They say the shinkansen trains are so punctual that you could set your watch by them. This seems somehow fitting, since railways historically contributed to the standardisation of time.
Before the advent of high speed travel on a national scale - we're talking here of steam trains going at upwards of 50 miles an hour - there was no need to have standard times across countries. Each locality on Earth would set its own time, according to the position of the sun in the sky. Places just a hundred miles apart would have their own local time zones. There was not much need for wider synchronicity if no one could physically get from A to B fast enough for anyone to notice.
In Victorian England, lunchtime in London would arrive about ten minutes before lunchtime in Bristol - at least, until the railways came. Then, they needed to have a common standard time so that the trains could run to the same time (or run late to the same time). So Bristol time became London time. Similar mergers happened all round the world, in a kind of globalisation of time: the world became a less parochial place.
Yet we can imagine still wider standardisations, beyond our planetary parochialism. Perhaps a pan-galactic Board of Timekeeping has decided that everywhere in the Milky Way should have a common standard time, and that our solar system should have its time graduated to the grand cycle round the centre of the galaxy. This orbit takes us about 200 million earth years.
Our Earth year is based on the time it takes for our planet to go round our star - an arbitrary and insignificant duration in galactic terms. But we could convert to a new cosmopolitan calendar, relativised to some alien meridian, like a galactic Greenwich. This new galactic mean time would still be tricky, since the galaxy rotates at different speeds in different parts, so there would still need to be some local adjustments.
And, just like getting rid of old measurements like miles and yards, we would have to get used to counting in (fractions of) galactic 'years'. The new calendar would cut across our existing calendars, with virtually no chance of a neat fit. Not only are our points of reference based on local astronomy, but our counting system is based on Earthling anatomy. The galactic calendar could use any other counting system voted in by the pan-galactic Board (this might come down to a headcount of the most powerful members - perhaps dominated by the aliens with the most heads).
Having decided the unit of time, the Board would need to decide when to count from. It is hard enough for Earthlings to agree on what date our calendars should be counted from. Nevertheless, at the universal scale it might yet be simpler, if we could relativise all time back to the Big Bang. But, curiously, cosmologists are rather vague about when exactly this was. Though there are detailed calculations about the first few seconds after the Big Bang, we can't really be very precise at all about which actual year it took place (never mind which day of the week).
But worse, how will time be synchronised across the galaxy? That is, how can we ensure there is really a universal 'here and now' against which all time is fixed? Physicists say that there can be no universal 'now' (as explained in a recent edition of Scientific Alien). This is because everything is relative to everything else: time seems to speed up and slow down, depending on who you are and how fast you go.
Now the aliens most interested in pan-galactic time-keeping are the type that go gadding about in rocket-ships. Like the railways before them, it is for the needs of rocket-ship schedules that standard times are required.
But rocket-ships travelling at high speeds will have a different gauge of time from planet-bound citizens. Clocks on the rocket-ships will go slower, so time will not necessarily be the same everywhere. This causes big problems for space-ship schedules - passengers are always confusing local time and galactic time. (This is nothing compared to the arguments that rage about baggage - since hold luggage is measured by weight, there are always disputes about excess charges when arriving at 'heavier' planets.)
So, while an alien rocket-ship might be a symbol of galactic cosmopolitanism in your spaceport, it would probably be the last thing you would want to set your watch by.
(c) Stephen Marshall, stephen[at]cyberspace.co.jp
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