What is Time? Beginnings of Our Time

In modern western cultures we experience time as a straightforward sequence of seconds through to years. Every year new calendars and diaries are published containing data supplied by government and religious bodies responsible for regulating holiday and festival dates. Newspapers are often used as confirmation of the day of the week, while we rely on our smartphones, watches and radios for more precise references of time.

Humankind has taken over seventeen thousand years to accumulate the knowledge to manage time in this way and the story of its progress and the exploration of its implications can be found in the forthcoming What is Time? posts.

Days of the week

As we will see later, we have based our concepts of the year, the month and the day on the observable motions of the stars, the sun and the moon and most recently on the oscillations of an atomic particle. However, the number of days in a week is entirely man-made and has its origins in Roman and Christian attempts at maintaining order throughout their fields of influence. A week of seven days is, however, universally applied, used by almost all of the world’s cultures including Chinese, Japanese and African societies.

It originated during the pre-Christian Roman period, when Julius Caesar controlled or had conquered the whole of Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia and North Africa. The Romans inherited the variety and richness of knowledge accumulated by the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Jews and, through extensive trade, Chinese, Babylonian and Sumerian number and hieroglyphic systems also influenced these cultures, and through them we have retained the unit of 60 (base 60) for our minutes to hours and seconds to minutes.

Creator of the UniverseAstronomy and mathematics were particular pre­occupations of each of these ancient civilizations and it was a natural development in the centuries either side of Christ’s birth to think of defining the week by using the names of planets and the sun and moon, all long observed and used as the basis of calculations of other elements of time, such as the extent of the year. In CE 325 Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, so incorporating the pagan, planetary descriptions of the week into the newly organised religion. The names survive today in most languages, but the exceptions, fully endorsed by the Catholic Church of the time, include other pagan descriptions such as the Nordic influence on the English names of the week (more on this in a forthcoming post on Calendars).

Days of the week across a range of languages
Names of the planets have survived across many different languages

So This is What We Know

  • Each year is 365 days long.
  • Each year is divided into four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.
  • Each year has 52 weeks.
  • Each week has seven days.
  • Each year has 12 months.
  • Eleven months have 30 or 31 days.
  • February has 28 days, 29 days in leap years.
  • Each day runs 24 hours from midnight to the following midnight.
  • Different parts of the world have different daylight hours, coordinated by international agreement between governments.
  • Each hour contains 60 minutes.
  • Each minute contains 60 seconds.
  • Each second can be broken down further into tenths, hundredths, thousands and millionths of a second.

These numbers have their origins in the history of numbers and astronomy, much of which we’ll explore in forthcoming posts.

The Millennium?

We live at just on the other side of the third millennium, 2000 years after a date nominated as the birth of the historical figure of Jesus Christ. Of course, there are a number of disputes about the actual birthdate of Christ; indeed, many other traditions have a different number for the year which Europe, the US and the West in general calls 2000:

  • Islamic calendar: 1420
  • Buddhist calendar: 2544
  • Mayan Great Cycle: 5119
  • Jewish calendar: 5760
  • Ancient Egyptian calendar: 6236
  • Chinese calendar: Year of the Dragon

The next post begins an investigation into the origins of the modern calendar.

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