Alien Timekeeping

funkycalendarI ran into this question in an SF/F group: How do you create an alternate timekeeping and calendar system? I found it interesting because it’s not so much about comparing some local calendar to the one we use here on Earth, but about creating one from scratch. How do we do that?

I figure it goes back to the most basic observable phenomena. The sun rises and sets. Seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. Everything else is just invented units for bookkeeping. So how do we invent that bookkeeping?

Let’s look at the two most important units to primitive time keepers: days and years. These are almost certain to exist in any timekeeping or calendar system. If the people are in anyway diurnal (or their prey or predators are), then they’re going to keep track of days at least to the extent of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any travel, you are almost certain to make plans to pack provisions for five days rather than merely two days.

Likewise, the coming and going of seasons will affect the migration of game, the availability of certain plants, and the need to hunker down and stay warm vs. escaping the heat of summer, so years will also be tracked in some form, at least to the point of talking about a previous year’s seasons or next year’s season. You might not talk about years specifically, though, since times could be discussed as “three summers ago” or “I have lived through nineteen winters.”

sundialBut what about dividing up the day? The easiest division is day vs. night, but dividing that up into smaller units is somewhat arbitrary. We got out 24-hour clock by an early sundial method of dividing up the day into ten hours of sunlight, plus an hour of twilight at each end. This was mirrored over to night through the tracking of certain stars.

Alas, depending on the time of year, these daylight hours varied in length, with long hours in the summer and short ones in the winter. This variation is fine in more primitive cultures, but once you start developing physics, you need a constant time measurement for talking about things like velocity and acceleration. So, sooner or later, that evolving society is going to have to nail down those hours into something rigid.

But ultimately the number of hours per day or the number of minutes/seconds/etc. is completely arbitrary. A metric division of time would be swell, but I’d have to question whether your timekeepers were that logical early enough to make it stick, rather than having sixteen hours a day because the gods willed it. The actual divisions could come from mythology to something as simple as counting the appendages on your alien or fantastical species.

As for the year, it is already naturally divided into days, but we seem to be primed to group them up into intermediate divisions like weeks and months. Certainly some of this is astronomical, and some of it is mythological, but a larger issue is that we have a hard time grasping bigger numbers at an emotional level. At some point, the distinction between 153 vs. 212 is lost on us while we can feel the difference between May and July in our guts. It’s hard to say for sure what an alien or truly fantastical brain is going to handle, but if their sense of time evolved along with spears and rocks, then it’s not going to have a lot of abstract math. And so we probably need at least some divisions.

moon_phases_diagramThe origin of our month comes from the more primitive cultures that tracked the passage time by the phases of the moon. This is believed to go back to stone age, but depending on how you want to observe it, there are several different ways to measure the moon’s orbit. Do you go by the phases, or do you see when it returns to the constellation of the squid? And what if you have two moons? Does one take precedence over the other? Or do you derive some time unit based on when the closer one eclipses the outer one? If there are three or more, do you look for some kind of regular alignment in their orbital rhythms? If there is no moon, there will probably be at least some demarcations of the seasons via the solstices and equinoxes.

Our seven day week is somewhat arbitrary and has as diverse origins as the Jewish creation story in Genesis and the astronomical observation of seven bodies that move through the sky (the sun, the moon, and five visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Various cultures have run on weeks ranging from three to ten days, and it’s probably as much the luck of history as it could be some seven-favoring internal wiring that caused us to end up with a seven day week.

But if you really want to go wild, consider some much stranger settings. Think about a species that lives entirely underground in caverns. There is no sky, so there is no day and night, no lunar months, not even solstices to mark the passing of the seasons and years. What do you have then? Is there an underground river that floods based on the seasons above? Is there a consistent geyser like Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful”.

Or think about a small ringworld, but instead of spanning an entire orbit like Niven’s Ringworld, make it only several thousand kilometers across and spinning around for gravity as it makes its ways around the local star. If its plane of rotation is tilted out of its orbital plane, it will still have seasons, but instead of the seasonal cycle taking the entire orbit as it does for Earth, they’ll have two sets of seasons per orbit. Consider a calendar with a first and second summers.

But, and this is a big one, I don’t like it when writers mess around with the calendar in a lame attempt to remind that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Certainly, I don’t require every epic fantasy to use the Gregorian calendar, but I remember the disaster of the original Battlestar Galactica’s use of “yarons” and “centons” for time keeping. It was overdone yet added nothing to the story. So if you’re going to mess around with the calendar, please have a good reason for it, please keep it in the background as much as possible.

The Apocalypse Ends Today, Almost

MayanCalendarNothing is going to happen today. Except, of course, that something is going to happen today, and that is why all this Mayan calendar insanity will regrettably soldier on.

If you’ve been blissfully unaware that the world is supposed to end today due to some old Mayan calendar having the equivalent of the Y2K event, then skip this and go on with your merrily unharried life. Even if you do know, I’m not going to try to convince you that it’s not going to happen. There are plenty of debunking sites out there that will tell you 1) how ridiculous it all is, and 2) how they actually have the date wrong anyway.  On the other hand, if you actually believe this nonsense, why are you wasting your last day on Earth reading my blog?

And while part of me is looking forward to laughing at the true believers of the Mayan apocalypse, I’m also dreading what tomorrow will bring. Why? It’s not that I dread the world’s existence. It’s that I dread all the various things that will happen today being pointed to tomorrow as what the whole Mayan calendar was really predicting.

You see, not all of the true believers are predicting an end to the world. Some of them are interpreting this Mayan math as a signal to some other world-altering event. We’ll be contacted by the ancient astronauts, or perhaps we’ll all ascend to some higher plane of existence, or even more far-fetched… Paris Hilton will join Hugh Hefner in a vow of chastity. While that might be the end of the world for Hugh Hefner, these kinds of predictions leave the rest of us still standing. And since there will be hundreds of thousands of newsworthy events today, there is plenty of material to work with.

First, let’s talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. I fully expect that somewhere today, someone is going to blow something up. We might also see another mass-suicide doomsday cult. We’re also probably due for some kind of threat, perhaps some kind of attack on infrastructure or public places. Oh, and I imagine there a few thousand press releases queued up to be unleashed today. None of these have anything to do with what the Mayans were thinking about, if they were even thinking about anything other than, “We’ll all have upgraded calendars by then.” No, these events will all be about someone being stupid and/or evil and picking this date to do it, just to cash in the hype.

Closely related will be some staged events. The great prophet of New Maya will ascend today, or something like that. Far more likely is that he’s slipping away to Peru with embezzled church funds, leaving behind disappointed followers and an IRS investigation.

Random occurrences are harder to dispute. We might see a major melt event on this first day of Antarctica’s summer. There might be the start of a large forest fire somewhere. A world leader might keel over with a heart attack. A lot of random things happen every day. Today will be no different, so there will be no shortage of things for a true believer to point to and say, “That’s what it’s all about – don’t you see?” I can’t do much more than shake my head and point to the sheer randomness of it.

But the most annoying will be those small events that we cannot yet see their significance. These could be tiny things like some newsworthy birth or the discovery of yet another exoplanet. Even worse, these could be things that are so trivial as to have escaped the news altogether, with the faithful clinging to the notion that all will reveal itself in time. And to them, I say fine, believe what you want to believe. Just don’t expect me to get all excited about it.

So, stuff is going to happen today, but about the only thing I can tell you for certain is that we won’t be done with this Mayan calendar insanity in the morning.

Birthdays and Colony Calendars

We celebrated my wife’s 101100th birthday over the weekend. No, she’s not into her 101st millennium. She’s simply been denoting them in binary since her 101000th birthday or so. But it got me to thinking about birthdays on colony worlds and how those will be calculated.

Take Mars as a simple example. The Martian year is 687 Earth days, and with a day a little longer than 24 hours, it’s only 668 Martian days. So, if you were born on the first day of the new Martian year, when are you one year old? When do you get to celebrate your birthday?

It really comes down to which calendar you keep, but even then, you may not keep the same calendar for everything. New Years really only comes to Mars once per Martian year, but maybe Christmas comes twice. Martian months may not make much sense with Phobos and Deimos, but they were always a little arbitrary on Earth as well. Martian Independence Day is certainly celebrated every Carter 4th, but when do you have Thanksgiving?

There’s certainly a temptation to go full in one direction or another, i.e. stick with the Earth calendar or go native with the local calendar, but if there’s enough interaction between Earth and the colony, there’s some value in going halfway. Any joint schedule between the two worlds (or if we go interstellar, dozens of worlds) should be on a shared calendar, and since the Earthers had theirs first, this standard calendar should be based on the Earth year.

Another reason for using a standard reference calendar is a bit closer to this question of your birthday. When do your six-year molars come in on Mars? What about on Ganyemede? When will you go through puberty? Who is older, you or your cousin from Europa? There are plenty of biological reasons to keep track of our age in a standardized fashion. Even if we get our tetanus booster shot every five years on Mars, we do it because it was every ten years on Earth.

But still, when do you have that birthday party?

Are you on Mars all the time, or are you rocketing off to Jupiter or Saturn on a regular basis? It’s tempting to say that if you stay in one place all the time, you may as well celebrate it according to the local calendar. Then again, 668 days is a long time to wait for a celebration on Mars. Even worse is the poor kid growing up on Titan, orbiting around Saturn. He’ll be married with kids of his own before his first birthday. Hmm, maybe the local calendars aren’t such a good idea after all. But in some other solar system, on an Earth-like world with seasons of its own, following some arbitrary “standard calendar” for your birthday sounds silly.

I suspect that the real answer is that you’ll celebrate your birthday whenever it makes sense. If your local calendar’s year is only ninety-four days – and short ones at that – then the local custom might evolve to have quadrennial celebrations for your birthday. If you’re dragging yourself around that local star every fourteen hundred days, the local custom might be to celebrate your spring birthday followed by your summer birthday and so on, four celebrations each year. Only those folks skimming through the universe on ships will celebrate birthdays on the standard year.

Or maybe the whole concept of birthdays will fade away as one of those old Earth customs that seem silly to the post-human immortals who live amongst the stars.

What do you think?