For an intelligent species of life to attain so advanced a level of technological development and operation as to be considered a type-I civilization, in a number of evolutionary scenarios they'd first need at their disposal hundreds of millennia. In the case of humanity, systems of time are often politically or religiously motivated--a number of different civilizations having their own calendar eras. For example, at present, in the West, we use the Gregorian calander, which incidentally is also called the Christian Calander. Most of us know when time supposedly started within it or at least according to Christian mythology.

When we look at these religiously or politically motivated biases it's easy enough to criticize, but then when we look at the alternatives, say Unix time, it's quite easy to appreciate their formats. My question incorporates both issues. How would so intelligent a species possibly or probably keep track of time?--Would they simply hold to ancient societal formats, such as those inspired by religion, or would they have possibly implemented a fabricated format based on atomic time with, say, the "beginning" being placed at the same "time" as the big bang, supposing that they espoused such a scientific theory? Would they use their sun, in all likelihood, just as we do for years and days and so forth?

The obvious answer is that we have no way of knowing what a superorganism so many times more intelligent than us would do as regards the recording and implementing of time. However, perhaps certain factors could be fleshed out in the same way that we have come up with a Drake equation or the Fermi paradox. The point I make in my last sentence is only that I am looking for plausability, not deductive inference.

Just in case, my question again is: what are some likely ways a type-I civilization would keep track of time; and, from what point of beginning? If you answer, please explain why you think such. If you go with something like unix time, how would that translate into years and what would the format look like and, again, is there any reason for thinking such?

Thank you.

  • $\begingroup$ A somewhat related question: How Would a Post-Planetary Civilization Measure Time? $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 24 '15 at 14:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It might add an intriguing air of mystery if, instead of counting the time since some past event, they instead count the time until some future event. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 24 '15 at 16:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ More nitpick detail then answer, but I think that their time epoch if they used a 'linux time' approach could not be the big bang. Time was...well not that consistent right around the big bang. Still, an epoch time set to some arbitrary time period, likely culturally motivated (such as linux time is actually) would still work. They would just have a negative time for things before that. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 24 '15 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, now hat I think of it any species that is type 1 is going to be working with such energies, and thus speeds, and on worlds of significantly variable masses, which means that relativistic effects will come up often (especially since they would also need increased precision). The scientists will need something far more then Linux time, they will need to keep time when everyone is experiencing different times. I haven't a clue how they could do that. It's entirely possible they won't, and conversions due to temporal distortions will be a normal part of their daily lives. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 24 '15 at 21:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What different times? Type 1 only talks about using the entire energy of a planet. This will predominantly be one planet, the civ's homeworld. $\endgroup$ – hiergiltdiestfu Jul 25 '15 at 10:03

Humans have been keeping time for a very long time (or so the timekeepers tell me), but just like government computers and old computer scientists, we really don't like updating our software. For instance, look at how we still maintain the Babylonian method of keeping time (seconds in a minute, minutes in an hour), even though we use a base-60 number system absolutely nowhere else. Plus, even though there have been many events more world-changing than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, no one seems to want to go back to zero (you mentioned Unix time, but I don't think too many people would say that today is July 24th, 0045 AU).

At least for humans, the desire to stick to old, obsolete systems seems to be a pervasive part of our culture. Many people prefer magical, mystical, religious, or 'alternative' medicines to the scientific ones, Americans outright refuse to switch to the metric system, and schools still let out for the summer even though very few students have to get home for the harvest. It is conceivable that even far into the future, we'll still be desperately holding onto our traditions, instead of embracing new ideas. This holds especially true for time, since it won't really help to change it in most cases, and will really screw up meetings if some people switch and others don't.

So, for your civilization, time will most likely be kept based on some ancient system. Years will probably exist, and be as long as it takes for their home planet to go around the sun. If the planet rotates, there will be days. As for the other time periods, it depends on how long the day and year are: for example, if a year is only seven days long, they won't really need weeks, but there will probably be some new ways to split up the extra-long days.

If the civilization has expanded to other planets, there may be local time systems based on that planet's rotation/revolution, but the standard will most likely remain based on the home planet. This is especially true if your civilization maintains their original bodies; even humans in space or on the moon are still going to want to sleep for eight hours every twenty-four hours, it's just how we're built.

  • $\begingroup$ Hey there, DaaahWhoosh, thanks for your answer. Yeah, that's a good point about the diurnal cycles, I should have mentioned that. You also mentioned the Babylonian time system we hold to even today, and that does lend perspective to what another civilization would perhaps use, so that's also a good point. Maybe I can look into a system that would be "more mathmatical" versus being merely traditional. As in, 100 of some or other unit being the basis for the second, and the minute and so forth, versus sixty. $\endgroup$ – Private Name Jul 24 '15 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I mostly agree with this for commune use, with one caviate. I think that professionals, like scientists and programmers, would have their own 'Linux time'. You can see how programmers, the ones who most run into difficulty with defining 'time' ultimately express things in Linux time and convert to 'normal' time later. However, once you have historians needing to convert between calendars of different worlds, and scientists trying to define time in situations where relativistic effects are required and we can't use earth as our framework....yeah professionals will have a linux time $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 24 '15 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinChapman I just remembered, you probably don't want to use base 10, since we only use it because we can count it on our fingers. Go for binary. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 25 '15 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ Just because this was interesting: So, if a day was 10 hours' long, an hour' 10 minutes', and a minute' was 10 seconds' (that is, in definition, rather than orbital and axial speed) then 1 second' would be 86 times longer than it is currently, almost a minute and a half! $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Feb 4 '16 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s It's much more likely that a minute would be 100 seconds long, and an hour 100 minutes long, leaving seconds a little bit shorter than they are now. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Feb 4 '16 at 23:37

I would not worry about the "beginning" event in your system, an event known as an "epoch." Times and dates are really only useful when talking about the difference between them. The epoch has little, if anything to do with reality.

For example, nearly every time system we have is fixed to a date described in Julian dates. Julian dates start at January 1, 4713 BC in the Julian calendar. Why that date? Because it turned out that, if they started then, the entire Christian recorded history was in positive numbers, and that was the start of a major cycle in the Julian calendar (the conjunction of 3 important cycles). We've literally based every date since off that calendar!

Now the units of time, those are more interesting. We have a system of units, hours minutes and seconds, which are very closely tied to the 24 hour cycle of Earth. These would likely shift to something more convenient as we expand. However, I would expect this shift to occur around the type-II boundary, not the type-I boundary. Generally speaking, I would presume that biology and nostalgia would keep us using Earth time for a reasonable time after we leave our planet.

However, it would be interesting to see if the march towards SI continues. Once we break free of our diurnal rhythm (which will not be easy), measuring time in seconds, kiloseconds, and megaseconds might be very reasonable. However, until that diurnam rhythm within our bodies is understood and reigned in, I expect the value of a 24 hour day to not recede.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the pointer on epoch, Cort Ammon. I hadn't known the noun could be used that way. Nice to know. I was aware of the Julian calander but not what you shared on it, so that's interesting too. :) I have personally gone with barycentric time for the mining colony and the developed space colonies of the civilization I'm creating, and I agree that time would likely be local and have biological implications for a long time in such a civlization. Thanks for your comment. :) $\endgroup$ – Private Name Jul 24 '15 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinChapman in linux time, like you mentioned, the first second of 1970 is refereed to as the epoch date. That's their starting point. All linux time is is a count of seconds since epoch. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 24 '15 at 23:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for pointing out that the interesting stuff will rather have to happen around the Type 2 threshold. $\endgroup$ – hiergiltdiestfu Jul 25 '15 at 10:07

Already with interplanetary travel and mapping, time is not a simple background but needs to cope with SR and GR. We do that now. A civilisation that spans this scale will naturally include the concepts that time is not independent of space and flows at different rates. A unified coordinate system of space-time is needed.

There is also a broader understanding similar to time zones: not only "what time was it at X when it was time=t1 at Y", but realize that time flows at different rates, so the relationship is not fixed and there are differences in durations as well.

Businesses and civil use won't use the full complexity that's present for scientific use and navigation. On a human time scale, counting days, I don't care that time passes faster on Mars, but might care that Mars uses a different day-length cycle.

For legal and banking use, I need to specify actual unambiguous periods, like Earth's civil solar day, and while at it I can specify that it's measured at Earth, so interest accrues at the specified time as measured at the specified place. The purpose they care about is making sure payment is received before that point, so communication delays and such are responibility of the pay-or. But the tiny SR/GR differences are handled the same way, by indicating a specified time and place, never a time alone.

The oldest laws deal with shipping responsibilities, and lots of terminology and standards have emerged. With information taking the role of goods, and possible light-speed transit, the ideas carry over regarding shipping and destination ports and who's responsible at which stage.


Some counter arguments based on Human history:

Every "new" social organization likes to consider that they are the "start" of history. Ancient Egyptians measured time in Regnal years (i.e. from the ascension of the Pharaoh), so dates would be something like "on the 14th day after the flooding of the Nile in the 6th year of Rameses III". One inference is that things that happened prior to Rameses III really aren't all that important.

We see the same in the French Revolution, when the traditional calendar dates were thrown out for a "Revolutionary Calendar", or the the chilling declaration that "This is the Year 0" when the Cambodian Communists under Pol Pot defeated the government and took over to start their genocidal regime. Even the UNIX calendar is based on a unique event: the introduction of the UNIX OS as "second 0", with all other events recorded as seconds before or since that event.

I would think that a Type 1 civilization would probably start their calendar from some epochal date, with everything measured from and too that event. If the civilization is not "unitary", then there will actually be several competing calendars in use, much as the "Georgian" calendar we use is not universal outside of business and aviation, or "Zulu" time is not commonly used outside of the military. Holdouts might be trying to preserve a different culture or religion, or perhaps use this as a means of differentiating themselves from the mainstream (the "Hipster calendar").

I suspect that even a type 1 civilization may also have destabilizing events, and perhaps their civilization might have several calendar "resets" over the lifespan of the civilization.


Not sure how useful this is but a hugely advanced civilisation will probably count in base sixteen or base twelve. Can't remember why but this is supposed to be the best base to count in. Although your civilisation may count in whatever number of fingers they have so there time may respect that. For a universal or multi-planet civilisation a base 16, or base 12 as these are good systems and are not reliant on biology or day length meaning it will be potentially easier for other races to understand.

Choosing a start date has many possibilities. If the society is religious then they would chose a date that reflects this, birth of messiah, date of universes creation, birth/death of prominent saint/saints etc. If they are very proud of there science they may chose a scientific date, birth of famous scientist, discovery of space travel/nuclear fission/other major discovery etc. If they are a race which meets with many others then they may adopt a time system similar or the same as a race they trade with for ease of communication.

An alternative to a number based system is a naming of years, similar to the Chinese, or just no naming of years. Why not just count days, why do we need to number years at all? Although this still would require a day 1 somewhere in the past it need not be a famous date like 0 A.D.

Sorry this answer is not very well organised, if I get time I may improve it later.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Please have a Moment to rethink your answer. As it is now, it is very vague and more of a comment, rather than an answer. Think about whether you can extend it and provide more information $\endgroup$ – T3 H40 Feb 4 '16 at 17:57

A type I civilization could eventually end up choosing different time systems and starting basis for different sets of solar systems or galaxies.

Starting basis:

Over the many millennia they have explored and studied so many different star systems with all their different expressions of time within each of the systems that they found it easiest to simply set up a new time system per locality rather than bothering with constantly making conversions to one primary system. Oh sure, they'll still have the algorithms set up so anyone could make the conversions between time systems if they want to, but most will choose to just go with the flow. More energy efficient that way.

So they will initially calculate the star's birth based on the oldest known system's star death. Set that as date "zero".

Incremental time within the systems:

They figure out for each system its most stable elemental decay rate. They set up a clock based on that specific decay rate and possibly if it makes sense to do so (staying there a while, or there's local intelligent life to continue to interact with, etc.) choose larger increments of time based on the amount of time the farthest or closest planet takes to rotate it's main star or group of stars. Or based on just the one planet if there's intelligent life on only one at the time they setup timing. Or maybe based on the center point of rotation within a rotational galaxy. They are complex folks who enjoy variety, and some systems just make more sense to do it one way over another. Some are so young they won't bother with more than most basic decay rate clock. Then while they "spend time" within that system or galaxy, they use that time system.

When traveling between systems they may keep the last system used if they like it, or revert to whichever home system they are from, as they will not all be from the same places by the time they are Type I. Time will truly be relative at the traveling distances they experience, and they are extremely adaptable or they would not have lasted as long as they have. They are also comfortable with non-temporal states of being, and find the simplest choice is often to adopt the local environmental constraints.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.