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Physicist explains why Spaniards aren’t actually lazy

Graph showing when Spaniards go to work

Graph of latitude versus solar time for when people in Spain (red), Italy (blue) and the UK (black) start working. The blue line is sunrise at winter solstice while the green band is 30 minutes either side of this.

By Matin Durrani

We’re not the kind of people here at Physics World who resort to national stereotypes – if anything, physicists are pretty much the same the world over no matter where they’re from.

But in the case of Spain, there is a widely held (and probably unfair) view that the Spanish are a bit on the lazy side, saddled with a reputation for long lunches, snoozy siestas and late nights out.

In fact, the Spanish are aware of the problem and there has been much debate in the Spanish media over what can be done to improve productivity and working lives. A Spanish parliamentary commission last year even proposed that the country should turn its clocks back by an hour from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Doing so, the commision said, would improve “productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates”.

When you look at a map, it does indeed seem that Spain – the vast majority of which lies west of the Greenwich meridian – is on the wrong time zone. In fact, before the Second World War, Spain was on GMT, and only moved forward an hour in 1940 to GMT+1 after Britain, France (and later Portugal) did the same. Each country had various reasons for the switch – Britain, for example, wanted to avoid confusion with the rest of the Allies, while France was under German occupation and Spain’s dictator General Franco wished to show his loyalty to Germany.

When the war was over, Britain and Portugal moved their clocks back to GMT, but France stayed on CET as did Spain. France’s decision to remain on CET seems reasonable – it borders much of central Europe and much of the nation lies east of the Greenwich meridian. But no-one’s quite clear why Spain did not go back to GMT.

And that, some say, is the problem. According to a comment in the Spanish newspaper El Pais by Nuria Chinchilla, head of the Madrid-based IESE Business School’s International Work and Family Center, Franco’s decision was “a big historical mistake” that to some extent explains why Spain lunches and dines later than the rest of Europe.

Now, however, a physicist has waded into the debate, publishing a paper on the arXiv pre-print server, suggesting that the Spanish aren’t lazy, but merely “keeping pace with [their] geographical position”.

José María Martín Olalla – a condensed-matter physicist at the University of Seville – has analysed official statistical data from Spain, Italy and the UK consisting of daily log-books in which members of the public have recorded when they carry out daily activities, such as waking up, going to work, eating meals and going to bed.

When plotted on a graph of local time versus longitude, the data show what the Spanish media have been moaning about – compared with Italians and the British, the Spaniards generally seem to wake up, eat breakfast and go to work later (see figure 1 in the arXiv paper). Looking at the data, it’s clear why turning the clocks back an hour in Spain seems such an obvious solution.

But Martín Olalla feels the argument to date has so far only been focused on longitude. Why, he wondered, has no-one been thinking about their latitude as well – in other words, how far north or south people live. He therefore adjusted the log-book data by converting the time data into “local solar time” by doing the following things:

• taking off an hour for the Spanish and Italian data to take into account the fact they are on CET, not GMT;

• adding on a factor to take into account the fact that the Sun appears to move around the Earth a rate of four minutes per degree of longitude;

• factoring in the latitude based on the Sun’s position in the sky.

Working through the sums, Martín Olalla took the average data for when people in different geographical regions go to work and plotted them on a master graph showing the latitude of each region versus the local solar time. The result? When you head off into the office or lab depends mainly on the Sun – or, as Martín Olalla puts it, “People like to start working after sunrise all year through.” (See figure 3 in his paper.)

So basically, if you take latitude and longitude into account, then the Spanish aren’t lazy at all – their daily timetables are essentially the same as those of the Italians or British. The Spaniards’ social schedules are, in other words, related to the level of sunlight, especially at the start of the day. And in Martín Olalla’s eyes, moving Spain to GMT is not the solution after all as it would just leave Spanish workers heading off to work way after the Sun has risen.

The Spanish problem is nicely summed up by a comment by Chinchilla in El Pais:  “Based on the official time zone, we lunch at two in the afternoon and dine at nine in the evening, but according to solar time, we do so at the same hour as the rest of Europe: at 1 p.m. and at 8 p.m.”

Whether anyone listens to the new analysis, though, I’m not so sure. It’ll probably take more than an arXiv paper to change most people’s minds.


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  1. Julio Herrera

    You almost convinced me, except for one detail: The argument makes sense in the European context, but if you look at the map you’ll find that the latitude of Spain roughly spans from North Carolina to New York on the Eastern cost of the USA.

  2. M. Asghar

    Nice piece but without much surprise, when looked at via the historical perspective: the Sun and the solar duration of the day has always been the (Godly) deciding factor in the lives of people, nay, for almost the whole matrix of life (the biological clock!). These lattitudes and longitudes are just artificial mapping, but they help to work together globally in a not too damaging manner.

  3. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | Physicist explains why Spaniards aren’t actually lazy

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