9,192,631,770 is the kind of large number that scientists like. One reason they like this particular number is because it occurs naturally in the vibrations of the caesium-133 variation of that atomic element. This has been the basis of the scientific definition of a second for fifty years. The world's most accurate clock, the NIST-F2, which uses caesium-133, was announced last year by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. It would still be accurate to within a second if it ran for 300 million years!
The NIST-F2 wouldn't have been of much practical use to the ancient Maya — whose smallest unit of measured time was the length of a day. Nor did the ancient Maya have stock markets, electric power grids, the Global Positioning System or global telecommunications — all of which are among the practical application of such timekeeping accuracy. Yet, just like modern scientists, the ancient Maya strove continually to improve their measurement of time. Also, like modern scientists, they knew the importance of timekeeping accuracy for practical purposes. Their calendar systems were used to plan ritual and agricultural events, track and predict celestial events and record the history of their civilization. They are still used today among their modern descendants.
2,147,483,647 is a number that technologists don't like. It is not a naturally-occurring number. Instead it is the largest number that can be counted by digital, electronic devices using the 32-bit variation of that technology. We are familiar with this kind of limitation: it prevented the scoreboard from displaying Nadia Comaneci's "perfect 10" at the 1976 Olympic Games. But in the case of 2,147,483,647 it often limits the digital clocks used in avionics and aerospace control systems; and it has led to many disasters. Like the ancient Maya, designers of these control systems failed to realize that time is linear, not cyclical. For the Maya the failure did not matter when their chosen way of representing time cycled on December 21, 2012. But in digital timekeeping for avionics and aerospace control systems it does matter. Last month the US Federal Aviation Administration issued an airworthiness directive for the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) plane that appears to be caused by this same problem. The temporary solution is to re-boot the impacted digital timekeeping system — simulating the ancient Maya belief that time is cyclical.
Although it is more accurate, the NIST-F2 will not survive anywhere near as long as Maya calendars. Clocks are already on the technology horizon that will be accurate to within a second of the beginning of time itself! Nor will the latest, popular timekeeping device, the Apple Watch. It had been on sale for less than a month before it needed a software upgrade.
I was in Belize a few months before the NIST-F2 was announced. In a small Maya village I came across this Mopan artisan who makes a living from carving and painting local slate to make decorative Maya calendars for sale. I did not discuss caesium fountain clocks or smart watches with him. I'm sure if I had he would have questioned whether any artist might be making a living three thousand years from now by carving such clocks or even Apple Watch replicas from slate.
The Mopan Maya are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: The Maya.If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider "buying us a coffee" to help us cover the cost of hosting our web site. Thanks!