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Reality Check: How to Define a Year?

Reality Check

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?

New Year’s has come and gone, but what the hell does that mean, anyway? Where do we come up with all these silly temporal divisions? Well, some make more sense than others.

A year is a pretty handy measurement; the amount of time it takes for the Earth to make one full revolution around the Sun. Useful knowledge when you need to plot the changing of the seasons for crop rotation. Good, solid, astronomically founded unit. Our calendar year only differs three-quarters of a day from the astronomical, or “Julian,” calendar. Hence the need for leap days every four years.

Deciding when a new year starts, conversely, is pretty damn arbitrary. Our use of January 1st as the beginning of a new year dates back to ancient Rome, when the celebration of the both backward and forward-looking god Janus followed the winter solstice, commemorating when the days once again begin to lengthen. The date’s importance was further cemented when the Roman Senate voted to deify Caesar on January 1, 46 BC, to honor, amongst other things, his institution of the Julian calendar. The later Gregorian calendar, still in use today, continued to respect the event.

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?
Julian Gregory Day. Oooooh, now I get it.

You could argue, though, that the Chinese are better at keeping it real (or at least spatially relevant), as their New Year’s Day doesn’t fall on the same date every time, but instead depends on the cycles of the moon. As do the 12 divisions of the year, the months. “Moon” and “month” even have the same linguistic origins. Calendrical months are loosely based around the synodic month, the amount of time it takes the moon to complete all its phases, which is about 29.5 days. Not sure of today’s date? Wait for sunset and then look up!

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?
Also linked to the lunar cycle. Although maybe not anymore. I don’t know; I’ve lost track.

Going further down the chain of time chunks we come to a unit we really just pulled out of our collective, desert-dwelling asses – the week. It comes from the religious significance of the number seven in ancient Jewish and Babylonian civilizations. To their credit, though, they still tried to ram their superstition into science, attempting to stretch four full weeks into a lunar cycle, so that the first day of each month would always coincide with the new moon. The Babylonians would actually adjust the number of days in the final “week” to make it all add up.

But the day, hey, now there’s a unit you can count on! Sun goes up, Sun goes down. Easy enough. Except, as alluded to earlier, the amount of “daylight” each day changes dramatically at higher latitudes in relation to the time of year. So one of the earliest definitions of “day” was the time between maximum elevations of the sun. Simple. More or less constant. We’ve since put a finer point on it, defining a day as the amount of time it takes the Earth to complete one full rotation.

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?
Moon Knight’s often nemesis, the Werewolf by Night, transforms when the Sun goes down. Gets more depressed in the winter than most.

We can thank the Egyptians for the hour, or at least the fact that there are 24 in a day. Since their sundials were functionless at night, they considered the dark and the light to be opposite realms, each broken into 12 subdivisions, as the Egyptians used a duodecimal numbering system. The Babylonians can again take credit (or blame?) for the 60 minutes in an hour and the 60 seconds in a minute, as THEY had decided to use a base-60 number system. No one really knows why.

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?
He’ll keep his powers for one-twenty-fourth of the time taken for the sundial’s shadow to return to its original position! Try fitting that on a masthead.

The second is when we get really serious. A unit of time so small as to be useless for most of our history, as few instruments were precise enough to measure it, it is now defined by physics and defines our mathematics. The second is the official SI unit of time, the base of all international scientific calculations, and as such we really need to nail down what the word means. While all those larger measurements are made with astronomical observations, the modern second is now recognized as the time needed for a cesium-133 atom to perform 9,192,631,770 complete oscillations. Once just a chopped up hour bit, we’ve turned the tiny snippet into the most accurately determined duration there is. Happy New 3.16 x 107 Seconds!

Reality Check: How to Define a Year?
Here’s an image of obscure Spider-Man villain Turner D. Century, just because. One day I’ll write a story where instead of late 1890s garb, he starts wearing Von Dutch hats and Creed T-shirts. DON’T STEAL THAT!

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