Monday, 10 November 2014

The Crustacean Calendar

I'm not a Trekkie (Trekker).  I'm not sure how many people are these days.  True, I wanted a Star Trek coffee mug but the reason for that was, well, I'll show you:

Wide base, narrow top.  An optimistic mug, because when it seems to be half-empty it is in fact more than half-full.

A lot of Star Trek is mildly or very irritating because it only performs a vague nod in the direction of scientific plausibility, although I like the poetry of the technobabble and may exploit that one day in verse.

One of the rejected ideas which was promising in the original series was that of Star Dates.  Roddenberry's original plan was to use a different "calendar" for the external reason of obfuscating how far in the future the series was set and the internal reason that since Starfleet ships would be hurtling around near the speed of light or beyond it for much of the time, the slowing of the passage of time caused by travelling so fast would cause the clocks and calendars on board to creep out of sync with each other.  This was a really good idea and it's a shame it got rejected.  As it did get rejected, the viewer is as usual left to spin her wheels in deep space trying to deal with high bogometer readings, or at least this one is.

For this reason, I decided to return to the idea for 'Unspeakable' by creating something called the Crustacean Calendar.  I've reached the point in writing the novel where I just can't go on ignoring how time is measured in the story.

I'll explain the name first.  It's called the Crustacean Calendar because of the alliteration and being based on the Crab Nebula.  This is the Crab Nebula, also known as M1, in the constellation of Taurus:

It's a supernova remnant - the remains of an exploded star.  In the centre is the remains of the star itself, a pulsar which is unusual in being clearly visible through an optical telescope.  It flashes on and off very regularly and is, like all pulsars and neutron stars, pretty small.  The flashes are very regular, occurring about thirty times a second and only slowing very slightly with the passage of time.

Unlike many celebrated celestial bodies, the Crab Nebula and its pulsar is young.  The light from it reached this planet and the eyes of Chinese astronomers on 4th July 1054, I'm presuming Old Style but I'll have to look that up.  That light had of course taken a long time to reach us, using the pronoun gratifyingly broadly.  I seem to remember it took around six thousand years in fact, and it was bright enough to be visible from here.  A sphere with a radius of six thousand light years considered in terms of the kind of geometry most people are used to has a volume of around 26114971742 cubic parsecs, so that explosion would be visible to human-like eyes situated in an extremely large volume.  In fact the volume is even bigger because objects are generally larger on the inside than the outside and that would definitely apply to a twelve thousand light year wide sphere centred on the Crab Nebula because of all the dense matter inside it.  It would be slightly less useful than it sounds though, since the Milky Way is a relatively thin disc in this region of space so it would mainly be even emptier than usual.

My idea is that the calendar and time in the 'Unspeakable' universe is measured in terms of the number of times the Crab Nebula pulsar has flashed in the sky of the relevant location.  So here today, 10th November 2014, nine hundred and sixty years, four months and four days have passed since it started flashing at us, and since it does it around thirty times a second that means it's done so around 1015324951312 times.  A thousand light years in the direction of the Crab Pulsar itself it will have done so around a trillion times fewer and a thousand light years in the opposite direction around a trillion more, so at the same time in each direction the "date" is different "now".

This means that when Su leaves Eos, which is twelve light years away, it's twelve years' worth of time earlier there than it is here, assuming it to be in exactly the direction of the Crab Nebula.  You might ask why I've made a calendar which varies in this way.  The answer is that in fact it doesn't vary because there's no such thing as simultaneity.  I'm going to illustrate this using one of Albert Einstein's famous trains.

Suppose light travels at only 200 kilometres an hour and there is a light bulb in the middle of a ten metre long train carriage travelling at 100 kilometres an hour.  There is a passenger in the carriage underneath the light and someone standing on the platform.  As the carriage passes the person on the platform, the light comes on, and they see the ends of the carriage illuminated at different times - the back is coming up to meet the light and the front moving away from it.  However, for the passenger the light illuminates both ends simultaneously.  Moreover, this is not an illusion because light moves at the same speed for everyone regardless of their own speed.

Since nothing can move faster than light, there is no reason not to have such apparent "discrepancies" in the dates and times concerned.  Hence the Crustacean Calendar measures the local time only - there is no other time.

As usual for me, I've used the duodecimal system to divide time up, this time as multiples of the flashes of the relevant pulsar.  This leaves a few convenient units of time, one of around 57 seconds and another of roughly 23 weeks.

The idea is that anyone with a view of the night sky clear through to the Crab Nebula, for instance not obscured by clouds of gas or dust, and a moderately powerful telescope within at least six thousand light years of the pulsar would be able to calibrate the time and use a device for counting it using that pulsar.  It removes the emphasis on this planet and solar system and places it on a more galactic footing, and also gets back the idea in the original Star Trek that time is relative.

This unit of around a thirtieth of a second can also be used as the basic unit of length, and by extension units of area and volume.  The actual current figure allows light to travel 10043.9 kilometres, and smaller units can be derived by possibly repeated divisions by twelve.  The density of neutronium can then be used as a basis for mass but this would be incredibly high and the unit involved would have to be a tiny submultiple.

Unfortunately this whole entry doesn't get me much closer to being able to put the date on the top of the minutes recorded at the coordinating meeting of the Canterbury branch of 'Match, Hatch and Dispatch' chaired by Aura Mono in 2147 using our calendar, but at least it explains what I'm doing.

Oh yes, and this is important because the speakers of the language which seems to replace English have a different view of time and space than English due to the language they speak, which mixes up space and time, so for instance they think in terms of the sun appearing over the side of the planet they're on rather than sunrise, they see time as flowing downwards like a stream, so the past is uphill, and they tend to think of periods of time as spatial regions rather than intervals.  An example of this is that last summer in the Northern hemisphere of Earth would be thought of as a curve in the helix of this planet's orbit as the sun moves through the Galaxy, not as a period of time.