Posts Tagged the moon

World Building Question: What month is it?

Didn’t it feel like March just sailed by?  Isn’t it nice we’ve been having a temperate Ēostur-mōnaþ thus far? Am I the only one worried we’re going to have a viciously hot მკათათვე?  I’ve been working my way through periods of time with these world building questions, and it’s time to move from hours to weeks and now to months.  We skipped one unit of time that’s directly observable, the day, but we’re going to stop here on another that’s theoretically observable, the month.  I say theoretically as we’ve diverged slightly from the origins of the month, but that’s already getting ahead of ourselves.

Months are roughly based on moon cycles.  The period from full moon to full moon is roughly 29.5 days, and tracking the lunar cycle dates to at least the Paleolithic era.  This means that the concept of the month as a period of time is roughly as old as humanity’s concept of tracking time.  However, the idea of a month gets complicated as soon as we divide 365.25 by 29.5 and wind up with 12.4.  That is to say a year cannot be evenly divided into months as long as months are tied to lunar cycles, and a month tied to lunar cycles is going to be as off-center compared to the year as weeks are compared to months.  So what do we do?  On earth there are three answers: lunar calendars that will drift compared to the seasons, lunisolar calendars that add what we might call “leap months” to even everything out, and solar calendars that decouple months from lunar cycles.

Lunar calendars, such as the Islamic calendar, define a year as 354-355 days or 12 synodic lunar cycles (there are five lengths of lunar months that I’m not going to cover because, frankly, I don’t understand them).  The major effect of this is a drifting of Islamic holidays when compared to the Gregorian calendar.  Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of fasting, cycles backwards through the Gregorian calendar in roughly 34 year cycles.

Lunisolar calendars base the length of a month around the same synodic cycle, but make an attempt to adjust to the period of a year by providing extra days built in when needed.  In keeping with our religious calendar theme, the best known of these lunisolar calendars is the Hebrew calendar which adds an extra month to seven of the years in a 19 year cycle.  This is why, while Ramadan begins roughly 11 days earlier every year, Hanukkah reliably falls during the Gregorian month of December, though does shift between the beginning and end of the month.

Solar calendars are what most people reading this post are accustomed to.  The Gregorian/Christian calendar is solar.  Notice a trend, three major Abramic faiths, three majors calendar types?  I suspect an ethnographic study could be made of why the religions each chose the type of calendar they did, but this isn’t about ethnography.  The Gregorian calendar is, let’s face it, a mess.  But it’s a mess in the kind of way that fascinates me for world building, because it shows how different influences shape simple things.  Some highlights:

  • A significantly shorter month, which used to be the last month and thus had its length determined by how much time was needed to catch up to the solar year.  This is why leap days are still applied to February.
  • Four months named after an older calendar order, thus September thru December, the 9th through 12th months, have names that mean “7th Month,” “8th Month,” “9th Month,” and “10th Month.”  January and February were the 11th and 12th months.
  • Four months are named after gods (January, March, May, and June), two after emperors (July and August) and one month’s etymology is lost to time (April).

Random side note observation: with both hours and weeks we saw an attempt to decimalize them during the French Republic period.  Months?  They were fine with 12 of them, though of 30 days each with 5-6 bonus days at the end of the year, similar to the Mayan Wayeb’.

I’d normally be digging more into the origins of months, but here’s the thing.  Months are potentially a very human thing.  Many cultures independently came up with them, because the cycles of the moon are very obvious to the naked eye.  It’s the only object in the night sky that changes so dramatically.  And there’s just the one of it.  So if you’re world building a fictional civilization that’s earth based, they’ll probably have some concept of months, with the question being whether the calendar is Lunar, Lunisolar, Solar, or whether they keep both a solar calendar and a ceremonial lunar or lunisolar calendar, as the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar requires of practitioners of the Islamic and Jewish faiths.

Things become more troublesome when world building for a species not based on earth.  There are more variables to consider.  Is there a single frame of reference for a longer period of time, something between a day and a year?  Does it line up evenly with a year?  Do the locals care?  If there’s no obvious astrological point of reference, is the year subdivided in some other way?  By seasons?  Arbitrarily?  Mayans had 20 day months in their calendar tied to the solar year, chosen to evenly divide the year rather than tracking lunar phases.  Are there two moons and a complex series of calendars that include a solar calendar, prime-lunar calendar and secondary-lunar calendar?  Why do I think that last one would be fun to work out?  Just what would happen to a culture that had a strong lunar tradition if something catastrophic happened to their moon?  Why am I putting so many story ideas I want to use in these questions?

Let’s do the reverse world building wrap-up.  On my planet called earth, they have a moon that dominates the night sky, and goes through 29-ish day cycles.  They’ve long used these cycles as a unit of time, and now have calendars based roughly on the cycles, though with some fudging to keep up with the length of a year.

Some of the upcoming questions (and the intended topics) for this series:  What year is it (how years are numbered and when do they start)?  What’s for lunch (eating and mealtimes)?  Which way is the restaurant (directions)?

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Photographing the Moon

Ever gone outside and seen a beautiful full moon dominating the sky?  Or the blood-red moon of a lunar eclipse?  Perhaps you’ve tried to take a picture of it, just to then go inside later with your digital camera and found several black pictures with little white dots.  The moon has been shining especially bright here in Northern Virginia the last few nights, so I thought I’d demonstrate with my own picture, at right, taken on my phone last night.

That’s disappointing, isn’t it?

Stand outside and point your arms straight out, left and right.  The angle formed between your arms is 180 degrees.  Point one of them straight up.  That angle is 90 degrees.  Now, point one hand at the left edge of the moon and another at the right edge.  That’s probably hard, because your arms are so much thicker than the apparent size of the moon.  If you could do it, the angle would only be about half a degree.  Which is 0.28% of that original arms-spread-wide stance.  The field of view on a camera is about 40 degrees, give or take, which means the half-degree of the moon is anywhere from just 1.25% of the width of a picture to 2%.

And yet we look up at the sky, and it appears so massive.

There’s a bit of psychology in play here.  I’m not even talking about the classic optical illusion where the moon appears larger on the horizon, when compared to points of reference of known size, than when alone in the sky.  Even our perceptions of how large the moon is in an otherwise empty sky doesn’t quite match what we see when we photograph the moon.  It all comes down to how we perceive the world in general, and how our senses keep us alive and sane.

Right now you are being bombarded with sensory input you aren’t aware of.  The smell of the air.  The feel of cloth on your skin.  Probably the dull hush of the heater, the hum of your computer.  All of this lives within a realm that your senses write down as a baseline and ignore.  Instead, we focus on the important things, we filter our inputs.  In the case of the moon, we filter it as far more important, and therefore perceive it as far larger than it actually is.  But this breaks down when we introduce an impassioned observer into the mix, when we tell a mechanical device to interpret the scene and show us what’s actually there.

Photography causes this illusion, this misconception, to break down.  So we look at a moon that looms in the sky, then at a blurry dot that disappoints in a picture.  It’s why there are any number of websites devoted to instructions for photographing the moon, which is one of the harder pictures that most people have tried, and failed, to properly take.

What, you’re likely asking, does any of this have to do with writing?

I’m getting to that.  I’ve been thinking about moon photography lately because it strikes me as the perfect analogy to how a mechanical being would interpret the world.  Those filters would be among the hardest bits to program, telling a system what input to disregard and what input is important enough to pay attention to.  Get it too wrong in either direction and you’ve got a being that is either paying attention to almost everything or practically nothing.  In short, the hardest bits of the human experience to reproduce are the ones we’re not even consciously aware of.

Writers are programmers.  Readers are our robots.

Alright, that sounds like a really bizarre analogy, but I stand by it within the context of the previous paragraph.  We, as writers, need to determine what sensory inputs are necessary for the reader and which are extraneous.  Too few inputs (my frequent problem) and readers are left with faceless characters standing in a void.  Too many inputs and they overwhelm the story and do too much to spread out the growing drama or tension of a situation.  It’s not quite a tightrope, there’s wiggle room, but it is one of the bigger challenges that I’m still facing as a writer: how much is enough, and how much would be too much.  I’ve yet to do the latter myself, but I do know it exists, as I have seen it in stories.  Find that balance, and your reader is aware of how spectacular the moon is in the night sky without being aware of how little of the sky it actually takes up.

Meanwhile, I’m going to work a little more on my photography.

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