Time for a New Watch!

     Have you ever taken an international flight and as you are starting to put away your book or laptop because the plane is getting ready to land, the pilot comes over the PA and tells you “welcome to your destination and the local time here is 2:15 pm.” Maybe if you cross the International Date Line or if it is a particularly long flight they give you the date too. Now imagine its 1000 years in the future and you’re on a flight to another planet and somehow they still manage to pack everyone into the ship like sardines, but as you approach your destination the pilot comes over the PA and tells you that its 26:30 pm and its Friday the 4th of Clarke.

    Time is a very slippery dimension, the other three dimensions can be measured with a tape measure or even just a piece of string for comparisons sake. But time is measured with watches or sundials. Although time can’t really be seen, the passage of time can be, when watching plants grow, or friends age. Another clear example of the passage of time is continued cancellation all of the good scifi shows *cough* Firefly *cough*. I spent a few weeks reading and thinking about the concept of time and its use in various scifi universes, then the other night I watched the movie Serenity. There is a line near the beginning of the movie, as they’re getting ready to rob the bank which shows that Joss Whedon actually thought about the issue of time zones on other planets when constructing the Firefly Universe. Zoe says to Mal “We should hit town right during Sunday Worship, won’t be any crowds.” I appreciate the fact that there isn’t much dialogue spent on the discussion of time differences between planets since it would most likely not add anything to the story, but this line makes me appreciate Joss Whedon’s writing on another level.

    In the real world, this issue of time differences between planets has already started to be taken into account over at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Southern California. Over the past few decades NASA has been sending rovers to Mars and some of the first missions to go up needed to tackle this problem of time variations. You see, Mars has a day length of 24 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds or approximately 2.7% longer than Earth’s day. This minor variation in the day length forces the scientists and engineers to continuously adjust their day to keep pace with the Martian day. The rovers are solar powered, and since Mars has lower solar energy than Earth they can only operate for about four hours of the Martian day when the sun is intense enough to power them. This necessity of solar power means that the scientists and engineers that want to be present when the rovers are operational will have to live on Martian time. The difference between living on Martian Time as opposed to just scheduling everything for another time zone here on Earth is that you can’t just make a single adjustment. So let’s say you live in California, but you work for a company in New York and they require you to work on their schedule. OK, that just means that instead of starting work at 9 am California time you start at 9 am New York or 6 am California time. That might suck at first but eventually you would get used to it because it would be consistent. The big difference with Martian Time is that the time difference isn’t consistent in the same way. Since the day length is 40 minutes longer, it means that if you start work at 6 am on Monday, you’ll start at 6:40 on Tuesday, and 7:20 on Wednesday. This continuous adjustment means that throughout a 3 month mission your start time would run through a full 24 hour cycle twice. Deborah Bass, a scientist at JPL who worked on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the Phoenix lander said in an interview with popular science “It feels like you are perpetually flying east 40 minutes every day, you’re always jet-lagged. It’s only a little bit, because an hour — who cares, that’s not so bad. But it starts to take its toll.” This is humanities first foray into having to adjust to the time on another planet. It’s not quite fair, since the scientist being subjected to the rotation of Mars are still living on Earth. The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were designed to run for 90-day missions, which would be a daunting task to have to put up with the issue of Martian Time throughout the missions. The Spirit Rover landed in 2004 and eventually went on to run for 9 years. The Opportunity Rover landed only three weeks after Spirit, it was last in contact with NASA on May 30th of 2018 a full 14 years after it landed. So much for a 90-day mission. Matt Golombek a project scientist for Pathfinder and planning lead for the MER missions said in 2003 to astrobio.net about adjusting to the new work schedule “It totally messes you up to shift every day,” “You’re not going to the bank. You’re not talking to your friends. You see deer more than you see people at JPL. You’re on another planet.”

     With NASA tentatively planning to put people on Mars by 2030 the issue of having to deal with a shifting work clock won’t be a problem. Instead the new colonists will have to decide how to split up the Martian Day. During the Spirit and Opportunity Rover missions some of the people involved had a custom watch designed and manufactured by a Southern Californian company named Executive Jewellers. This watch had a normal watch face but it ran 39 minutes slower than a typical watch to keep with Martian time. This helped those involved in the missions at JPL to keep up with the shifting time they were subjected to while working on the Mars missions. But let’s get back to you being on a space ship that’s about to land on another planet.

     Let’s assume that this planet is habitable and people have been living there for a few years as a fledgling colony. Let’s say, you’ve arrived to establish a new way of keeping time on this planet because 26:30 on the 4th of Clarke sounds like something from a bad science fiction blog. Now, you’ve got a couple of options, you can either; 1) start an entire time system based on whatever you want, or 2) you can continue to use the hexidecimal system and base it off of the Earth Second which you understand and feel a certain sense of comfort with. The easiest fix is to just keep using the Earth Second. This means either making a new clock because you’re going to have to deal with the difference in day length between your new planet and Earth, so you’ll need a clock that runs faster or slower than the clocks on Earth. Additionally, you could also follow author Kim Stanley Robinson’s lead in the Mars Trilogy and have a normal 24-hour clock but then have all the clocks stand still for 40 minutes every night at midnight. Although, it sounds like that didn’t really workout well in the books, so maybe scrap that idea. Maybe, you like the Idea of being a maverick and starting a whole new way of making sense of time.

     Either direction you decide to go, you might follow the path that got us to our standard of time on Earth today. It’s not completely clear where the concept of a second came from. We do know, that by the late 16th century clocks were starting to display minutes and that it wasn’t until Christen Huygens in 1656 created his pendulum clock with a pendulum just short of a meter long that clocks were able to keep time well enough to track seconds. In 1832, Carl Friedrich Gauss proposed the second as the base unit of time, and during the 1940’s the second was eventually defined as 1/86,400th of a mean solar day. Although the rotation of the Earth is not an extremely stable phenomenon due to tidal friction and the rotation of the Earth gradually slowing. Because of this, the definition of the second was changed to the fraction of 1/31,556,925.9747 of the tropical year of 1900. This definition was then superseded by the current definition, due to the inherent instability in the measurement. It was decided that we would use a natural reproducible phenomenon to define the second instead. The standard Earth Second that we all use today is officially defined by the International System of Units as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of a cesium 133 atom.” Each of these 9 billion plus transitions can be measured by an atomic clock. The standard second is then set by a group of atomic clocks based around the world which “vote” on atomic time and set the standard. The number of transitions was chosen to represent the second that we already had at the time.

     This brings us back to the issue of figuring out what to do with time on your new planet. Since the second is effectively arbitrary, there is no real need to continue to use it if you are going to be creating your own new form of time. It is also important to point out that the Earth Second is now just multiplied by 86,400 to add up to one standard day. This has effectively left us with a time standard that only makes sense for Earth. So, you’ve decided to do away with the Earth Second for your new planet and forge ahead with your own second.

      The first step is that you need to figure out how long a day is on your new planet. Well, there are a few ways you could do this. You could simply use a stopwatch and time how long it takes to get from sunrise to sunrise, but you’ll have to do this for at least a year and preferably several years to get a precise mean day length. Although, this will lead to your day still being based on the Earth Second and you don’t want that you want your own second. So instead you get out some charts and calculate how long it takes your planet to travel its orbit around its star. Then from here, you can also calculate a mean day length in transition periods of cesium 133. After you have that, just pop online and buy yourself an atomic clock or two. Once they arrive, all you have to do is decide how to divide up your day. You can do whatever you want it’s your new planet and someone trusted you to come up with a new form of time. You could even separate your day into 24 Jeffs made up of 60 Freds or you could have 13 aho;tg if you just hit your keyboard while typing out what to name your new units of time. Because really it would be a shame not to take advantage of your new position as Time Lord.

You’ve done it! It might be a mess but, you have your very own new second for your new planet. You can get some new watches made up, you issue new clocks to everyone, and it’s great. Then you realise that you’re still using this weird Julian calendar thing that doesn’t make any sense. You’ll have to read my next post to figure out what to do about that.

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Time for a new watch by Joshua McIntyre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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