Tag Archives: measuring time

It’s About Time

Weights and measures including time, are immeasurably important to to our lives. Our food supply our depends on our knowledge of the seasons, and what we buy and sell is linked to our ability to measure what something weights, or its volume and myriad of other measures.

Measure of time comes in two ways, that set by some natural phenomena such as the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun and those times which are seemingly arbitrary – the length of a second, a minute and an hour.

The length a year is obvious, it is how long it takes the earth to circle the sun, about three hundred sixty five days. But not exactly because it is actually about a quarter of a day longer, hence the need for leap years which have three hundred sixty six days. There is actually another finer adjustment, because to keep the calendar in sync with the season, there is one more rule, a century year is not a leap year unless it is evenly divisible by four hundred. The year two thousand was but the next three century years will not be.

Winter soltice, Machu Pichu

Winter soltice, Machu Pichu

A day is governed by the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis. The time it takes to make a full rotation is actually lengthening due to tidal forces which create drag and slow the rotation but not by much. A day gets a tiny fraction of a second longer in a century.

When we start carving up a day we move into arbitrary units. Why twenty four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute? The twenty four hour day has as its origin the observations of stars by the ancient Egyptians. This has little to nothing to do with modern time keeping, but it stuck. The same is true for the divisions of hours and minutes. In this case we look to the Babylonians who had a base sixty counting system. To the Babylonians numbers like six, twelve, sixty, and three hundred sixty were “round numbers” just like ten, one hundred, and one thousand are round numbers in our base ten decimal system.

Talk about stuck in a rut, we measure time based on an archaic, four thousand year old, base sixty system which is confusing and unnecessary.

Big Ben

Big Ben

Quick, tell me how many seconds in three hours. UGH – let’s see sixty times sixty times three. Like archaic measurements used in the United States, bushels and pecks, ounces and gallons, and ounces and pounds, these non-decimal calculations are tedious.

Scientist use the metric system for its simplicity. Virtually all units are in base ten EXCEPT
time. It’s about time for a change. The staff at “Keep Time-keeping Simple Inc” Propose the following: ten hour days, one hundred minute hours and one hundred second minutes. If you were keeping time with a one mississippi, two mississippi kind of notation it would work for decimal time, as doing the math shows the decimal second to be eighty six per cent as long as a Babylonian second.

Back to the previous challenge of how many seconds in three hours, no problem: one hundred times one hundred times three is thirty thousand. You can do it without pencil and paper.

Lunch is at five o’clock sharp, and if you don’t want to stay up for Johnny Carson, set the VCR to record at 9.375 and don’t worry about AM or PM, they don’t exist. Good night everybody