based it on where we lived. So sunrise, midday and sunset were used to set the time, but when you move east and west that changes.

When humans did not travel much it did not matter, but with train travel, we began moving through so many local times it was hard to work out when you needed to be at the station as the trains typically used a time different to the town you were in.

The time zones we use now were a way to limit the complexity and typically by train, you did not cross many time zones in one trip.

Air travel makes it an issue again with airports listing flights in local times while scheduling aircraft movements is done using UTC time.

In some bizarre scenarios, a flight from Australia to the US, which takes about 14 hours, will have you set your clock back 17 hours. You could arrive before you leave.

Do you know how many types of calendars there are?

The two academics, Prof Richard Henry and Prof Steve Hanke, argue we should all adopt UTC time. You would still need to check that the person you are looking to meet is not asleep at the time that suits you, but at least you will not also have to determine what the time is. Also if the daylight shifts significantly you may still want to change the time you start your day, but you won’t need to change the time, we could do that now, and it might be an excellent way to get used the more significant changes.

Then there is the calendar, and there are dozens of them. Most track the moon and sun and then try to determine the best way to configure the 365.2422 days that make up a year. If it were 360 days, it would be simple, and so the challenge is how best to accommodate the 5.2422 days. Most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the Julian calendar, which was a revised version of the Roman calendar using the Egyptian calendar.

The Egyptians had the idea of a solar year with the same number of days each month and the leftover days and occasional leap days added at the end of the year. Julius Caesar, as ruler of the Roman Empire, was tasked with keeping the Roman calendar up to date. He would do so by adding days when needed to keep things working. While off conquering, it got severely out of sync, so he altered it not to require as many changes any more. Rather than a week at the end of the year, he added an extra day to some months while keeping February short. Superstition made keeping February shorter an elegant solution. When leap years occur, the additional day was added to February.

This happened in 45 BCE, which made 46 BCE the longest year because it effectively was 445 days long to catch up for all the missed days. BCE is Before Common Era and is the same as BC - Before Christ.

It stayed that way until Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 changed it to make up for the slightly too long year that caused Easter to move further away from Easter. To catch up, he proclaimed that the day following the 4th of October 1582 would be the 15th of October. And to this date, we use that Gregorian calendar. It means we still need leap years every four years but not if the year can be divided by a hundred unless it can be divided by 400. It works, but it is not simple.

The issue is that the day of the week changes each year and quarters used for financial reporting are not all the same length and public holidays roam around the week, causing drama for business.

Not for the first time has someone reckoned we should change the calendar to make it simpler while still accommodating the needs of those that track religious dates and for farmers who needed the calendar in the first place.

The UN came close to adopting a perpetual calendar in the 1950s. A week based calendar was adopted by the ISO in 1988 that uses the weeks, but that would have 12 June 2019 as 2019-W24-3 which works great for machines, but humans might take a while to get used to it.

Would you use this date and time system?

So here is what the Hanke-Henry Permanent (HHP) calendar proposes.

A seven-day week with quarters consisting of two 30-day months and one 31-day month. It means that 1 January every year is a Monday, and all other dates will be on the same day every year. So there are four 91-day quarters and 52 seven-day weeks. That makes a 364 day year. An additional month that is one week long gets added every five or six years.

Prof Steve Hanke is an applied economist and a proponent for economic reasons, while Prof Richard Henry is a physicist and sees this as a way to make managing the time and calendar system easier for computing and travel systems both on Earth and in space.

They had hoped to drum up enough support to see it adopted by 1 January 2018 but considering they are neither Roman emperors nor Popes which allowed the last significant amendments to be implemented it was going to be tough. However, our timekeeping system has been updated multiple times and typically by experts rather than rulers.

To succeed, they will first need more people to hear about it, then discuss the benefits versus the trouble to change it and finally move politicians or companies to adopt it.

The next window when the Gregorian and HHP calendar to line up is 2024. Might you be willing to make the switch then?

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12 June 2019 7:14 PM
Digital technology

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