It’s About Time

Volodymyr Kish

With just a couple of weeks to go before the start of a new year, I got to thinking about just what exactly “New Year’s Day” really meant. Perhaps it was the effect of the excellent single malt scotch I was drinking at the time, or the fact that at my age, time begins to take a more important meaning, but whatever the case, I thought it worth exercising the little grey cells in the pursuit of a clearer understanding of this annual milestone that people invest so much effort and expense to celebrate.

The first observation that came to mind, was the fact that there is no natural, astronomic, scientific or other rational reason why the first day of January should be considered the start of a new year. We can blame Julius Caesar for this arbitrary tradition, as it was he who, when he created the Julian calendar, decided that the month named after Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors and beginnings should be the month to begin a new year. And so January 1 became the first day of each year in the Roman Empire. Like so many other things that the Romans invented or initiated, the custom has lasted and become entrenched, though I would hazard a guess that most people today know nothing of the connection to a pagan god.

One would have thought that following the Renaissance and the dawn of the scientific age, that a more appropriate date on the calendar would have been selected to mark a new year, perhaps the vernal equinox in spring, when winter has ended and a new growing season has begun. In fact in medieval Europe there were many regions and countries that did consider the spring equinox as the start of the New Year and the Iranians still continue to do so even today. It is therefore a bit of a puzzle why in our current age of enlightenment and scientific progress that we still persist in following a pagan, anachronistic custom.

There are many other things about how we perceive and measure time that are hard to understand. While the reason for a year being 365 days is both obvious and rational in that it represents one circuit of our planet’s journey around the sun, the explanation for why we have seven days in a week or twenty four hours in a day are a little more difficult to fathom.

We inherited the twenty four hour day from the Egyptians who were the first to divide the day into twelve hours and the night into twelve hours. Interestingly enough though, the hours were not the same length, but varied with the seasons. During summer, daytime hours were longer than nighttime hours, while in winter, the opposite held true. But as to why they chose twelve daytime and nighttime hours as opposed to ten or some other number, we have no clue.

Variable length hours may have been fine for agrarian societies, but when the scientific method came along it brought the necessity to standardize all measurements into consistent units, so the sixty minute hour, and sixty second minute were born. But why sixty and not ten or one hundred or some other number? Well, the reason it is sixty is because one of the earliest civilizations from whom we inherited a lot in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, basic law and writing was the Babylonians who were one the leading mid-east and arguably world powers around the 18th century BC. Their number system was base 60 as opposed to our base 10 decimal system, so it was natural for them to divide the hour into 60 minutes, and a minute into 60 seconds. Why they chose a number system based on the number 60 is a little more problematic, and beyond the scope of this monograph. As an interesting side note, I would like to point out that one of the major cities in the Babylonian Empire had the distinguished name of Kish.

The only serious effort towards creating a more rational scientific method of measuring and naming time, occurred in France in the aftermath of the French Revolution. A distinguished group of scientists designed a calendar that had twelve months with an even number of thirty days each. Complementary days were added at the end of the year to synchronize it with the astronomical calendar. Each month was divided into three ten-day weeks called decades, and each day consisted of ten hours, each hour was divided into 100 minutes and each minute was divided into 100 seconds. The system was used for little more than a decade before reverting back to the traditional, albeit, somewhat irrational system.

Perhaps, the most traumatic scientific development relating to time was Einstein’s seminal Theory of Relativity which postulated that time was not a consistently measurable entity, but was actually relative to the speed of an object. As a moving object approaches the speed of light, incredibly time slows down. At 99.5% of the speed of light, time is moving ten times slower than that for a stationary object.
Theoretically, at the speed of light, time no longer exists. That is one concept that is hard to put one’s mind around. Perhaps, if I had another shot of that single malt scotch, it might be easier to understand.