In his 1953 poem Days, Philip Larkin asks: ‘What are days for? Where can we live but days?’ He goes on with typical gloomy yet endearing angst: ‘Ah, solving that question/Brings the priest and the doctor/In their long coats/Running over the fields.’
Larkin would have done well to include ‘scientist’ along with priest and doctor. More specifically, he might have been interested to talk to circadian neuroscientists, such as Professor Russell Foster, who has said that the commercialisation of electric light since the 1950s has allowed us to ‘declare war upon the night’ and think that we can ‘do what we want, at whatever time we choose’.
Russell argues that in doing so, ‘we have thrown away an essential part of our biology’. One recent example of this can be found in Samsung’s ‘Night Owl’ television advertisement, which features a woman jogging through a city in the middle of the night (2.00am), tracking her progress with a Galaxy Watch. The advert encourages viewers to pursue their health and wellness goals on their own schedules – despite the overwhelming objective scientific evidence that this can be extremely harmful.
It is this insight about our arrogant 24/7 society that underpins Russell’s new book, Life Time, published by Penguin on 19 May. Almost a handbook, Life Time presents the reader with a wealth of information on what scientists have discovered about sleep and biological circadian rhythms. The book is designed to help each of us ‘make an informed and evidence-based decisions about improving our sleep and circadian health to improve our lives.’ Life Time represents a generous sharing of a lifetime’s work, and demonstrates Russell’s commitment to the public understanding of science.