Ignorance or Brilliance?

On February 4, 2010 · 4 Comments

Is there an area with no time zone?

At first I dismissed the question when it landed on the Twelve Mile Circle in the form of a search engine query the other morning. I noticed it waiting in my user access logs although this random visitor never asked me personally. The algorithms of his search engine determined somehow that my obscure little portal could be his Magic 8 Ball. The mystery guest clicked a path to my doorstep.

It’s convenient to feel knowledgeable, even a little smug, and I plead guilty as charged. I need to work on my humility and try not to be so judgmental. However, I did not design the Twelve Mile Circle for the general public. If it were all about numbers I wouldn’t focus on geo-oddities and anomalies. I’m not surprised that one of my most frequently viewed articles features a monster truck photo, but that’s not my core audience and they never wander over to my other pages.

I admit somewhat sheepishly that I keep a file called "Stupid Searches" for occasions just like this. I was about to add this one to several other rather unfortunate search terms I’ve recorded in the past. Things like:

  • four most visited states in Alaska
  • does the east coast experience sunsets?
  • video of confederate soldiers crossing Potomac river

Then the brilliance of the question struck me. Is there an area with no time zone? Could this be the visible part of a profound metaphysical inquiry? Maybe akin to a Zen Buddhist koan like the the cliché: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?. Yes, I’m also aware of the 1970 song by Chicago, "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" so let’s put that one aside and not mention it again. And no, I’m not old enough to remember hearing that except on a Classic Rock station many years after the fact, but thanks for asking.

On second though, maybe the question wasn’t posed philosophically. I considered it literally and found some interesting results.

Today all nations follow standard time zones based on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Some large nations have multiple time zones. One large nation, China, has a single time zone. Some places differentiate their time from nearby zones by a half-hour or even a quarter-hour. However UTC rests at the core of each of these instances.

Nations have the power to track time however they wish. Solar time ruled the world until the last hundred and fifty years, give-or-take. Nonetheless it’s convenient and advantageous to standardize on UTC in the modern world, so logically it’s been adopted by all sovereign nations.

SOURCE: National Science Foundation

That only addresses the question partially. What about the poles where time zones converge? I can’t speak for the North Pole, but the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station follows New Zealand time. The United States operates the station and provisions it via New Zealand. It follows New Zealand time as a matter of convenience.

View Larger Map

What about ships at sea in international waters? They follow nautical time zones but can decide when it’s convenient to change from one zone to another aboard ship. Wikipedia’s take on this follows:

Internally on the ship, e.g. for work and meal hours, the ship may use a suitable time of its own choosing. The captain is permitted to change his ship’s clocks at a time of his choice following his ship’s entry into another time zone — he often chose midnight. Long distance going ships change time zone onboard at suitable times. Ships on short distance journeys do not change time zone at all, even if they go between different time zones, like between the UK and continental Europe. Passenger ships often use both time zones on signs.

Once again, they’re relying on UTC.

We’ve established that every nation uses UTC as a baseline, as does the South Pole station, as do ships at sea beyond international boundaries. That covers pretty much the entirety of the world where people normally congregate. Or does it?

View Larger Map

Uncontacted people still exist in the 21st Century. Places such as the many remote corners of Amazonia and New Guinea come to mind. The Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island, part of India’s Andaman Archipelago, provide an excellent case in point. They totally reject outside contact and "they are likely the most socially isolated people on Earth." Almost nothing is known about them. They probably neither know nor care that they are part of India. Most assuredly they follow solar time and have no concept of UTC.

North Sentinel Island has no time zone in any practical sense.

On February 4, 2010 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Ignorance or Brilliance?”

  1. One may wonder what’s the nearest thing in their language to the notion of an ‘hour’.

  2. Fritz Keppler says:

    I once took the SS United States from New York to Le Havre, and every night at midnight the ship’s clocks were set forward one hour 15 minutes, to accommodate the then 5 hour difference (most places in Europe did not observe DST/Summer Time in 1966.

    On the other hand, the Dutch freighter on the way back from Rotterdam to New Orleans via Miami did a reset the second night out, all 5 hours at once. Of course there were only 12 of us passengers, which made things less complicated.

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