It’s June 21, which means it’s officially summer. (Those of us in the rainy, cool Midwest may be forgiven for not recognizing that.) June 21 also means the summer solstice has arrived and therefore, in the northern hemisphere, it’s the longest day and shortest night of the year.
Some of the northernmost cities of the globe have already been enjoying days where the sun never sets. In Sommaroy, a Norwegian island that is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set for more than two months — from May 18 to July 26. And during that period of constant daylight, the islanders don’t exactly follow conventional concepts of time. In the early a.m. hours, when most of us are abed, Sommaroy residents are likely to be out doing activities that we associate with late morning or afternoon. In part, that’s to compensate for the fact that, from November to January, Sommaroy doesn’t get any sunlight at all — but the practices of the islanders during this time period also recognize that standard concepts of time, set by a daily sunrise and sunset, really don’t apply when you have 24 hours of constant daylight.
Now Sommaroy residents want the Norwegian government to recognize their practices officially, and declare Sommaroy a “time-free zone” during the constant daylight period, which would allow businesses and schools to have flexibility in their hours of operation. Visitors to Sommaroy during this period are encouraged to acknowledge the “time-free” concept by leaving their watches on the bridge that connects the island to the mainland.
Many of us live lives that are governed, to a certain extent, by the clock. We get up, eat, work, watch TV, and go to bed on a schedule that is derived, in large part, from the rhythms established by the sun. What would it be like to live in a place where there was constant sun — or for that matter, no sun — and therefore no standard concept of time? Would you still follow a schedule, or would you simply sleep when you wanted, eat when you wanted, and work when you felt you had to, without regard to the tyrannical clock?
Most of us don’t have to think about that, because we don’t live in places where there is constant sunlight, or constant darkness, for any part of the year. But if humans venture into space, and take years-long interstellar voyages or live underground on inhospitable planets and moons where sunrise and sunset are not daily occurrences, our prevailing notions of time will be put to the test. In a way, our time-free friends on Sommaroy may be giving us a peek into what human lives might be like in the future.