Very Odd Ramblings About Time

Sep 2, 2010 by Jared Smith

In a few weeks, I will be traveling to Asia. Time starts to play interesting games when you find yourself half way around the world. As my family is waking up, I’ll be going to bed in Singapore, which will be 14 hours ahead of Utah. While in India, I’ll be 11.5 hours ahead of home. As I watch the sun rise in the East over the Indian Ocean, folks at home will be watching the same sun set the night before.

Even more mind-boggling is the International Date Line. I will leave Utah on a Monday afternoon and will fly for 12 hours across the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo. But when I land, it will be Tuesday evening – well over a day after I left. But on the way home, I leave Tokyo at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday and land in Salt Lake City at 11:30 a.m. that same day – almost 5 hours before I left!!!

I’ve mentioned before that one of my pet peeves is when people say things like “9 a.m. in the morning.” Either “a.m.” or “in the morning” will suffice. But it’s not quite so clear when you’re talking about midnight.

It’s common knowledge that 12 a.m. and midnight are the same point in time, right? Answer the following questions to see if this is true:

1. Let’s say it’s 10 p.m. on Tuesday and you want to meet some friends at midnight on Wednesday. How many hours until you meet them?

2. Let’s say it’s 10 p.m. on Tuesday and you want to meet some friends at 12 a.m. on Wednesday. How many hours until you meet them?

Most people would answer “26 hours” for question 1 and “2 hours” for question 2. If this is the case, then midnight on Wednesday must be exactly 24 hours after 12 a.m. on Wednesday, right? OK, then when is 12 midnight Wednesday? If 12 midnight exists, then 12 and midnight must be the exact same time, not 24 hours apart.

If you think you’re a smarty pants and answered “2 hours” to both questions, then answer this question:

Let’s say it’s 10pm on Tuesday and you want to meet some friends at midnight tonight. How many hours until you meet them?

If your answer is “2 hours”, then you believe that midnight Wednesday (see question 1) is the same point in time as midnight Tuesday???

Confused yet?

The problem is that “midnight” is ambiguous – it is the exact middle point of two days. It is neither one day nor the other. Yet we often refer to midnight as being on a particular day. Sometimes it’s “midnight tonight” (369,000 Google results) and sometimes it’s “midnight this morning” (740,000 Google results). As such, midnight on Tuesday and midnight on Wednesday to two people might mean the same point in time, points 24 hours apart, or even points 48 hours apart (for one it’s the point at the beginning of Tuesday and for the other it’s the point at the end of Wednesday).

Saying “12:00 midnight” doesn’t remove this ambiguity. But what if you say, “12:00 a.m. midnight”? The “a.m.” generally clarifies that this refers to the beginning of that day rather than the end of that day, but a lot of people don’t understand this. This is why you never see trains or planes scheduled to leave at 12:00 a.m. – it’s always 11:59 p.m. or 12:01 a.m. Isn’t it interesting how one minute removes all ambiguity? Technically, 12:00 can be neither “a.m.” (before midday) or “p.m.” (after midday) at all, because it’s smack dab in the middle – neither before nor after midday. 12:00:01, however can be.

About the only way to totally clarify midnight is to use something like “midnight Tuesday/Wednesday” or simply use the 24 hour clock and refer to it as “00:00”, but that’s just weird – not unlike a long blog posting talking about midnight, er, I mean 12 a.m.

  1. One Response to “Very Odd Ramblings About Time”

  2. And to think I can never get back the past three minutes spent reading this:)

    By Trisha on Sep 2, 2010

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