The Geometry of Jet Lag

"From a couple of miles up, all trace of humanity has vanished. The world we know has been replaced by bleak geometry." (F. S. Kahn, The Curse of Icarus)


Jet lag is a thoroughly modern ailment. It results from the intersection of high-speed air travel, human bio-chronology and the curvature of the globe. Along with air rage and economy class syndrome, jet lag works its way into the everyday lexicon of symptoms of contemporary living. We’ve developed the technology to fly, but our terrestrial bodies set the limits of our flight.


The human body is a delicate organism: mechanically extended and chemically enhanced. The mechanics of the body are defined by "pivot points" and "link systems," joints and bones.


A marriage of ergonomics and aerodynamics, the airplane is a fragile aluminum vessel, pressurized to an altitude of 6000-8000 ft, and propelled by paraffin rockets, it maximizes its interior volume for cargo while sculpting and minimizing its exterior volume to avoid drag. The anatomy of the Boeing 747 overall length: 255’-2", wingspan: 207’-8", height: 63’5", and seats: 452. Its propulsion and form allow the jet to escape the pull of gravity and displace itself across curvilinear trajectories. The gentle arcs of flight maps reveal the delicate web of flight paths, exposing the fiction of the flat globe.


Typically represented in two dimensions as a flat plane, the globe cartographically unfolds by Mercator projection. This geometrical manipulation, drawn out in the back of in-flight magazines, connects airports via the arcing lines of flight paths.

The globe is a roughly spherical mass spinning about its own axis, with a circumference of 24,870 miles and a diameter of 7,927 miles across the equator with a mass of 6,600 trillion tons, a continuous rotational speed of 620 mph and a constant gravitational force of thirty-two lb. per ft/sec/sec, the geometry of its form and the mechanics of its motion create night and day, summer and winter. Time is a function of geometry.


Time zones conflate politics and geometry, plastically deformed by chrono-political interests. The prime, or zero, meridian is the longitudinal line at Greenwich in the UK. The International Date Line, located on the opposite side of the globe, marks the start of the calendar day, across it, the time of day is the same, but west of the line it is one day later than it is to the east. A cartographic anomaly, the diurnal fault line marks an intersection of geometry, chronometry, cartography and politics.


Jet lag, otherwise known as jet syndrome, desynchronosis or dysrhythmia, results from the clash of incongruous geometries. The displaced body riding on an arced trajectory reacts to forces of acceleration, altitude adjustment, displacement, rotation and deceleration. The abrupt displacement of transmeridian air travel results in desynchronized daily rhythms. Jet lag’s symptoms are a taxonomy of modern ailments: constipation, clammy sweat, diarrhea, disorientation, dry eyes, dry skin, ear ache, fatigue, headache, hemorrhoids, impaired coordination, impaired vision, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, lightheadedness, loss of libido, loss of mental alertness, low blood sugar, memory loss, nausea, reaction to drugs, sore throat, swollen feet, and variations in pulse and temperature. About one hundred of the body’s biological functions and activities are affected. The deteriorated body and its impaired motor and metal functions map the territory of transmeridian displacements. The heart rate, moisture content and blood sugar levels index the displacement.


The chronocartography of the body-as instrument, as map, as clock-points to the corpus as the last frontier. The development of drugs to cure disease, improve sexual performance and keep the body awake promise better living through chemistry. Melatonins, No-Doz and aspirin are pharmaceutical countermeasures in a biological war against our own body clocks. Melantonin is a widely available drug that is naturally produced during the nocturnal phase. When taken during transmeridian air travel, it acts as chemical camouflage to reset the body’s biological clock.

Air travel requires an escape from gravity, an escape from distance, and ultimately an escape from our bodies. The geometries of jet lag chart a relationship between the planetary scale of the globe and the microscopic scale of our pineal glands. Corporeal symptoms are a reminder of our bodies’ persistence in an increasingly disembodied world.