Posts Tagged Time

World Building Question: When is Noon?

This is a direct outgrowth of the previous World Building Question, and yes, continues the feature’s fascination with timekeeping that was only briefly interrupted by henotheism and monolatry. It’s a little harder to tie this back to world building, but I’ve got some of my standard questions at the end of this post. Next time I’ll find something else to talk about, I promise. That said, a simple question:

When is Noon?

To start answering this question, I’m going to take the computer programming route and define some terms first. This is important because people tend to think of “noon” and “12pm” as synonyms, but for the purpose of this post they are not. I will try my damnedest to be consistent.

Noon shall be defined as the time that the sun is at its zenith for the day in a given location. This is also called “solar noon,” but I’m going to simplify the term for this post.

12pm shall be defined as when a clock at a given location, set to that location’s time zone, reads 12pm.

Let’s continue now, shall we?

I brought up noon in my previous world building question that provided a brief history of the length of an hour, listed it as one of those clear delineating points of the day for a culture that uses the sun as its primary time telling device. Oh, that’s not to say it’s perfectly clear the exact moment that the sun is as high in the sky as it’s going to get, no big bright flash or bells going off, nothing like that. But it’s generally clear that, hey, the sun is pretty close to overhead.

Now, as to what time that was? Well, there was some disagreement on that. In modern cultures, with the 24 hour clock we’ve globally settled on, it’s close-ish to the middle of the day (more on that later). In several older cultures, this was true as well. Each new day started at sun-up and went until just before sun-up the following day. Of course, under this notion, noon would be about 6 hours into a 24 hour day. Some cultures considered the new day as starting at noon, so it would be 0 hours into the day. Some cultures counted a new day when the sun set, making noon about 18 hours into the day. These don’t make any actual difference, because things were getting done during the day, and all three ways of counting would agree on what day it is.

Today we count new days at midnight so noon happens 12 hours into the day at 12pm. Right?


For a time, yes. For a time when the sun was at its highest point of the day where you were it was 12pm, and twelve hours later would be midnight and the start of the new day. This held on for quite a while. Every city would have its own little mini time zone. In Boston it would be 8 minutes earlier than it was in New York, give or take. When it takes several days to get between cities, little differences of a few minutes in time don’t make a hell of a lot of difference. However when the railroad came around, that’s what things started to change. Which means we’re talking 19th century. Mid to late 19th century at that. What was called “railroad time” showed up in England around 1847 and in the United States in the 1880s. This evolved into the time zones we’re aware of today.

So what time is noon? Well, since an entire 1/24 slice of the globe is now on the same time, it can vary by an hour from one edge of a time zone to another. Except that time zones aren’t straight lines, they have bulges and juts that can create a wider gap than one hour. China, notably, has a single time zone that results in a four hour difference in when noon happens from the western extreme of the country to the eastern.

Then there’s Daylight Saving Time that throws everything off by another hour.

So to answer the question of when noon is. Today, March 21, 2013, noon in Washington DC will happen at 1:15pm. In Nashville, Tennessee and Amarillo, Texas, both in the same time zone, noon today will happen at 12:54pm and 1:54pm respectively. That’s a nearly two hour difference between 12pm and noon in west Texas. In Harbin, China, noon will come at 11:40am. In Kashgar, China, 3:03pm. The Kaliningrad Oblast, that little chunk of Russia that’s divorced from the main body of the country, uses the same time zone as St. Petersburg and Moscow. So while the city of Kaliningrad is almost due north of Warsaw, the former will hit noon at 1:45pm, the latter at 11:43am.

And so on.

Then there’s Zulu Time, aka UTC. Whatever you want to call it, the universal international time zone based around the non-DST adjusted time in Greenwich, UK (for various reasons that boil down to “because an Englishman figured out longitude at sea”) is where noon and 1200 hours are completely and forever divorced. Find the right place and noon will be at 0000 hours, or 12am. This is essential for organizations, like the US Navy, that need to coordinate on an international scale on vessels that might rapidly traverse time zones.

So when is noon? It depends on whether you’re on the western or eastern edge of your time zone. Whether you’re in a state or country currently observing Daylight Saving Time. Whether you’re in a culture that depends on rapid transit.  Whether you’re in a culture that needs/values uniformity of time for various transactions. Whether you’re observing a globally constant time. Noon as 12pm served humanity very well for an extremely long time. Now we’re moving increasingly into a society where the day is less defined as the sun and more defined as what we want it to be.

So what does that say about us as a global culture? What would it say about a global culture (either alien or future earth) that fully used UTC? What would it say of a culture that reached a similar technology as earth now has without any form of time zones or universal time, letting each city have its own slightly different time?

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Long Time Gone

Some notes about time and longevity.

Cleopatra VII, who is the Cleopatra we always call just “Cleopatra,” was the last emperor of Egypt, reigning until her death in 30BC. The great pyramid of Giza was finished around 2540BC. That’s a stretch of over 2500 years, and means that Cleopatra is closer in time to us than she was to one of the great architectural triumphs of the empire she ruled. And not by a little, she’s half a millennium closer to us than to Giza.

Qin Shihuangdi became emperor of unified China in 221BC. The imperial period then lasted, with a few hiccups, until the last emperor abdicated in 1912AD. If the imperial period of Rome lasted as long as the imperial period of China there would still be a Roman emperor today.

If this republic of ours, the United States, can last as long as the Roman Republic we’ll still be going well into the 23rd century. And that’s just the Roman Republic, founding until Augustus.

I could do a whole list of these. How London celebrated two millenniums before the United States celebrated two centuries, things like that. But even as these massively successful polities lasted, there were internal changes. Dynasties rose and fall, civil wars came and went. It’s easy to talk about “Dynastic Egypt” as some constant, or “Imperial Rome” or “Imperial China” but with anything that lasts for so long, there are changes along the way.

Yeah, this all comes down to my notion of writing three novels that look in on nearly 1200 years history of a generation ship. 1200 years is a damn long time. 1200 years ago, Charlemagne wasn’t quite dead yet (give him another year). Vikings were still a problem, but hadn’t yet settled Vinland. Big history is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing me. Societies go through vast changes far more frequently that the books are setting down to look at. Write three books about citizens of the city of Rome set over a 1200 year period. In the first they live in a city-state struggling to keep itself afloat in the Italian boot. In the second Rome is an empire controlling the entire Mediterranean. In the third, it’s a crumbling city within a Germanic kingdom. What connection is there between those stories? And what must be known of the time in between?

Probably not worth thinking about quite yet. Just get the first one written, then worry about how to bridge between them.

Oh, and my wife’s personal favorite story of long times: We are chronologically closer to a T-Rex than a T-Rex is to a Stegosaurus.


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World Building Question: What Time Is It?

Here in the United States, except for most of Arizona and Hawaii, we’ve gone into Daylight Saving Time, when we shift our clocks forward an hour so we can take advantage of more sunlight in the evenings after work.  You know what DST is, because while the whole world doesn’t use it, probably 95% of this blog’s traffic comes from countries that do.  However, DST is not universally applied internationally.  The US and the UK shift a few weeks apart, and Australia observes DST opposite the rest of the world due to flipped seasons.  It also picks different dates.  This video explains the history of DST and how things just don’t line up all that smoothly, and even the odd DST observing and non-observing enclaves within Native territories in Arizona:

So last week we here on the east coast of the United States were 16 hours behind Sydney, Australia, now we’re 15, and in another few weeks it’ll be just 14.  And just when it looked like we were catching up to the Aussies, it’ll all reverse and go back to 16 hours in a few short months.

Alright, so what’s my vague justification for talking about DST under the auspices of World Building?  It brings up an important question when it comes to non-earth worlds:  What time is it?  How granular is time?  In a less advanced civilization there may be just four broad times: morning, midday, evening, and night.  If you’re not trying to plan specific and detailed events, that’s all you really need, and it’s more about our perception of time than actual hours.  “Morning” changes by hours a year, to when it starts, when it ends, and how long it is, thanks to lengthening and shortening of a day and by ones latitude.

A more advanced society requires more advanced time keeping.  Broad subdivisions of time independent of the rising and setting of the sun come first.  We call these hours on earth, and arbitrarily divide a day into 24 of them.  There are 24 because the Egyptians liked to use base 12, and split the equinox day into equal halves, twelve portions of daylight, twelve portions of darkness.  Why 12 when we have 10 fingers?  Because they counted knuckles, not digits.  It’s handily a mathematically significant number because there are more factors of 12 than 10, but it’s largely arbitrary due to one culture’s affinity for a number and later cultures’ affinity for that culture.

Once a society becomes more advanced, it needs more granular time.  This won’t necessarily lead straight to minutes, but could be quarters of the longer time blocks, or perhaps eighths.  Even modern society we tend to use only halves and less frequently quarters for most of our daily activities.  Sixty minutes on earth come from old methods of hand counting from cultures that lacked calculators and needed ways of tallying numbers larger than ten using the digits on their hands.  It’s the old 12 knuckles on one hand, multiplied by 2, 3, 4, or 5 on the other.  Thumbs need not apply.  We further divide things into seconds, again with 60 per minute.  After that, time becomes decimal, belying the fact that smaller units of times than seconds weren’t really necessary until after the scientific revolution.  Thus we end up with milliseconds and picoseconds.

There are some who suggest that all of time should be decimalized the way subdivisions of seconds are.  A day would be 10 hours of 100 minutes of 100 seconds, which the length of each being determined by taking the period of revolution of the earth and dividing by the correct number.  While there’s a certain logic to this decimalization, there is so much cultural momentum to overcome that decimal time will likely never be more than just a novelty.  We see this here in the United States as various movements fail to convert the country from imperial to metric measurements.

We further complicated time of day with time zones, designed so that noon in each part of the world roughly represents the midpoint between sunrise and sunset, but rarely actually does.  There is some push to eliminate those just as there is a push for the decimalization of time.  This is more successful as there are already organizations, such as major world navies, who see the benefit of referring to an exact moment of time by the same numerical representation wherever you are in the world.  Thus 0300 Zulu is 0300 Zulu whether a ship is in the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian oceans.  It’s handy for any organization attempting to synchronize around the planet, or even beyond it, something that wasn’t necessary or possible until very recently.

So let’s pretend we’re world building time on the earth.  The day was divided into 12 units (and the night an additional 12) because 12 was a culturally significant number for an early culture, in no small part because it represented the number of segments on the fingers of one hand.  Hours and seconds were divided five times farther because early cultures would use this counting-to-twelve method on one hand, then use the fingers on the other hand for the multipliers 2x through 5x.  Subdividions of seconds are the only units of time that are decimalized because they are only useful to scientists who prefer decimalization because it makes math easier.  These divisions have nothing to do with when the sun rises or sets, and even arbitrarily shift by an hour at a time.  The earth itself is divided into 24 major time zones (we won’t even start with the minor half and quarter hour zones) one per hour of the day for offset, though these are slowly going away in favor of a universal time.  And this is all before we’ve put down our first settlement on a planet that rotates at a different rate than earth, which will further complicate things.

So we’re back to the original question.  What time is it?  It’s a complex question that will deal with the history of your planet and culture, cultural norms, scientific advancement, and ultimately may cause debate and confusion on a planet shrunk by high speed communication.

And this is without even asking two far more complicated, but legitimate, world building questions: What day is today? And when is lunch?

Railway station clock picture by Wikipedian Petar Milošević, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  French decimal clock picture by Wikipedia Cormullion, and also licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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