Simanaitis Says

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IN CASE YOU EVER wondered, Joanna Klein explained, “Why Jet Lag Can Feel Worse When You Travel From West to East,” in The New York Times, July 15, 2016.


Klein said scientists have modeled time-keeping cells in the body. These models offer a mathematical explanation for the direction of travel affecting the degree of jet lag.

The human brain’s time piece is in the hypothalamus, where 20,000 special cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus synchronize and tell the rest of the body whether it should be snoozing or up and about.

One input in deciding this is ambient light. However, when light cues get screwed up, the cells inherently want a longer day.

Michelle Girvan, a physicist at University of Maryland, is one of the co-authors of “Resynchronization of Circadian Oscillators and the East-West Asymmetry of Jet-Lag,” by Zhixin Lu et al, published in the journal Chaos. Dr. Girvan sums up, “This is all because the body’s internal clock has a natural period of slightly longer than 24 hours, which means that it has an easier time traveling west and lengthening the day than traveling east and shortening the day.”

You’re telling me. I was a frequent traveler from California to Germany or Japan for more than three decades. Getting used to sleeping on planes helped a lot. My trick: a light meal, not too much wine and noise-cancelling headphones playing Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Even with this fitful slumber, I subscribe to the model’s conclusion that a flight’s direction matters. Los Angeles/Frankfurt (or, earlier, with Cologne customs) took only a bit less than Los Angeles/Tokyo. Each was more than an eight-hour plane trip.

However, the difference was in the time of day at arrival: German destinations were typically reached at around 7 a.m. local time. Gee, just when I was feeling fresh and chipper.

Our German colleagues did the best they could, alas, with an inherent problem. Hotel rooms were never available for another eight hours, so the North American contingent needed some sort of entertainment in the meantime.

For a while there, the deal was to bus us to a morning press conference, give us translating headphones and put us in a darkened room. There, a gentle-sounding young lady explained technical intricacies with her verbs scattered hither and yon. She was almost as good as Götterdämmerung.

Occasionally, those knowing the local lingo couldn’t hear the speaker over the snores.

Another memorable attempt at early morning entertainment was being walked through a vast recycling center. See how this unibody is crushed? Here’s our upholstery shredder. Wunderbar, nicht warr?

By contrast, plane trips to Japan, though perhaps a bit longer in duration, were less eventful at the other end. Typically, planes landed at Narita just before dusk. Customs and a lengthy bus ride to Toyko brought us to hotel rooms blissfully ready for occupancy.

Freshen up and a light dinner in the hotel’s tempura restaurant. What’s not to like about perfectly deep-fried food?

Any subsequent jet lag was deftly handled by early morning, i.e. 3 a.m., trips to Tsukiji Fish Market. The hardy amongst us really savored breakfasts at stalls surrounding the market. Ah, ika (squid), yum!


Tsukiji’s hall of frozen tuna.

My earliest experience with jet lag came in the 1970s when I was teaching in the Caribbean and attended a San Francisco joint meeting of the American Mathematical Society, Mathematical Association of America and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.


St. Thomas was a three-hour flight to the mainland, followed by the cross-country trek. I recall arriving in time to nestle down in a hotel room for the night. That is, San Francisco night.

St. Thomas is in the Atlantic Time Zone and ordinarily an hour east of U.S. Eastern time. (Curiously, for 2010 – 2019, it’s not following Daylight Savings Time, but that’s another story.) Back then, I awakened when my body clock sensed 7 a.m., only to find myself fresh as a daisy in 3 a.m. San Francisco.

Seeking breakfast (I didn’t know about ika yet), I found myself in an all-night eatery more or less surrounded by ladies of fashion who worked those hours. I chatted with one on an adjacent stool and explained that I was from St. Thomas, in town for mathematical meetings.

Her eyes glazed over. It might have been the hour. Or, more likely, she sensed that mathematicians just sat around quaffing beer and writing equations on cocktail napkins. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

One comment on “JET LAGS I HAVE KNOWN

  1. Michael Rubin
    July 19, 2016

    Thanks, Dennis, supports my rather less frequent experiences. Recall that during trips to Europe with Michelin for F1, everyone hit a wall on the third day after arrival and all the Formula One folk nodded and said, “Yup, third day is the worst. You’ll be good tomorrow.” We solved the morning arrival issue on one trip to Britian by visiting March, whose chassis were then dominating Indycar, first thing after dropping off our luggage. Another interesting issue is the US-Australia run of 15 hours or so. My best solution was to start on arrival time, I.e. Waiting to sleep on the plane until it was 9p or later in Sydney or Melbourne and then waking up a bit before touchdown at 6 or 7 am. For some reason it worked well going over, but not coming back to California where it took several days to straighten out my clock.

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