Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 4 on Mars Time, aka Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

Scientific American
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 4 on Mars Time, aka Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy
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My 'Mars Time' work station
Editor's note: Researchers exploring Mars via rover and satellite have to adapt to the longer day on the Red Planet. Katie Worth, whose Can Earthlings Adapt to the Longer Day on Mars? for Scientific American describes the consequences of sleep-pattern changes, is trying it out herself. Follow her experiences in living on "Mars time" at this blog to see how it affects her sleep and behavior. This post is the second in a series.

Clearly, NASA engineers are just whiners, because living on Mars time is a breeze.

I kid, of course. I'm only on Day 4 of my Mars time experiment, in which I'm trying to stay up (and sleep in) 40 minutes later every day, to replicate the rhythm of the Red Planet's 24.65-hour days.

Thus far, it hasn't been too gnarly. I started on Day 1 with my normal-ish sleep schedule. Because I'm an inveterate night owl, that's about 1:30 A.M. to 8:30 A.M. Since then, I've inched bedtime back each night; head-to-pillow contact last night was at 4 A.M., and I set my alarm clock for noon.

The fact that I'm a night owl, or "inclined toward eveningness," as inclined-toward-jargonness scientists describe it, gives me clear advantages in this experiment. The average human circadian clock cycles every 24.2 hours. (Early research suggested it cycled closer to 25 hours, but that's been debunked, because it turned out the subjects in the original studies were just reading some really good--and really well lit--books before bed).

If my high school statistics still serve me, half of us have circadian cycles longer than the average--and typically, the longer our cycle, the more likely we are to stay awake for the Late, Late, Late Show. Meanwhile people with short circadian clocks have already gone for a jog and cleaned the bathroom by the time Al Roker begins cheerfully reporting the weather.

So how does a person hoodwink her circadian rhythm into elongating? In preparing for this experiment, I asked that question to a host of experts. Their answers: manipulate light, take drugs and avoid human contact.

First, light: To the orchestra of schedule-sensitive processes in our bodies, light and darkness are the dueling conductors. If we see more light at night and less in the morning, the hand that turns over our internal hourglass hesitates.

There are plenty of fancy tools to help you re-engineer your normal light exposure, including blue-light boxes, fortress-like blackout shades, and software that changes the hue of your computer screen as the day wears on. But since the good folks at the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee tell me that scientific rigor comes straight from the pit of hell, I'm gonna go with tin foil, fluorescent light bulbs and a free eye mask a flight attendant gave me once.

Another invaluable tool: sunglasses, per the advice of Harvard University sleep scientist Steven Lockley. He recommended rocking the shades as soon as I wake up, while I'm getting dressed, eating my breakfast, maybe even showering--up until I'm ready to work, at which time I should alert my brain with some bright light.

A tool I don't need: my cell phone. Harvard sleep scientist Laura Barger recommended exiling all electronics from the bedroom. "We know that for every electronic device in the bedroom you lose about a half-hour of sleep. People turn on the TV or hear a text and get up and answer it--you don't want any of those distractions."

A combo of sleeping pills and caffeine are what NASA medical officer and flight surgeon Smith Johnston recommends for schedule change. "If I had to work at midnight, I would go home in the afternoon, see my family, at 3 o'clock I'd put my eye shades on, take about 5 milligrams of Ambien or Sonata, go to bed and sleep until about 10 o'clock, and wake up feeling good," he says. "Then I'd have a little cup of coffee and go in and work all night."

NASA engineer and sci-fi author Gentry Lee, who has worked on every rover project since the 1976 Viking missions, said the key is to do whatever necessary to minimize your non-work interactions. "For a human being to work on Mars time in an isolated environment, where he or she was living in the Antarctic, and had no other life, would not be that hard," he postulates. The friction comes, he says, when the rest of your world is on a different planet's time than you are.

Curiosity mission flight director David Oh's experience speaks to the wisdom of Lee's words. For the mission's first month of Mars time, his wife and three children adapted their schedule to Mars time too. "It was easier for me than many of my colleagues, because I would be able to come home at 4 A.M. and sit down and have dinner with my family," he says. But that advantage dissolved once the family went back to school, and he soon found himself on "perpetual jet lag."

I'm starting to feel a little jet-lagged myself. Peculiarly, I haven't been having trouble staying up, but I can't get to sleep once the time has arrived. Also, I've been waking up at least an hour before my alarm goes off every day, which has reduced my nightly snoozes to well shy of 6 hours. We can all do that for a few days in a row, but I suspect the torpor is preparing to pounce.

I guess all I've got to do is convince everybody I know to live on Mars time with me. Should be a breeze!

 

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