What is ‘time’?

Picture of a clockTime. It’s an illusion, you know. Something we’ve invented to keep track of greater events in the Cosmos. Earth spins on its axis in what we call a day, which we have chosen to break up into smaller units called hours. Earth moves around Sol, rotating on its axis three hundred and sixty five times. And a bit. Our planet’s moon moves around Earth, reflecting light from Sol onto the Earth. How much light depends upon the geometric relationship between the Moon and Sol, moving from full moon through gibbous, quarter, right through to no light at all in a regular cycle. We call those cycles ‘months’. More or less. Sort of.

We are so obsessed with the minutiae of our existence we forget that time is nothing more than a reference point. (Meet you at Starbuck’s at 10.) And when you’re writing science fiction, time becomes even more problematical. On Earth we have created for ourselves an imaginary line which is the base line for time. It passes through Greenwich in UK. Why? Well, just because. The English started it, so they had first dibs. So when it’s twelve midnight (ie the beginning of the day) in UK, it is 10am of the following day where I live. You think that’s hard? (I know some of you do)

Well, when we talk about more than one planet, we’ll need some sort of celestial equivalent to Greenwich so we can agree on what the ‘time’ is. Planets spin at different rates, so their ‘day’ will be different. For example, the length of a day on Mars is 24 hours 39 minutes. Pretty close to our day. But a Mars year is 687 of our days. Let’s look at mighty Jupiter, much much larger than Earth. In fact, Jupiter is so big that all the other planets in the solar system would fit inside it. Jupiter’s day is 9.8 of our hours. Yes, that is nine point eight. Its year is 11.86 of our years.

So if we eventually colonise Mars, we’ll have to have some way of equating time on the two worlds. Sure, mainly you’ll work in local time. But let’s say somebody signs a mining lease on Earth for property on Mars. When does the lease expire?

So there you are. When you agree to meet someone for coffee, you set a spatial reference – ie latitude and longitude and then you add time. So whether you knew it or not, you’ve understood space-time all along. Easy.


About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 28 July 2010, in Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Now I’m feeling all confused…

    I suppose the years only matter if the planets have seasons. Do all planets have seasons? I have no idea. You have confronted me with my own ignorance, and it’s only just coffee-break time.

  2. Sorry, Lexi. Didn’t mean to mess your day. 😀

    Seasons are caused by the lilt of the planet’s axis. So at the time the given hemisphere is pointed at the sun (as it is with the northern hemisphere right now) you get summer and we in the south, receiving less sunlight, have winter.

    If the axis is vertical to the planet’s sun, the planet won’t have seasons.

  3. So are planets with a vertical axis quite rare?

  4. Axis tilt varies a *lot* but bear in mind the only planets we can talk about are those in our own solar system. Here’s a link to a table http://www.astronomynotes.com/tables/tablesb.htm. Essentially, Mercury’s axis is vertical, Jupiter’s nearly is and Uranus’s pole actually pretty much points at the sun. So the whole concept of ‘seasons’ can be quite challenging. Certainly in our solar system, axial tilt is the norm.

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