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Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 29, or God in Outer Space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s note: Researchers exploring Mars via rover and satellite have to adapt to the longer day on the Red Planet. Katie Worth, whose Can Earthlings Adapt to the Longer Day on Mars? for Scientific American last month describes the consequences of sleep-pattern changes, is trying it out herself. Follow her experiences in living on “Mars time” at this blog to see how it affects her sleep and behavior. This post is the ninth in a series.

As Mars time is coming to a close, I'm no longer in danger of unintentionally letting in the bad spirits.

As Mars time is coming to a close, I'm no longer in danger of unintentionally letting in the bad spirits.

I was sweeping my apartment floor one evening a couple weeks ago when a thought suddenly occurred to me that made me freeze mid-swoop.

What about the spirits? I thought. I used to live on the island of Guam, where I learned that sweeping at night is a no-no. The superstition holds that if you sweep at night, you may expel the protective spirits from your house, right at the moment when the dark spirits have awoken and are preparing to pounce.

Being an atheist-leaning agnostic, I intellectually believe superstitions are merely bits of human-created creed, whose main contribution to society has been to inspire Stevie Wonder to write a song with one of history’s greatest riffs.

But what my brain knows, my soul denies. I confess: I am a wholehearted, salt-throwing, ladder-avoiding superstitionalist. I have been this way as long as I can remember, even though I realized its nonsense early on. As a kid I even tried to talk myself out of it by making up my own superstition, just to prove how easy it was to make people believe baloney. But it backfired, and I wound up being the only one that adhered to the superstition I had invented (and, pathetically, I still do, which is why you’ll see me go through a mad set of gestures if I happen to walk behind a car just as it starts.)

Back to my broom: It was morning Mars time, but evening Earth time, which presumably meant no sweeping. But by the time the sun rose, I would be about to fall asleep, fully vulnerable to bad spirits. After thinking on it for a while, I finally decided to hold off on sweeping until some hour when it was evening on neither planet’s schedule. Dusty floors be damned.

Though I wouldn’t dignify my sorry collection of irrational and paranoid practices by comparing them with the world’s great religions, the fact remains that I am hardly the first person forced to consider what to do when a terrestrial belief collides with an extraterrestrial day.

It’s been a dilemma for some astronauts aboard the International Space Station, which speeds around our planet every 90 minutes. This orbit is tricky enough for astronauts’ body clocks to cope with, but it gets even trickier when their cultural and religious customs get involved. What do you do if your religion requires strict adherence to a daily or weekly schedule?

Islamic scholars puzzled over this conundrum when Malaysian astronaut Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor visited the space station in 2007. Before the expedition, 150 Islamic scholars and scientists were invited to consider how a person might pray five times a day in a place with neither days nor gravity, how to face Mecca from outer space, and how to fast for Ramadan when sunrise and sunset arrive 18 times every 24 hours. Ultimately, they provided basic guidelines instructing Shukor and future Muslim astronauts to keep practicing their rituals using the time schedule of wherever they launch from, but allowing flexibility if those practices interfere with the important science they have undertaken.

Not everyone believes that flexibility is the way to go. Some religious clerics endorse a harder line, including in this advice column about how Orthodox Jews should keep the Sabbath in space. It’s a thorny problem, considering that adherents are prohibited from working, operating vehicles, and in some observances, even tearing toilet paper on this holy day.

But there’s one easy way to keep it real simple, says column author Rabbi Dovid Heber: “Ideally, one should not travel to outer space,” he advises.

If one has no choice in the matter, says Heber, one could keep the Sabbath any time that it is Sabbath anywhere on Earth, though that would result in a nearly 48-hour event. A third option would be to only observe it when it is Sabbath immediately below the spacecraft, but depending on your orbit, this could be hard to keep track of.

Spirit-safe sweeping

Spirit-safe sweeping

So far, no one has been forced to consider how to observe such rituals on Mars. But if humans ever succeed in colonizing the Red Planet, which has a 24.65-hour day and a 687-day year, things would get even more obscured. Holidays would arrive in entirely different seasons every year. Earth’s months would become irrelevant. Would people born on Mars celebrate their Martian birthday or their earthly one?

As for me, it seems that the closer I get to Earth’s schedule, the harder it is for me to stay on Mars’s. I confess: For five days straight now, I’ve delayed going to sleep on time, pushing my bedtime deep into the terrestrial night. The temptation has been too hard to resist, particularly because I have friends visiting me from California, who think my little experiment is cute, but not cute enough that I should actually go to bed at 8 P.M. instead of having a beer with them.

So we have a beer or two, and then a bottle of wine, and we get in long conversations about relationships and work and politics. I go to bed past midnight. Then I get out of bed at my prescribed wake-up time of, say, 4 A.M., turn on my computer, blindly futz with my keyboard until I find spider solitaire, and play that for the next hour and a half, until my brain is finally game to get off the couch and make itself some coffee. So despite approaching ever closer to Earth time, I am still dancing the sleep-deprived sashay.

But there is at least one comfort: Now that the Mars day is finally rounding the corner to my normal schedule, I can sweep in the mornings again free of my fear of bad spirits.

Previously in this series:

Step into the Twilight Zone: Can Earthlings Adjust to a Longer Day on Mars?
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 1
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 4 on Mars Time, aka Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 8 on Mars Time, aka Camping on Mars (Time)
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 11 on Mars Time, in Which I Give Myself Cancer
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 15 on Mars Time, or Adventures in Extraplanetary Day Drinking
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 18, Cuddle Cafes and the Dangers of Dozing
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 22 on Mars Time – Meteoric Changes to the Earth Day, as Told by a Thousand Tired Decisions
Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 25, or A Walk Through Santiago’s Witching Hour

Katie Worth About the Author: Katie Worth is a science writer based in Santiago, Chile. Her hobbies include hiking, living in large foreign cities, and clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. She expects this blog to become less and less coherent as she becomes more and more sleep-deprived.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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