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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Philippa Gander talks about Night Owls and Early Birds


Philippa Gander is a professor emeritus at Massey University and an internationally recognised scholar of sleep and circadian rhythms. After a PhD at the University of Auckland and research at Harvard University Medical School and the NASA Ames Research Center, Gander was the inaugural director of the Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University. In 2009 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2017 she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to the study of sleep and fatigue. Philippa talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about Night Owls and Early Birds.

The book is an introduction to the amazing innate rhythms that are found in all life on Earth. They are adaptions to the geophysical cycles on our planet: the24-hour day/night cycle caused by Earth’s rotation on its axis, the tide cycles and phases of the moon that result from the moon’s orbit around the Earth, and the annual seasonal cycles caused by Earth’s orbit around the sun. Our innate rhythms do not run at exactly the same speed as the geophysical cycles but rely on environmental time cues to keep in step with their respective environmental cycles.


The main focus of the book is our circadian timing system (circa - about, dies - a day), which modifies how we function and feel very minute of every day of our lives, although we are largely unaware of this except for the sleep/wake cycle. The book also explores the essential nature of sleep as a third of our lives and one of the three pillars of health, along with diet and exercise.


The 24-hourly cycles in natural light intensity are the key environmental time cue for our circadian timing system, as they are for many species. Seasonal changes in daylength are also critical time cues for the circannual rhythms of many species. The book highlights what we are doing to ourselves and the rest of life on our planet by trying to override our genetically programmed circadian rhythms, and by our rapidly increasing use of artificial light at night. The advances in scientific knowledge expose new challenges caused by 24/7 living, but they also provide some potential solutions.


What inspired you to write this book?

My research over the last 40 years has focused on increasing our knowledge about the adverse effects of shift work and jet lag on people’s health safety, and wellbeing, with a strong focus on how to reduce those effects. I have had amazing opportunities to work with different communities all over the world, which made me relalise how our expanding scientific knowledge can empower people to improve their daily lives and make a vital contribution to climate change. I have long nurtured the idea of writing an accessible book that would make these ideas more widely available.

What research was involved?

The book is a personal view across a broad vista of science. My scientific field is known as ‘chronobiology’, literally the biology of time, and an enormous amount of new knowledge has accrued across the 40+ years of my research career. The bulk of my own research developed from my time in the 1980s and early 90s working for NASA, mainly on the potential aviation safety impact of the disruption that shift work and jet lag cause to pilots’ circadian timing systems and sleep, but also on the possible implications of our earth-based rhythms for human exploration of the solar system. On my return to New Zealand, I founded the Sleep/Wake Research Centre which has led the way in establishing this type of research here. Our work always involves teams of people with different expertise, particularly when we are looking to find new ways to apply the science in real world situations.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Most of the first draft was written during the first covid lockdown in 2020. I was in lockdown on my own, so my writing routine was greatly aided by the lack of distractions. I enjoyed a daily walk down through bushy valleys to the Pauatahanui Inlet, where I met a dear friend who was also isolating alone, and we had great conversations from either end of a very long wooden bench, before I headed back up the hill to my desk. Subsequently, Sam Elworthy, the Director of Auckland University Press, had some very interesting ideas about how to make the book more accessible, and the final version owes a lot to his vision.


What did you enjoy the most about this book?

The realisation of a long-held idea to make the science which I am passionate about accessible to a wide range of readers, and the positive responses I have received so far from people who have read it.


What are some of the things in the book that you think readers will find helpful or interesting?

In my experience, most people find the insights on sleep interesting, and many find explanations of their own experiences, or those of people close to them. Shift workers, and those who have lived with a shift worker, will find explanations of many of the challenges they have faced, and a few ideas on how things could be improved. Although the book gives only a small taste of the amazing array of innate rhythms in different types of organisms, it provides a new lens on how different species (including humans) and ecosystems work.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

The reality of it being ‘finished’ only came home to me at the launch event, which was a wonderful celebration with people from all the different parts of my life together in one place for the first time.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

‘My Place’ by the Australian Aboriginal artist and writer Sally Morgan. It is profoundly moving story of her growing up, and the eventual revelation of the stories of her grandmother and great uncle, that had been kept from her. It paints incredible personal pictures of colonisation as they lived it, without accusation or rancour, which is what makes it so powerful and thought-provoking.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

On the writing front, I have started on an entirely different project with my sister, writing a book trying to understand why our 16 great-great-grandparents decided to come to New Zealand between 1848 and 1874. We are researching the lives they left, their experiences on the journey out, and how things worked out once they got here. There are many stories among our whanau, with some themes in common but also much diversity.


Auckland University Press

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