Friday, November 12, 2010

Reprints: My Martian Watch Seems to Have Stopped

Reprints are essays written in another time and place, reposted in part because the archive holding them is going away and in part to remind me that I used to write pieces I enjoyed reading.  A new Reprint will appear each Friday until I feel like ending the series.

My Martian Watch Seems to Have Stopped was originally posted on January 16, 2004.

A unique opportunity awaits just over the horizon as we lock our sites onto the red planet. Time is a man-made construct, and throughout the history of man we have shown our willingness to adjust it, sometimes grudgingly, to suit our needs. Pope Gregory XIII chopped out 10 days in 1582 to eliminate error derived from too frequent use of leap years. England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Daylight savings time has a yawn oh so interesting history starting with Ben Franklin's essay "An Economical Project", hitting the US on April 30th, 1916, and continuing through present day with only a few exceptions. The point, though, is that time is a construct that we can change to suit our needs. The opportunity is Mars.

The Martian day, called a sol, is 39 minutes (and 35 seconds) longer than an Earth day. This is presenting a variety of challenges to our noodle barn at the national aeronautics and space administration. The primary challenge is how humans on Mars will deal with time. One of the proposed solutions is to extend the Martian sol to time increments of 24 hours, 60 minutes, and 60 seconds (or 24:60:60) but lengthen the base unit – the Martian second – by 2.75%. In essence, every ten Martian seconds would be about ten and a quarter Earth seconds. This sounds plausible for those of us that passed our higher math courses in college. But time – remember, man-made construct – has cultural significance. Do we really want to have to constantly clarify which unit of time we are talking about? Look at the struggle of the temperature scales of Celsius and Fahrenheit. Temperature is constantly reported in both scales. Some people think in one versus the other, and children are forced to learn a conversion factor so they can manage reading a thermometer as an adult. Do we really want to say the Martian Manhunter won the Interplanetary Rubik's Challenge in 2 minutes 12 seconds Earth and 2 minutes 15.63 seconds Martian? Consider all of the records we keep based on speed, consider movie play times, CD time counters, the god-damn atomic clock. A stretched day would just be one more hassle to people who need to pay attention to details such as hooking up their environmental suits correctly and keeping track of solar flares.

Another suggestion is to maintain the 24:60:60 with no adjustment…and watch our people on Mars slowly go bat-shit insane as they start getting up at dinner time and going to bed after breakfast. Adaptation is the primary trait of our species, however, asking a population to live on a schedule that fails to synch with their environment is asking too much. The occurrence of psychological breakdowns and mental disorders would skyrocket. This is not a problem that can be overcome by ignoring it. A healthy solution must be implemented.

There is a solution, an interesting one, one popularized in the realm of science fiction; the time-slip. In a column that has never seen the light of day, I extolled for several paragraphs (ok two) on the necessity of Mars travelers to read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is a brilliant book that details the activities of the first one hundred colonists, a select bunch of the brightest and most talented our planet had to offer. Robinson deals with the length of the Martian sol by using the time-slip. At midnight, 12:00:00 a.m., clocks freeze for 39 minutes and 35 seconds. At 39 minutes and 36 seconds, the clocks click to 12:00:01 a.m. and continue as normal. For just over 39 minutes, the populace is freed from the constraints of time.

The effects are profound. A daily release from the stress, strain, and worry of an ever-present lethal environment is psychologically stabilizing. Imagine the euphoric wash of relaxation you receive when someone reminds you that, instead of it being 2 a.m., it is once again 1 in the morning because of daylight savings time. You feel refreshed, you feel free, and for one hour you get to steal back time. Now imagine that happened every night for nearly 40 minutes.

This is the opportunity that awaits us. With the increased interest in Mars, and the possibility that a manned mission isn't just another round of campaign lies, we are placed to save the mental health of an entire planet. And perhaps someday, somewhere on Mars, one friend will complain to another that the cheap knockoff watch he bought from the peddler on the corner was a rip-off because it never stops ticking. 

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About Me

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Geek - Gamer - Librarian - Writer. Only awesome at one of those things at a time, unfortunately.

About Fading Interest

After writing op-eds and travelogues for several years, after finishing a few books, and after failing to get the ball rolling with project after project I stumbled into an idea that might just hold my interest long enough to enjoy some level of satisfaction with my writing.