I have reached the stage in my latest science fiction epic (in form if not quality!) whereby I need to start solidifying the date system and setting the history of the universe concretely. The date system should be convenient both for characters to discuss and the reader to understand quickly enough.
The date system needs to span at least 10^24 years (it has long been accepted that life will necessarily die out before then, in the book).
I am flirting with the idea of using ordinary earth dates (01/01/1970) up to the year one million. After then, the powers that be decided that writing 01/01/1000000 was not ideal and not very scalable.
Imagine the date: the first of January, four hundred and eighty three trillion two hundred and ninety seven billion five hundred and fifty five million seven hundred and twenty one thousand eight hundred and fifteen (01/01/483297555721815); it doesn't exactly role off the tongue (not to mention it's basically unreadable in any convenient amount of time (with accuracy) for people suffering with certain medical conditions which affect their ability to perceive written numbers).
My universe is has a very explicit timeline and characters will spend time exploring various events of the past and the book will span trillions of years from front to back (there is no time travel in my universe). How can I invent a date system which is human convenient that my characters can use when discussing things, and most importantly, the reader can keep a reasonably simple timeline in their head and understand (ish) when I am talking about.
This problem is quite noticeable when picking two large dates, take the date example above, and this date - 01/01/23365535731776. they look very similar, but there's over 450 trillion years between them.
- Accuracy to the day is important. It is no good saying "at around 10^19".
- Not event or loose era based. E.g. LotR uses 'First Age' and SW uses the 'Battle of Yavin' as date markers. I suppose a year (2022) is an 'era marker' in itself, but it is consistent and logical and one can identify its neighbours just by knowing the system.
- Span at least 10^24 years (In my book, humanity has retained the idea of earth time, so a year is always an earth rotation around the sun (as recorded in the year 5000).
- Be human (reader) convenient and understandable without much mental acrobatics.
- The date system must be computer readable also and retain all the functionality that our current date system has.
Ideas I am considering (most likely a combination will be required?):
- Some kind of hashing function whereby the universe agrees on some standard set of shorter hashes. (not ideal from a reader perspective as 01/01/1fty32 and 01/01/6hyrrj could be right next to eachother or thousands of years apart).
- Scientific notation 1.32322E+25 (still not very convenient).
- Breaking the date up into more than three segments. e.g. 01/01/12/45/689/9998 - (this would combat the problem hashing functions have of readers not being able to tell if dates are close or distant from each other, but it is still an awful lot of numbers required).
- Associating each number with an alpha mark - 0t10b would be 0 trillion 10 billion. 126t778b etc does not look to pretty though when combined with the rest of the date.
So far my best idea (I think) is to have some sort of consistent era markers, followed a reasonably familiar yet larger system at the end such as aaaaa.365/99999/9999.
- The aaaaa represents trillions and billions and the next would be aaaab >> aaaaz etc.
- 365 represents the day of the year (months have been scrapped but the days remain the same length)
- 99999 represents the year
- 9999 represents the hundreds of thousands marker
The first day 65 trillion, 77 billion, 10 million, 869 thousand 222 would be: acrfz.001/69222/0108
I think I like this system because it means readers will look at aaaab and aaaac and know they are far apart, but not as distant as they are from ttyxx. It also has specificity and removes the month to reduce visual noise. I would also footnote every date using a written English version of the date to help the reader further understand if necessary.
Anyone with any thoughts on the above system? I like the ordering of 'era marker'.'smallest > biggest' but my main issue is it is still quite 'numbery' - can anyone think of a way to make it simpler but still capable of addressing each and every day?
Finally, history and timescales, and discussion thereon are key story and world building elements crucial to the book so I am not able to just 'pick 50ish dates' that the reader needs to know about and forget the rest.
Sorry for the long post - any help, ideas or pointers to people who have already had ideas is of great help! I should say that my target audience would be those who are more mathematically / scientifically inclined and so I don't need to hold their hand too much but I don't want to exclude everyone who isn't Rain Man.
p.s. I have searched the internet for long term date systems but I have come up very short.
I have noticed in the answers and comments provided below, which have been just as helpful and insightful as I had hoped (and even more plentiful - this question even spent some time in the Hot Network which I was surprised at!), that people are often asking the question 'why?'. Their comments are valid, as humans often don't concern themselves with what's happening a decade from now, let alone thousands or millions of years apart. So I hope to give some (exceptionally brief) clarity as to what I am trying to achieve in case it helps answers have some more context on which to base their answers. This context does not invalidate already given answers in any way and I have found intrigue in all of them; thank you for that.
As alluded to in the question, history/events/time etc are crucial to my story. My story is centred around events spanning trillions of years. My characters will notice odd things and then questions will be asked about why, who could do this, divine design? evil corporation? Why is earth time such a good fit for all this? The broader picture will spell out a tale of immense planning of cosmic proportion, wherein the very movements of the universe itself are in play. Dates will need to be specific at the very least down to the year of events and often more so, as such events are mathematically linked - detail is important. Indeed, my 'marathon of the middle' will build up to a climax which will see my characters connect dots on great scale which will reveal this so called immense plan in such a way that readers will (hopefully) click; ahhh! It will be seen that certain events and the very universe itself are linked and could not happen in any other way or order. They will use this knowledge to identify future dates of interest and thus we are thrown into the whirlpool of 'the plan' itself and are able to start having a real effect, pressing toward a satisfying and triumphant ending.
tl;dr The maths is important to me and my story. For me, and hopefully my readers, the very beauty of the tale is in the 'grand design' of events and the 'not randomness' of it all. - I hope this answers some people's questions.
Thoughts on the 'frame challenge' answer
I should like to thank the user for giving such a complete and well thought out answer; It contains extremely useful referenced information and makes sound, logical sense.
I have thought long and hard about whether my framing is off for this question, since the frame challenge answer is currently the highest voted; however, I consider that the frame challenge fails in this instance (even though the answer is quite excellent in many ways), for these reasons:
My question does not require that the date system has universal adoption, nor that it be the only date system that exists. I agree with the answers premise that many date systems would be used depending on the frame of reference. Indeed, in regular conversation and the day to day living of my characters, they will adopt phrasing similar to what the answer suggest. However, my characters will also require (as I think is reasonable, stated below) the ability to discuss a larger time frame, with accuracy.
To say that is is "not practical" to have such a system (again I think erroneously implies that it would have universal application, which it does not need to have), is to suggest that across all of creation, there would be no people who ever want to mathematically compare a number of distant dates. I am never entering into my calculator '2022 + "circa the First Age"'; I would use what the answer suggests, and project my current date system back onto past events, even if they didn't use the system back then. Nobody alive BC ever used that to refer to themselves, but we can easily enough today label those time appropriately with our current system.
I consider that there, all but necessarily, must be times when people of the future wish to compare distant dates. Consider geologists discussing stellar events, or historians identifying previous 'dynasties', or calculating how long we have to burn our ion cannons to get out of reach of our slowly approaching, but specifically calculated doom. Remember that science-fiction would also allow for some extension of this reasonableness (for fun of course!). Consider also that the characters could even invent a system up to meet their requirements (which does not invalidate the question, as the question is concerned with both character and reader comprehension).
The answer provides useful commentary on a large number of date system relevant points and I am grateful for the time that was taken to write it. However, I do not consider that it correctly answers the question, and that questions which are looking more into using various 'base' points, or universal constants etc, are closer to the mark set by the question.
As a side note, the concept of Frame Challenge is discussed here, and I don't think the answer meets the criteria discussed there.
Please comment etc and let me know your thoughts on the above guys. It is the top voted answer, so I am expecting some push back!
p.s. I hope this does not come across as dismissive; I really have thought long about this and really am grateful for the ideas in the answer; they have given me a greater understanding of dates than I had before. Thank you!
The answer referred to above has been edited by its author to provide a suggestion which does meet the question criteria; as such, I am pleased to say I now consider it to be a valid answer (notwithstanding the frame challenge fail).