1. The Time Master
Name: Till Roenneberg
Title: Chronobiologist at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilian University
Why they're interesting: Revolutionized the study of biological rhythms and sleep-wake schedules
Night owls have an ally in Till Roenneberg. The German chronobiologist has spent years dispelling the myth that people who like to sleep late are lazy. In fact, one of Roenneberg’s goals (for society) is for every employer to tell their employees, “I want you to come to work after you wake up without an alarm clock.” No productivity hack, Roenneberg says, is more effective than letting people work when their bodies say it's time to.
In his 2012 book, "Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired," Roenneberg introduced the now-popular concept of social jet lag: For many people, social time (the time according to your phone) and internal time (the time according to a tiny part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus) don’t line up. When you force yourself onto an unnatural schedule, you develop social jet lag, which is the tiredness produced by the difference between social and internal time.
Roenneberg is quick to point out that he doesn’t have a sleep research background. “Using sleep as a marker for the body clock,” he said, “is where I came into the field.” But, at this point, he’s firmly entrenched in the sleep world — this year alone, he was invited to make the keynote address at three sleep conferences — and committed to making public life more amenable to diverse sleep schedules and needs. His research is even the basis for the b society, an organization devoted to creating chrono-flexible societies.
“There’s this wonderful sentence by a German comedian who loved Pekingese [dogs]," said Roenneberg. “A life without a Pekingese is possible but meaningless. I’d say the same for sleep.”
Next up, Roenneberg wants to find objective ways to assess sleep quality and determine chronotype. The latter goal could be accomplished either by measuring light and motor activity or by using a blood prick test, from which a person's internal time could be deduced. “In the the long run,” said Roenneberg, “we need to know — for diagnostics, therapies, research — practically every day what a person’s internal time is. My dream, and I’m working on it, is a wristwatch with two dials, so that you can look up what the external time is and what your internal time is.”