Time Zones

Everyone on the planet wants the sun to be at its highest point in the sky (crossing the meridian) at noon. If there were just one time zone, this would be impossible because the Earth rotates 15 degrees every hour. The idea behind multiple time zones is to divide the world into 24 15-degree slices and set the clocks accordingly in each zone. All of the people in a given zone set their clocks the same way, and each zone is one hour different from the next.

In the continental United States there are four time zones (click here for a map): Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. When it is noon in the Eastern time zone, it is 11 a.m. in the Central time zone, 10 a.m. in the Mountain time zone and 9 a.m. in the Pacific time zone.

All time zones are measured from a starting point centered at England's Greenwich Observatory. This point is known as the Greenwich Meridian or the Prime Meridian. Time at the Greenwich Meridian is known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Universal Time. The Eastern time zone in the United States is designated as GMT minus five hours. When it is noon in the Eastern time zone, it is 5 p.m. at the Greenwich Observatory. The International Date Line (IDL) is located on the opposite side of the planet from the Greenwich Observatory.

Why is the Greenwich Observatory such a big deal? A bunch of astronomers declared the Greenwich Observatory to be the prime meridian at an 1884 conference. What's funny is that the observatory moved to Sussex in the 1950s, but the original site remains the prime meridian.