Life On Mars

It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since New Year’s– when we finally kicked 2020 to the curb.  And even though every person on this planet shouted “Goodbye and good riddance!” (I know I did) we’ve largely forgotten about it.  The hats have been thrown away, the champagne bottles recycled, and the resolutions … well … the resolutions really didn’t stand a chance this year, did they?  But not to worry.  You can renew those resolutions with a clean slate and a fresh start all this week– because last Sunday was also New Year’s Day – on Mars.

I’ll grant you, unless you’re a NASA scientist, it’s not something you think about, but now that you are, it definitely makes sense, doesn’t it?  After all, Mars has a different rotation from Earth and a different orbit around the sun, so our time – 24 hours/365 days – just doesn’t apply.  Actually, the Martian day, called a sol (pronunciation still in doubt) is 24 hours, 39 minutes long.  (That 43-minute difference is just enough to screw things up.)  And it takes Mars 687 days to get all the way around the sun – a Martian year.  So, since Mars has four seasons (just like us) a quick pen and paper calculation and you have 12 months (BTW, you can name them anything you want; nobody’s done that yet!) and there’s your Martian calendar.

Of course, none of this really mattered before we started sending our machines to Mars to have a look around.  But the minute we did, we discovered we needed a way to keep track of them: Earth time just wasn’t going to do it.  For example, right now in the Pacific Time Zone, it’s about 5:30 p.m. and the sun is going down, but on Mars (where the Rover is) that same sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon.  So far, so good.  But tomorrow (relative to me) Martian time is going to slide backwards 43 minutes, and it’ll do it again the next day, and the next.  By this time next month, me and Mars are going to be out of sync by nearly a whole day!  Oops!  So what NASA did was lengthen the Martian second by (approx.) 1.027.  Then they chose the Martian Spring Equinox as Day One of the Martian year. That allowed them to measure and schedule Martian time accurately from that fixed point.  (FYI, this is no different from Great Britain setting up Greenwich Mean Time in the 19th century, Pope Gregory XIII rebooting the calendar in 1582, or Julius Caesar naming the 7th month after himself when he was running the show.)  Anyway, for some reason (I can’t find out why) NASA decided to backdate Martian time to begin with Year Zero on Earth Year 1955.  That makes this Martian Year 36!

Ever since humans dropped out of the trees and looked up into the sky, the Red Planet has captured our imagination.  It’s our nearest celestial neighbour.  We can see it flickering red with the naked eye.  It has mysterious canals, polar ice caps, volcanos and canyons.  It’s been part of our literary culture for two centuries and part of our scientific world for nearly as long.  So, go ahead and celebrate the hell out of this Martian New Year — cuz the next one isn’t going to happen until December 26th 2022!

Leap Year 2020


Okay, ladies and gentlemen!  Brace yourselves — because there’s no way to sugar-coat it.  Tomorrow doesn’t exist; you are about to enter a man-made time warp.  As of midnight tonight, what you think is the present is actually the past, and the future won’t begin again for another 24 hours.  Deep, huh?  Don’t be scared, though; it happens every four years.  (Not really, but it’s too complicated to explain*.)  It’s called a Leap Year, or Leap Day to be more precise, and we need it because the universe doesn’t care what time you want to go to work.

The Universe, Mother Nature’s boss, doesn’t get involved in the affairs of humans.  It’s got better things to do.  We humans, Mother Nature’s most precocious children, have never quite understood that.  We think that if we make a couple more scientific discoveries or sit naked on a mountainside for a couple of years, we’ll get this whole universe thing figured out.  It’s not likely, but nobody ever accused our species of being humble.  The Universe actually rolls on without us, asking neither permission nor forgiveness, and nothing we say or do is going to change that.

Despite what old hippies and serious dope smokers will tell you, Time is not an artificial concept.  It exists, and people have always measured it.  Way back in caveman days, there were only two times — dark and light.  This is an extremely accurate measurement which most species on this planet still use.  However, as our species got busier and busier, we discovered that minor Time (major time is beyond our grasp) had recurring themes.  The sun travelled across the sky, the moon got larger and smaller, and familiar clusters of stars moved in elliptical patterns.  All these things happened with incredible regularity.  Therefore, it was simple for primitive humans to figure out that there were usually twenty nine suns between each full moon.  Not only that, but our ancestors also found that if they persistently watched the night sky, the movement of the stars corresponded to the seasons.  For example, in the Northern hemisphere, what we call Orion’s Belt first appears in the southwestern sky in early January, soon after the morning sun is lowest on the horizon.  Thus, by noting when Orion’s Belt first appeared in the sky and counting the number of suns until it reappeared, early sky watchers discovered a complete earthly cycle — or a year.  These two rough and ready measurements (or something similar) are the basis of all early calendars.

Unfortunately, as our society got more and more sophisticated, these primitive tools didn’t keep pace.  There’s an inconsistency between the months and the years that causes nothing but problems.  Essentially, 12 lunar months equal only 348 solar days — which leaves a 17 day gap in the celestial year.  As the years went on, the seasons were slowly getting out of whack.  No less a light than Julius Caesar saw this and devised a new system called The Julian Calendar that remedied most of the problems – for a while.  However, 1600 years later, these problems were back — with some extra added attractions.  Not only were the seasons out of place again (they had moved twelve calendar days in the centuries since Caesar) but the highest holiday in the Christian calendar, Easter, whose timing is based on the Spring Equinox was disappearing into seasonal winter.  Pope Gregory XIII decided rather than let the Universe figure it out, he would fix it.  After all, he was the infallible head of the Roman Catholic Church.  He set his minions a mission: devise a calendar that would work for all time and keep Easter in the spring (where it belonged.)  They came up with the Gregorian Calendar which added an extra day in February every four years (or so) to even out the imbalance.  Gregory’s new calendar was proclaimed in a papal bull on February 24th, 1582 and is now in general use.  Problem solved.

Which brings us back to the time warp that is tomorrow.  Tomorrow doesn’t exist because Gregory’s extra day was inserted for time already past.  Here’s the deal.  As our earth moves around the sun, it takes 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds to made one full circle.  For simple calculations, we call that a year.  That was the amount of time a year took in 2017, 2018 and 2019.  Obviously, that time is gone.  However, in our burning need to realign the Universe, here we are with a whole extra day to make up for it.  But the reality is that day is over.  We’ve already lived those hours, minutes and seconds.  In the great metaphysical scheme of things, this is borrowed time.

So take tomorrow off, kick back, throw a ball, read to your kids or just lie elbows deep in a pillow, contemplating the infinite.  If anybody asks, blame it on Pope Gregory.  He’s the guy who thought a little time management would be good for the Universe.

*A Leap Year is every year that is exactly divisible by four, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100.  However, the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 was not a leap year but the year 2000 was.

Originally written 2012 and gently edited.

Time Is On Our Side

sand of time

There’s a guy in Norway who wants to do away with time.  We all know, strictly speaking, that’s impossible, so my guess is he actually wants to get rid of clocks.  (The article was poorly written.)  While this is an admirable sunshine-and-lollipops endeavour, it has its roots in a far stupider idea.

Ever since Lucy (Australopithecus) and her sisters decided to go for a walk in Ethiopia, 3 million years ago, there have always been people who want to abandon the march of civilization.  Their contention is that humans are inherently pastoral, and we’re not meant to be regulated by the time-counting machines we’ve created.  In other words, we’d be a lot happier if we just ate when we’re hungry, slept when we’re tired, had sex when we’re horny and enjoyed a few more sunsets.  This idea gets a lot pf play on college campuses and during after-dinner conversations (with the second bottle of wine) but it ignores one essential fact – 3 million years of history.  Oops!

There is actually no evidence to suggest humans were ever a come-day/go-day, God’ll bring Sunday type of species.  The only reason some sophomores jump to this conclusion is our closest biological cousins, chimpanzees, behave that way– and the assumption is, back in the evolutionary day, we did too.  Wrong!  The truth is, all – ALL – the archaeological evidence points to the undeniable fact that humans have always been workaholics.  We didn’t become the dominant species on this planet by hunting, eating and then lying around digesting for the rest of the afternoon.  (I’m looking at you, bonobos!)  No, we used the bonus time between full and famished to work our asses off.  Why?  Because, unlike all the other animals Noah put on the boat, from aardvarks to zebras, we realized that the sun was going to come up again tomorrow.  And our long evolutionary crawl from the savannahs of Africa to the Mars Rover is a litany of labouring for that future.

Everything human beings do, from building the Pyramids to buying more than one potato, is based on our unflappable faith in time.  It’s one of the amazing imaginary concepts (like religion, ownership and fair play) that’s hardwired into our DNA.  But more than that, time is also one of our essential tools, like language and mathematics.  That’s why we’ve always tried to measure it so accurately.  We use time to regulate, manipulate and evaluate our existence; without it, nothing we see around us would exist.

Personally, I believe the quaint notion that humans could live quite happily without clocks comes from the benevolent society we’ve created that allows us massive amounts of leisure time.  We have time to think, and sometimes the things we think are wrong-headed.  Seriously, suggesting that we should turn our backs on hours and minutes because our primeval ancestors didn’t have alarm clocks is as preposterous as saying we shouldn’t have elevators because humans are not supposed to live and work in the skies above Mother Earth.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion — but stay tuned cuz I’m already planning another one in 4 days, 96 hours or 3,960 minutes, depending on how you want to measure it.