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Measuring time in a scifi universe

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Chuck, Apr 13, 2020.

  1. Chuck

    Chuck Dreamer

    We measure time based on local astronomical events. One year is how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. One day is how long it takes the Earth to rotate on its axis.

    But what would happen in a galactic society? Each planet would have their own system for measuring time, but the greater society would need a standard to follow. Different species would have different needs, since circadian rhythms are determined by day length. Having different species on a starship would be difficult since a species that has a circadian rhythm of 30 human hours would suffer different problems if the ship were kept on a 24 hour clock, and species that have a circadian rhythm of 18 hours would have have different problems.

    And then you have cultural and legal issues, such as age of majority. I would imagine that Starfleet would require each species to certify adulthood status on applicants, but if one species matures after 3 Earth years and others are still juveniles at 100 Earth years, it might make things confusing.

    How would you handle this?
  2. Riva

    Riva Minstrel

    For the different species in a starship thing I think that the simpler solution would be to put them in different sections or rooms with day-night cycles adequate to that species.

    As for the issue of measuring time: maybe the first thought one could have is to transpose the concept of a year on a galactic level but I think that would turn out a bit messy. You should measure with as much precision as possible the position of the reference feature (that could be a star) relative to the center of the galaxy (if it is even visible and well defined). And since there are no seasons equivalents you should be really comparing your movement to other bodies in galactic orbit and account that those orbits are not so regular like those of planets.
    A simpler solution would be to define time on a unit based on a multiple of the time an electron takes to go from an energetic level to another or something like that (similarly to how the secondis defined).

    Then you would have your aliens use their native calendar along with the "galactic" one and use the latter for official documents ecc..
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >How would you handle this?
    I wouldn't, unless the matter of cultural differences in measuring time was part of the story. On one hand, this can't be solved, for once you add difficulties wrought by relativity and FTL travel, the whole thing gets incredibly complicated. And measuring time would be only one of a hundred cultural adjustments needed to be made. I can picture a kind of cultural version of a moneychanger, a specialist in knowing how to translate practices and customes rather than how to count coins.

    On the other hand, no one is going to know anything about any of this outside the context of a story, so the only part that really needs to be solved is the part that affects the story. So, first, we need the story. As is always the case, the selling is in the telling.
    Taniwha likes this.
  4. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    The galactic government, in theory, could enforce a universal time keeping system based on the rotation and orbit of the capital planet. Enforcing it, however, is a completely different issue.

    Instead of using marking days by planets making full rotations and years by how long it takes for them to orbit a sun, they measure by the galaxy's rotation.
  5. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

    Can use universal constants instead of planetary examples. Atomic clocks use the the resonance frequencies of atoms. Look for something all space cultures have in common to use as bases for time. You can still call the passage of time things like days, hours, months, etc. In a multicultural environment you can have certain places that go by adjusted universal time. Parts of a space hotel will have 0.6 adjust for some races while others may have 3.0 or more. Humans can be anywhere on the scale depending on other races and environment the are from.

    I have stories on planets that are not Earth. I still use years and days, but don't specify how long they are compared to earth. Small hints are dropped now and again like a year is 402 days yet how many hours in a day has yet to be mentioned. It's just not critical to the story to get exact details done to the second just that the time scale is different.
  6. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    Measuring time and how to call the units of time is a non-issue. Each race can use their own measuring method and names and when you translate what they say to another race then simply translate the units as well. A second still takes just as long to pass (ignoring relativity) whether it's called a second and uses the vibrating frequencies of some quartz crystal or if it's called a quillop and you need 3.5356 of them to make a second. It's the same as working in cm and inches. I can measure in both, just multiply by 2.5 and you're (roughly) good to go. And, since you're translating what a race is saying you might as well do the conversion at the same time and spare the reader the effort.

    As for how to make people work together. You could always go for genetic engineering to give people the same rhythm and / or use medication to get the same result.
    Taniwha likes this.
  7. Riva

    Riva Minstrel

    Yeah, forgot about that. Probably the biggest issue would be relativity.
    But to be honest I don't really know how that works and I don't want to spew some bs. I don't even remember the Minkowski thing.

    Prince of SpiresPrince of Spires you raise a good point but remember that that is also the situation in the real world, only that the SI is preferred across the scientific community (and most of the world really) because it's just simpler and saves you time if you don't have to always do conversions. You know, it's just tedious and you are more likely to make a mistake.
  8. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    The point I wanted to make about the measurements was twofold. First, it doesn't matter what units a civilization chooses, how they call them and how they measure them. You can always convert from one to the other.

    And for the second I made the assumption that in a universe where this matters, the different species will speak (wildly) different languages. If you bother with detailing the sleep cycle of a species then I assumed speaking a different language is a given, since you can find easier explanations why they measure time in the same way then why they understand each other. If the species speak different languages then some sort of translator device is almost a given, whether it's in the form of a fish in your ear or a translator machine or whatever. And if you have a machine translating, then it's little effort to have the machine do the conversion as well.

    So how different races measure time and what they call it is irrelevant. It perhaps only matters how they adapt their different rhythms. Though, as Skip mentioned, that is only really something I would worry about if it has some kind of plot impact.
  9. Taniwha

    Taniwha Scribe

    Time is relative to the person viewing it I think and what we use that time for - again - will be shaped by individual perspective.
    I'm a native of my country - prior to European settlement my ancestors viewed time via moon phases and environmental changes. That perspective meant they lived lives that were sometimes hectic or full of productivity in terms of gathering certain foods or gardening etc and other times they were more languid. There is a movement towards encorporating the two 'time' perspectives but how that plays out interests me. eg I may be given an appointment date by say a doctor but the moon phase tells me that day will not be a good one for travel - do I choose to go or not? I love the fluidity of time :)
  10. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    The usual answer is to go to "standard" days which are in essence the days of some planet designated as standard.

    Your bigger problem is relativity. If you have it in your work you're pretty much dead as far as galactic empires and space travel go. I mean you can try getting around it with warp drive and hyperspace etc, but you're really just hand waving the problem away. And if you're happy doing that, I wouldn't worry about the time thing. Just call everything standard and be done with it.

    Cheers, Greg.

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