System Universal (SU)

This is an attempt to create a measurement system that is truly independent from cultural/planetary/star system influence. As a science fiction author and reader, it annoys me when I encounter an alien species that uses terms that are obviously (and some less obviously) human based. For instance, the year. Time is that basic and ubiquitous system of measurement that (most) humans agree on. The year is the length of time for our planet to orbit our sun. Perfect. But what if your character isn’t from Earth. What if they’re on Mars, or somewhere completely different? Their year will be longer or shorter than Earth years, so any communication between species that refers to years (or days, months, weeks, etc.) will be fraught with confusion.

Years: time Earth takes around the sun

Months: arbitrary segments of days that more-or-less fit into a year, not based on moon cycles, which is where the word ‘month’ comes from

Weeks: largely religious

Days: speed at which Earth rotates on its axis

Hours: based on the segments on fingers of a human

Minutes: from the Sumerians, who knows… same with seconds.

There have been modern attempts to define these measurements of time in a more scientific way, but that’s essentially going backwards. And of course there have been the unfortunates throughout history that may-or-may-not have hit upon a better system, only to be relegated to the footnotes and laughed off stage. Take for example, the octal system. It is based on 8 instead of 10, which means that you count up to 7 and then start over at 0. There’s a bit of confusing math involved in converting from a base-10 number to a base-8 number (which is why us hairless ground-apes never bothered switching). Some ancient people have actually used octal systems, only to be somewhat forgotten for the sake of people who count fingertips instead of knuckles… or the space between fingers (I know, weird, right?). Human adoption or not, an octal system is very handy once you get used to it. It can be divided down cleanly to 1, half it, then again, and again. Simple. We even use octal systems in our daily life, whether or not you’ve bothered to think about it. Computers use octal systems in data storage, 8-bit, 16-bit, 32, 64, etc.

But choosing a base system to use for counting is only the beginning. What good is an octal system if you’re using it if you’re applying it to an already existing period of time? There’s no point in trying to define a year in octal units at this point. Better to define a rational number of universally recognized units with an octal system to represent a “galactic year” or in my case, I called it a “Span”.

But what objective unit can we choose? Modern scientific belief states that the speed of light is absolute. Nothing can go faster. Great, let’s choose the speed of light… Wait, no. That’s based on a meter (another human based measurement). Then you’d have to create a universal measurement of length first to define the speed of light. I’ll get to that later.

I toyed with this a lot the other day. Eventually I settled on half lives. The time (ah! same system) that an unstable isotope of an element (universal) takes to degrade to half of… It’s life, I guess (I don’t know, my brain can only take so much). But it’s a set span of time! And elements are universal, right? So I decided to start at the beginning, the most common element and the first one on the list is hydrogen (H). The first unstable isotope of hydrogen is tritium (3H). The half life of tritium is 12.43 years (I’m sure there are more decimel places, but I couldn’t find them). Despite the definition being in decimal and in years, both systems we’re trying to avoid here, it’s still a fixed span of time.

So we start with the half life of tritium. 12.43 years becomes our equivalent of a “decade”. I call it an an’Span (because in my current writing universe, “an” means something like “über”), and also, because I can.

Then we start dividing down to match something that our minds can handle to measure time (because there needs to be some parallel between the system that the non-humans use with the humans, and because I don’t want to do that much math). Here’s the units I have figured out and their human equivalents:

SU unitSU divisionEarth unit equivalent
Shift1/8 halfturn1.1075 day
Halfturn1/2 turn8.86 days
Turn1/4 otspan17.7 days
Otspan1/8 span70.9 days
Span1/8 an’span1.553 years / 567.25 days
An’Spanhalf life of tritium12.43 years

And there you are. A system of time that is independent on human influence. There are a lot of weird numbers with lots of partial days, etc. But for the sake of everyone else who isn’t human, who cares? Maybe you should just invest in an SU calendar and watch.

Now the real question is: how can I create a clock app that will keep SU time? Anyone?

Also, full disclaimer: very little of this will actually make it into the finished manuscript for my current book, unless it becomes relevant to the plot. I don’t want to scare anyone away from attempting my books because they don’t want to fall into the wormhole of backstory and context dumps.