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Yesterday’s Future Today

A column detailing both the surprising prescience and laughable misses of science fiction throughout history.

It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere

By Nate Posey

By now Americans have had a little over two weeks to adjust their circadian rhythms to the seasonal ritual of turning back the clocks– unless they live in Arizona, that is. Yes, since the late 1960’s, the Grand Canyon State has quietly neglected Daylight Savings Time thanks to a federal exemption. Such an anomaly represents one of the myriad obstacles of communication and commerce on a global network  spanning twenty-four time zones, but while you might pause now  for a few seconds to decide if your call will be a rude awakening for your friend in Flagstaff, the minor inconveniences we now face may well pale in comparison to the difficulties of inter­planetary contact.  In Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, the human race has seeped out of its terrestrial cradle to colonize the solar system, establishing permanent habitations as far as Saturn’s moon Titan. With a rotational period of over 380 hours, Titan is scarcely amenable to the twenty-four hour day; the attempt to synchronize the moon with Earth’s time scheme robs local time of any significance, as the sun may be rising, setting, or anything in between at noon on a given day. Fortunately for the denizens of Clarke’s novel, the reliance on artificial lighting in the subterranean cities of Titan allows them to set whatever length of “day” they please.

NASA’s Mars Exploration rover might not notice the time
difference, but here on Earth’s scientists have had to scale
the lengths of Martian and Earth days to ensure consistent
data collection (image via Wikimedia Commons).
Surprising as it may seem, we have already entered the era of interplanetary timekeeping. Thanks to rovers Opportunity  and the recently landed Curiosity, scientists at NASA have been tracking the time of day at various locations on Mars for years. Knowing the local time enables mission operators to conduct regular data transfers earth-side  in a way that allows for the rovers to perform their missions under predictable lighting and temperature conditions. To account for the 24-hour and 39-minute Martian day, NASA scientists simply scaled the length of the Martian hour and minute up to allow for the establishment of the twenty-four familiar intervals. While the scheme has been accepted without complaint  by the red planet’s few lonely robotic residents, the need for variable time conversions might well prove maddening for any future inhabitants who lack a computer for a brain. Not only will Martians be forced to constantly update the time discrepancies between their local clocks and those of the specific  geographic region of Earth they’re trying to contact, they will have to deal with the hopeless prospect of correlating the months of their 669-day calendar with those on Earth.

Thanks to the economic and political primacy of Earth, though, it is likely that Greenwich Mean Time will remain the standard of choice for official interplanetary transactions in the foreseeable future, and it  will be some time before any extraterrestrial settlements are autonomous enough to require the use of a local calendar. Somehow I can’t imagine the first manned research station on Mars establishing all that many local holidays, although I wouldn’t say the same about world records (Guinnessmay consider revising its books’ titles). 

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