The Origins of Time.

Somewhere the clock of cosmic history began ticking.

Crystal Miller
Dec 3, 2019 · 5 min read

Time is a precious commodity; one we often find ourselves in a deficit of. Life continually feels like a race against the clock, full of busy schedules and deadlines. Who doesn’t love deadlines? (I especially love the “swooshing” sound they make as they go flying by).

But what is this “clock” we’re racing against? Where did it come from? And who the hell decided that next year will be 2020 anyway?

The simple answer is we live in the biggest clock in the universe. But time hasn’t always been the same. Let’s work backwards, shall we?

[For the purpose of this, I’ll be focusing on Western history only.]

Our current system: The Gregorian Calendar

Was rolled out in October of 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, its namesake. How did they know it was 1582? Well, they all just agreed it was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This wasn’t adopted in Britain until September of 1752, in which citizens went to bed on the night of Wednesday 2nd only to wake up on Thursday 14th, they had suddenly lost 11 days!

“Give us back our 11 days!” they protested in the streets. Some were concerned that they had lost 11 days of wages or tax. Many believed that their lives would be shortened by 11 days, others were suspicious of the ‘Popish’ calendar and its adjustments of religious dates.

Which happened to be the exact reason why the change was necessary.

William Hogarth — An Election Entertainment — 1745. Satirical Painting inspired by the election of 1754.
Whig’s party election room, protesting Tories outside throwing bricks. Note the commandeered Tori banner under the food of the seated man, front-middle, reads: “give us back our eleven days.”

Our previous calendar, the Julian, was out by a whopping 10.8 minutes, and while that might not make much of a difference in one’s lifetime, over time, those minutes became days. The seasons slowly began drifting out of sync, and Easter was slipping away from the Vernal Equinox.

The new calendar readjusted the leap years and changed when the year would start.

At this point, the 25th of March was no longer going to be the first day of the calendar year. Henceforth the calendar year would begin on the 1st of January- meaning the year of 1752 was a concise one for the people of Britain.

Spoiler alert: Our calendar is still out by a fraction, but we won’t lose a full day until around 3300AD.

What came before: The Julian Calendar

As you probably guessed this was introduced by none other than Julius Caesar in 46BC. Of course, he didn’t know it was 46BC, and what even is BC at this point anyway? No! In Caesar’s world, the year was 708AUC.

“Anno Urbis Conditae” or “From the year of the founding of the city” aka, Rome.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

The Romans maintained meticulous records and even a calendar from the very start.

The new Julian calendar only made minor adjustments to this, continuing to count its days from the founding of Rome. This system wasn’t perfect, but that’s to be expected after 700yrs of Iron Age history.

Any Roman History textbook will tell you that Rome was founded on April 21st 753BC.

I can already hear you asking, “but how do we know for certain when the city was founded”?

The simple answer: it’s an arbitrary date. The detailed explanation: it was a calculated guess. Specifically, this guess was calculated off the back of two solar eclipses.

Remember how I told you the Romans kept meticulous records? Eclipses were no exception.

Photo from the MetMuseum

One was visible from Rome in the summer of a particular year, another at a similar time 18yrs later. From this they were able to suss out that the first one occurred in 763BC and the second in 745BC, putting the founding of their city between them in 753BC, based on their records.

But what mattered then — as matters now — was less that they got the date of the founding of Rome right than that they picked a date and stuck with it.

Okay, but how?

As mentioned,

We live inside the biggest clock in the universe.

You see, the phenomenon of the planet’s rotation around the sun is perfectly periodical, despite the slight variations due to gravitational pulls. Still, these are either insignificantly small or accounted for, by us, in our own reckoning of time — aren’t we clever?

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Basically, astronomers can map eclipses and the like in a table of astronomical events, these stretch thousands of years, past and future. This table can then be lined up with recorded observations of said events through our history. This allows us to figure out when historical events happen and thus triangulate our own time in space as perceived by us.

It’s really no different to reading a map and matching recorded landmarks with what you see to calculate your position, except we’re doing it with time.

Taking everything into account

It is commonly said that the ‘Big Bang’ marks the start of time. I would argue that the concept of time really started with the birth of human consciousness, i.e. record keeping. Combined with our ingenuity to map the astronomical phenomenon, we have made up a system of reckoning. Amazing!

What's important is not the accuracy in the choice of an origin date, rather it’s the precision in the method we use to get there and the consistency in which one sticks with it. That’s how timekeeping works.

There’s no right answer, but as long as everyone agrees it’s fine.

To astronomers the date today would be 2458820JD. To you and me it’s about to become 2020AD, but go ahead paint 2773 on your cheeks and usher in the new year on the 25th of March like a Roman — because who’s going to stop you?

Everything Is Made Up

The human condition, throughout history till today, through…

Crystal Miller

Written by

Anthropologist, Archaeologist, Biologist — Striving to understand the Human condition throughout the ages.

Everything Is Made Up

The human condition, throughout history till today, through the lenses of neurodiverse and marginalised people.

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