March 8 marks the beginning of daylight savings time. For most, that means an extra hour of daylight and an hour of lost sleep. For associate professor Jim Weatherall, it means much more. Both a philosopher and a scientist, time to him is something to be studied, dissected, defined.

“How we keep time is a matter of convention, but it’s also the case that our clocks, calendars and even our bodies record facts about physics – the regular motions of the sun and moon, and the distance between events in in space-time,” he says. “Physical time and the way we measure time in our lives are very much intertwined.”

Daylight savings is one place where our conventions for timekeeping and scheduling run up against some basic facts about physics.

“One of the reasons we have daylight savings is because the particular angle of the earth’s orbit means days are longer in the summer than the winter. Adding and taking away an extra hour twice a year helps us make better use of the longer summer days, by shifting more daylight hours to after work.”

This relationship between the physics of time and our cultural understanding of time is something Weatherall is diving deeper into through a new honors class he’s created with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Using a mix of readings, films and discussions, he and a select group of undergrads are calling upon physics and philosophy for answers to questions like: How is time represented in physical theory? What is our experience of time and how does it relate to memory and narrative?

“It’s fun that daylight savings coincides with the first time I’ve taught the course; it gives us an excellent example to study,” he says. “Students in the Campuswide Honors Program at UCI are among the most talented and highly motivated I have worked with anywhere. It's a real privilege to be able to discuss this material with such smart and interesting people."

So as you get ready to spring your clocks forward, take an extra minute (or several) to think about the deeper cultural and scientific aspects behind the adjustment. Just don’t count the minute into your clock reset.

 

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