Talky Tuesday: April showers

This is the first in a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

If you speak a Romance language, then you know that the days of the week were named for the planets via Roman gods pure and simple. Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, with the last one, Sunday, technically having been named for Phoebus Apollo.

When it comes to months of the year, though, it’s a lot less clear and, in fact, only three of them — March, May, and June — are clearly named after a Roman god: March for Mars, god of war (and of Tuesday); May for Maia, an Earth goddess of plants; and June for Juno, wife of Zeus.

Two things to remember: One is that the Roman calendar originally didn’t have January or February at all, and the New Year happened at the end of March. Second, other than the three months mentioned, the rest were originally known by number.

Here’s the calendar: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junio, Quintilis, Sextillia, September, October, November, December.

So after those first four months, the ones from Quintilis on are literally named for their position in the calendar: Fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

Quintilis and Sextillia were replaced with July and August in honor of Julius and Augustus Caesar. But the last four months of the year have kept their names that mean seventh through tenth even though they’ve long since been ninth through twelfth.

If you’ve been keeping score, you might notice one thing. The month of April isn’t named for a deity or its place in the calendar order. And there’s a reason for that: Nobody is really sure where that name came from.

T.S. Eliot wasn’t kidding when he wrote “April is the cruellest (sic) month.” Chaucer had a quite different view of things, but he was also the better poet.

Theories on the origin of the name for April fall into both the “named for a deity” and “named for its place in the calendar,” and neither one has any proof to back it up. There’s also the attributive theory, as in April is when flowers bloom, and there’s a Latin word meaning to open, “aperire,” that gave the month its name.

By the way, if you speak Spanish, you’ll see the roots of the word “abrir,” to open, right there. If you’re a photographer, you’ll probably think of aperture, which is the opening that light passes through on its way from the lens to the film or sensor. They all came from the same place.

Of course, humans being humans, we have a habit of doing it the other way around and naming people after months. For example, there’s the actress January Jones, who was born in January. There don’t appear to be any with the first names of February or March, but we probably all know an April or two. Likewise, May and June are very common first names.

There don’t appear to be any people with the first name July, but in the Spanish-speaking world, Julio is a common man’s first name, and you’ve probably heard of Julio Iglesias, whose name translates as “July Churches.”

August through November are all pretty well-represented. August Strindberg was a famous playwright. August was also the first name of one of my great grandfathers. I’ve known at least two Septembers personally — although one was spelled much differently — and a famous real-world example is the doctor, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams.

October Moore and October Kingsley are both actresses, and we round out the list with November Christine. Again, there are no famous Decembers.

So, why do those particular months not get used as first names while the others do? February, March, July, and December have been mostly ignored. Even a site like How Many of Me? says that there are probably zero people with these first names in the U.S.

It’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure that I have the answer to. When it comes to strange names, none of the four are as weird as some of the most unusual names given to babies in 2019.

And when it comes to the ultimate in strange names, look no further than celebrities to go off the deep end with such strange creations as Kal-El, Jermajesty, Pilot Inspektor, and my personal favorite, Moxie Crimefighter.

The grand champion of weird baby names, though, has to be Frank Zappa. A brilliant artist, musician, and political thinker, but Jesus, man. What were he and his wife Gail on when they pulled these monikers out of their asses: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmed Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen?

Okay, to be fair, Dweezil was actually named Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, but, seriously — four given names? Even that is a bit excessive. And I would have personally chosen to go by Euclid had I been him. Yookie for short.

So this makes those four unused months seem absolutely pedestrian as names, and I shudder to think what our months and days of the week would sound like if the Zappas had been in charge of naming them.

Or, maybe not. They might have just livened things up a bit. Kind of like Dr. Seuss for adults.

Image, A Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane, 1905-1909Public domain under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Sunday Nibble #87: Brace yourselves — it’s Doomsday

Doomsday is nigh! No, really, it is, and it happens again on December 12. Find out how and why.

That’s right. Today, November 7th is Doomsday! But don’t worry. That has nothing to do with the end of the world. It’s just the odd terminology that refers to an algorithm by which you can quickly calculate in your head what day of the week any given date fell on or will fall on.

It was devised in 1973 by John Conway and, if you’re a big enough computer nerd, you’ll recognize that name immediately. He created the famous Game of Life, which used very few rules to govern the behavior of random pixels in order to generate complex systems that would either keep evolving forever, lock in to some stable and repeated pattern, or die out either by moving off of the screen completely, completely dying out, or freezing up.

You can play it online right now, if you’d like.

Regarding the Doomsday Algorithm, though, it’s based on the idea that the Gregorian Calendar cycle repeats every 400 years. The Doomsday part itself refers to particular days during each year that will always fall on the same day of the week during the year.

In order to tell someone what day of the week a random date falls on, you just have to figure out what the Doomsday Weekday is for the particular year, then the Doomsday for the particular month, then count to the chosen date from there.

It sounds like a lot of math, but it isn’t, because of the cyclic nature of the calendar, plus you can also reduce everything to a number to make for easier math, starting with numbering the days of the week from 0 to 6, starting with Sunday, which gives us 7 total days.

Each century will have one of four days of the week as its anchor, and each year within that century will offset the century date based on the algorithm as well. The four dates in order are Friday, Wednesday, Tuesday, Sunday, in case you’re wondering. In our current cycle, these apply to the 1800s, 1900s, 2000s, and 2100s.

This will give you the number that corresponds to the Doomsday for a particular year. In the case of 2021, that number is zero, so the day is Sunday. I’m now going to walk it backwards to make it a little clearer what happens.

There are a handful of dates to remember within the year that will give you a point from which to count to a chosen date, but most of them are easy to remember. For even months except February, the Doomsday is just the same as the month number: April 4, June 6, August 8, October 10, and December 12.

The remaining months come in pairs: May and September, and July and November. It works out that these dates are May 9, September 5, July 11, and November 7. If we put them into numerical form, they become 5/9, 9/5, 7/11, 11/7 — and it doesn’t matter which order you write your dates in, since they’re mirror pairs. The phrase to remember is, “I work 9 to 5 at the 7-Eleven.”

So all of these dates in 2021 fall on Sunday: April 4, May 9, June 6, July 11, August 8, September 5, October 10, November 7, and December 12.

January and March are a little tricker, but not much. The last day of January, the 31st will always be Doomsday or, if you’d like easier math, just remember January 3, February 14, and March 14. Except (because there’s always an exception) in Leap Years, move January and February ahead one day, to the 4th and 15th.

Confusing? It really won’t be once you play around with it a bit in your head. Bonus points: the 4th of July and Halloween are also always on Doomsday, as we’ve just seen with Halloween 2021 being on Sunday. Christmas and the following New Year’s day will always be the day before Doomsday, since boxing day, December 26, is exactly two weeks after December 12.

Again, this whole thing can sound complicated until you take the time to work through it, and you can find simple explanations online as well. It can be a great party trick if you learn the whole thing so you can do any given date, but even if you only memorize the Doomsday for the current year, it can be useful for figuring out what date someone is proposing a meeting for or for when someone in a meeting asks, “What day of the week is Labor Day this year?” and can answer pretty quickly without pulling out your phone.

For a fun video explanation, we have Numberphile and the always delightful Professor James Grime to thank for this:

Image source: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Christoph Murer, National Gallery of Art, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Nibble #69: Let’s get doomed!

One hundred years ago today, on July 11, 1921, William Howard Taft was sworn in as the 10th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first and only person to hold both that office and the Presidency.

He became Chief Justice eight years after leaving the presidency, but was most likely a one-term President because Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the vote, so that noted racist Woodrow Wilson was elected instead.

Taft was probably the fattest U.S. President ever — although that’s arguable — and was also the namesake for several schools, including my own High School.

Taft’s elevation to Chief Justice on July 11 is commemorated by Free Slurpee Day. Okay, not really. July 11 is so-designated because the date is 7/11 and it’s a publicity stunt by the chain of convenience stores that is actually named 7-Eleven.

Originally called “Tote’m,” the name was changed to 7-Eleven in 1946 to reflect the new extended hours, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Once the stores started staying open 24/7/365, the name did not change again.

Of course, the numbers 7 and 11 are naturally associated for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious: In English, they rhyme. But they’re also connected in the game of craps, in which they can either make you win or lose instantly, depending on what number you’re rolling for.

Remember that pair as well as 9 to 5 — as in the working hours that no one works any more or the old movie — and you’re most of the way to being able to say what day of the week any day of the year falls on almost instantly without looking at a calendar.

It’s called the Doomsday Rule, and while there’s an extended method wherein you can pretty quickly determine in your head what day of the week any day in any given year fell, it’s generally only useful for dealing with the current year, or maybe just the one before or after.

So the convenient cheat is this: take a look at the calendar, and remember what day of the week the last day of January falls on. This is considered the year’s “Doomsday” — and don’t blame me for the name.

As long as it’s not a leap year, then that day is consistent, and for February and March it will always be the 7th of the month. If it is a leap year, it only applies to January and February, then jumps ahead a day for March and the rest of the year.

So, in other words, if a year’s Doomsday is Tuesday and it’s not a leap year, then January 31, and February and March 7 will be Tuesdays. If it is a leap year, then January 31 and February 7 will be Tuesdays, while March 7 and all successive Doomsdays will be on Wednesday.

But let’s start with 2021, which is not a leap year.

January 31, 2021 was a Sunday. You may have noticed that today, July 11, 2021, is also a Sunday. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s where the 7/11 and 9/5 rules come into play. We already know January and March. For all other odd numbered months, then they work in pairs like that. July 11 and November 7 will both be Doomsdays. So will May 9 and September 5 — 7/11, 11/7, 5/9, and 9/5.

Reverse these if you’re British, of course. Or don’t actually, because they still work, just out of order.

Now, as for the rest of the even months except February, the month number very conveniently works out to be its Doomsday. For this year, April 4 was a Sunday, as were June 6. So will be August 8, October 10, and December 12.

This does some interesting things to holidays. Pi Day (March 14), July 4, and Halloween will always fall on a Doomsday — 3/7 plus a week, 7/11 minus a week and 10/10 plus three weeks. Christmas and New Year’s Day will always happen the day before Doomsday.

Now, if the following year is not a leap year, then its Doomsday will be one day later. For example, January 31, 2022 will be a Monday, 2023 will be a Tuesday, and 2024 will be a Wednesday for the first two months before jumping to Wednesday.

When I worked in actual jobs in offices with people, I used to use this trick all the time whenever someone wondered what day of the week a date was. While people scrambled for their phones, I’d just calmly announce something like, “April 15 is a Wednesday this year” or “the 4th of July is on a Saturday.”

And then people would check, see that I was right, and just nod and be amazed. So it’s a good superpower to have, and you can even turn it into a party trick — especially if you learn the full method to account for any given year.

Except that the full method is just ridiculous. But there is a modified “odd + eleven” method that seems to work brilliantly, and all you need to remember is the “anchor day” for the century. For the 21st century, for example, it’s Tuesday.

TL;DR version of the “odd + eleven,” take the two-digit year. If it’s odd, add 11. If it’s even, don’t. Divide that result by two. Repeat one more time — add 11 if odd, nothing if even, then divide by seven and take the remainder (“modulo 7,” if you know the term.)

Subtract this number from 7, then count up that many days from the century’s anchor year. Ta-da!

So, for 2021, it works like this. The anchor day is Tuesday. The year 21 is odd, so add 11 to get 32. Divide by 2 to get 16, and add nothing since it’s now even. Divided 16 by seven. The answer it 2, with a remainder of 2. Subtract that from 7 to get 5.

Now count up five days from Tuesday and you get… Sunday, which we’ve already seen is the actual Doomsday.

So next time you want to impress people at parties, tell them you can guess which day of the week they were born on just by knowing their birthdates, and you’re sure to make a few new friends. You’re welcome!

Oh, in case you’re wondering — Taft was sworn in on a Monday, and I did not look that up.

Sunday Nibble #66: Putting the Sun on pause

Happy summer solstice! This is the day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the longest period of continuous sunlight, which increases with latitude.

On the equator, at 0 degrees latitude, day time and nighttime are pretty much equal all year long. The farther north you go, the longer the period of sunlight. At my latitude, which is about 34 degrees north, we’ll get 14 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight on that day.

When you get to Reykjavik, Iceland, you’ll experience 21 hours and 8 minutes of sunlight plus 2 hours and 52 minutes of twilight, which adds up to 24 hours during which the sun never really sets, and if you make it to the North Pole, you’ll experience a full 24 hours of sunlight.

It’s exactly the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where this is the winter solstice for them, and the period of the longest nighttime, which works in a similar fashion to the north but in the opposite direction, with the night getting longer the farther south you go.

Don’t worry, though. In December, the tables are turned, and then it’s the summer solstice in the south and the winter solstice in the north.

The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin word for stopped or stationary, and this comes from what the Sun apparently does. From the time of the winter solstice, the Sun appears to climb higher and higher into the sky and it continues to do so for six months.

Then, on the summer solstice, it reaches its highest point and then appears to pause for about three days before turning around and heading back down toward the equator.

The mid points are the equinoxes, which is when the Sun’s apparent position is crossing the equator, and this is when all points on the planet have day and night time of equal length regardless of hemisphere.

We have two equinoxes, vernal and autumnal, more commonly known as the spring and fall equinox, which mark the beginning of these seasons.

Put all four together in order, and there you have humankind’s original and most basic calendar. Once the pattern had been recorded and recognized, annual events became much more predictable — the change of seasons, the likelihood of seasonal flooding, and so on.

The Moon became a secondary counter and, in fact, we landed on the idea of a lunar calendar long before the solar one. The word “month” is derived from “moon,” and one month is approximately the length of one complete cycle of the Moon’s phases, from one full Moon to another — or one new Moon to another, depending on your culture’s preference.

So why do equinoxes and solstices and seasons happen in the first place? By the very fortunate circumstance that the Earth’s axis is tilted at about 23 degrees relative to the Sun when it’s at either solstice, and the tilt remains constant relative to the Earth.

It’s probably best demonstrated with an animation to make the concept clear, so here you go, courtesy of YouTuber Brad Freese:

From the Sun’s point of view, the Earth keeps tilting back and forth as it goes around. Meanwhile, to the Earth, it looks like the Sun is bobbing up and down. The end result is the same either way: changing period of daylight that are more extreme the closer you get to the poles, seasons, and the origin of the first human calendar.

Now, a year generally has 12 full moons in it but the number of days in a lunar year, 354, is a bit short of the solar year of 365.25 days, so about every two and a half years, we get that elusive (or not so much) Blue Moon, which is just the 13th full moon of a calendar year.

But when you take 12 and divide it by 4 — the number of solstices and equinoxes — you get a nice even number, 3. So divide each solstice or equinox into three “moons,” or months, and all you have to do then is watch the phases of the Moon to know when the seasons will change.

You might have noticed that neither the lunar days nor the solar days quite add up to the number of degrees in a circle, which is 360. But add them together, rounded — 354 + 365 — and you get 719. Divide that by 2 and round it again, and you get 360.

This is actually a really interesting number, because it has so many factors, which are numbers it can be evenly divided by. If we include 1 and 360, there are 24 of them (24 being a factor of 360), and in fact every single digit number except 7 is a factor, which is very useful.

Beyond that, a lot of the numbers relate to units of time we still use now, particularly 12, 15, 24 and 60, and it’s divisible by 10, which makes it very compatible with our common base 10 system.

By the way, the Babylonians, who were big astronomers themselves, used a Base 60 system, in which the number 360 would have been expressed as their equivalent of 60.

It’s interesting to think that the larger parts of our timekeeping system are not as arbitrary as they might seem and have a strong basis in reality. As for how we chose to count weeks and the hours in a day, that’s part is totally arbitrary.

We could have just as easily divided each day into 36 hours of 40 minutes each or 18 hours of 80 minutes each, but we didn’t. Why? Who knows, but the most likely explanation is that 12 hours of “day” and 12 hours of “night” just echoed the annual pattern nicely.

Hours, by the way, were the very last thing to be measured and determined, since if you just divided amount of daylight by 12, the length of the hour itself would change throughout the year The more important markers were sunrise and sunset.

By the way, a word about the image up top. This image is what’s called an “analemma,” and it represents the position of the Sun in the sky over the course of the year, in this case, in the Northern Hemisphere. The points where they cross represent the equinoxes.

Also note that the top half forms a smaller loop than the bottom half. That’s because of a nice quirk of orbital mechanics. The Earth is at its farthest point from the Sun around the beginning of July, right after the northern summer solstice, and at its closest around the beginning of January, right after the northern winter solstice.

So… in July, the planet is actually moving at its slowest because it basically reaching the “top” of the orbit. That is, the Sun’s gravity has flung it as far away as it’s going to get, so it’s now going to slow down and come plunging back. Think of it like throwing a baseball in the air.

Once the Earth has passed through the equinox again, it’s now being pulled in by the Sun, so moves a lot faster in the same period of time.

But what I really wanted to point out was this. Although astronomers insist that “Uranus” is actually pronounced “oo-ra-NOOS” in order to avoid immature jokes, what did they name this image?

Analemma.

Anal Emma. Yeah, those mofos knew exactly what they were doing.

Image source: Giuseppe Donatiello, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: April showers

If you speak a Romance language, then you know that the days of the week were named for the planets via Roman gods pure and simple. Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, with the last one, Sunday, technically having been named for Phoebus Apollo.

When it comes to months of the year, though, it’s a lot less clear and, in fact, only three of them — March, May, and June — are clearly named after a Roman god: March for Mars, god of war (and of Tuesday); May for Maia, an Earth goddess of plants; and June for Juno, wife of Zeus.

Two things to remember: One is that the Roman calendar originally didn’t have January or February at all, and the New Year happened at the end of March. Second, other than the three months mentioned, the rest were originally known by number.

Here’s the calendar: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junio, Quintilis, Sextillia, September, October, November, December.

So after those first four months, the ones from Quintilis on are literally named for their position in the calendar: Fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

Quintilis and Sextillia were replaced with July and August in honor of Julius and Augustus Caesar. But the last four months of the year have kept their names that mean seventh through tenth even though they’ve long since been ninth through twelfth.

If you’ve been keeping score, you might notice one thing. The month of April isn’t named for a deity or its place in the calendar order. And there’s a reason for that: Nobody is really sure where that name came from.

T.S. Eliot wasn’t kidding when he wrote “April is the cruellest (sic) month.” Chaucer had a quite different view of things, but he was also the better poet.

Theories on the origin of the name for April fall into both the “named for a deity” and “named for its place in the calendar,” and neither one has any proof to back it up. There’s also the attributive theory, as in April is when flowers bloom, and there’s a Latin word meaning to open, “aperire,” that gave the month its name.

By the way, if you speak Spanish, you’ll see the roots of the word “abrir,” to open, right there. If you’re a photographer, you’ll probably think of aperture, which is the opening that light passes through on its way from the lens to the film or sensor. They all came from the same place.

Of course, humans being humans, we have a habit of doing it the other way around and naming people after months. For example, there’s the actress January Jones, who was born in January. There don’t appear to be any with the first names of February or March, but we probably all know an April or two. Likewise, May and June are very common first names.

There don’t appear to be any people with the first name July, but in the Spanish-speaking world, Julio is a common man’s first name, and you’ve probably heard of Julio Iglesias, whose name translates as “July Churches.”

August through November are all pretty well-represented. August Strindberg was a famous playwright. August was also the first name of one of my great grandfathers. I’ve known at least two Septembers personally — although one was spelled much differently — and a famous real-world example is the doctor, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams.

October Moore and October Kingsley are both actresses, and we round out the list with November Christine. Again, there are no famous Decembers.

So, why do those particular months not get used as first names while the others do? February, March, July, and December have been mostly ignored. Even a site like How Many of Me? says that there are probably zero people with these first names in the U.S.

It’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure that I have the answer to. When it comes to strange names, none of the four are as weird as some of the most unusual names given to babies in 2019.

And when it comes to the ultimate in strange names, look no further than celebrities to go off the deep end with such strange creations as Kal-El, Jermajesty, Pilot Inspektor, and my personal favorite, Moxie Crimefighter.

The grand champion of weird baby names, though, has to be Frank Zappa. A brilliant artist, musician, and political thinker, but Jesus, man. What were he and his wife Gail on when they pulled these monikers out of their asses: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmed Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen?

Okay, to be fair, Dweezil was actually named Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, but, seriously — four given names? Even that is a bit excessive. And I would have personally chosen to go by Euclid had I been him. Yookie for short.

So this makes those four unused months seem absolutely pedestrian as names, and I shudder to think what our months and days of the week would sound like if the Zappas had been in charge of naming them.

Or, maybe not. They might have just livened things up a bit. Kind of like Dr. Seuss for adults.

Image, A Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane, 1905-1909Public domain under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Wednesday Wonders: A busy day in space

Happy New Year! And happy first day of spring!

Wait, what… you say those things aren’t today, March 25th? That the latter was six days ago and the former was almost four months ago?

Well… you’d be right in 2020, but jump back in history to when the Julian calendar was still around, and things were dated differently. This led to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, but since it was sponsored by the Pope, not everyone switched over right away. Long story short, Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy adopted it immediately in 1582. Protestant countries held out, so that places like England (and the colonies) didn’t switch until 1752.

That was also when England moved New Year’s day back to January 1, which is itself ironic, since it was the Catholic Church that moved the day from then to March 25 at the Council of Tours in 567, considering the prior date pagan, which was probably accurate, since the Romans had moved New Year’s from March to January 1st when they deified Julius Caesar after his assassination.

The practical reason for switching calendars was that the Julian calendar lost 11 hours a year, which added up fast, meaning that entire extra months had to be added between years to set things right again. The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate, although about 2,800 years from now it will have lost a day.

By the way, the religious reasoning for picking March 25th is that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the day that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she was going to get knocked up by god — although it doesn’t get mentioned canonically until a century after the ol’ calendar switch-a-roo.

Anyway, the math isn’t hard to do. March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas. And in strictly astronomical terms, the former is the first day of spring and the latter is the first day of winter. Just psychologically, the Vernal Equinox, which is now closer to the 19th or 20th, is the better New Year’s Day option because it’s when days start to get longer than nights, vegetation starts to grow anew, and nature awakes from its slumber.

Note: Your mileage in 2020 may vary.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that today marks the birth of a German astronomer and mathematician, Christopher Clavius, who was instrumental in doing the calculations necessary to figure out how much in error the Julian calendar had become, and then to come up with a calendar to fix it and a method to transition.

This is where the Catholic Church came into it, because Easter, being a moveable feast based on the Julian lunar calendar, had been slipping later and later into the year, threatening to move from the spring to summer. Clavius’s job was to bring it back toward the vernal equinox.

He succeeded to the degree of accuracy noted above — only a day off in 3,236 years. Not bad. This was also when New Year’s Day went back to January 1st, per the old Roman style, and while this is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I can’t help but think that Clavius had a hand in implementing the change.

I mean, come on. You’re handed a chance by the most powerful person in the western world at the time to move a major holiday off of your birthday so that your day is finally special on its own? Who wouldn’t do that given the power?

Good ol’ Chris did make other discoveries and get some nice presents, like a crater on the moon named after him, as well as the moon base in the movie 2001.

Still, even if the equinox did move away from March 25, the date still keeps bringing special things for astronomers. It was on this day in 1655 that the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,

Huygens also has another time connection, though. Where Clavius gave us a calendar accurate to over 3,000 years, Huygens gave us a clock that was the most accurate for the next 300 years. His innovation? Put a pendulum on that thing and let it swing. He literally put the “tick tock” in clock.

Why was this possible? Because the swing of a pendulum followed the rules of physics and was absolutely periodic. Even as friction and drag slowed it down, it would cover a shorter distance but at a slower pace, so that the time between tick and tock would remain the same.

The pendulum itself would advance a gear via a ratchet that would turn the hands of the clock, and adding kinetic energy back into that pendulum was achieved through a spring, which is where that whole “winding the clock” thing came in. Tighten the spring and, as it unwinds, it drives that gear every time the pendulum briefly releases it, but thanks to physics, that pendulum will always take the exact same time to swing from A to B, whether it’s going really fast or really slow.

Back to Huygens’s discovery, though… Titan is quite a marvel itself. It is the second largest natural satellite in our solar system, taking a back seat (ironic if you know your mythology) only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is half again as big as our own Moon and 80% more massive. It’s even bigger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive, mainly because Mercury is made of rock while Titan may have a rocky core but is mostly composed of layers of different forms of water-ice combined with ammonia, and a possible sub-surface ocean,

Titan also has a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the only other atmosphere in the solar system besides Earth’s to have so much nitrogen in it. In case you’re wondering, Earth’s atmosphere is almost 80% nitrogen — OMG, you’re breathing it right now! But this also makes the aliens’ Achilles heel in the movie Mars Attacks! kind of ridiculous, since the whole deal was that they could only survive in a nitrogen atmosphere. We have that, Mars doesn’t. Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, but not even much of that. But don’t get me started.

Despite all that, it’s still a fun film.

And Titan, next to Jupiter’s moon Europa, is one of the more likely places we might find life in our solar system.

One final bit of March 25th news in space for this day: In 1979, OV-102, aka Space Shuttle Columbia, was delivered to NASA. It was the first shuttle completed, and its delivery date, after a flight that had begun on March 24th, came four years to the day after fabrication of the fuselage began. Sadly, it was also the last shuttle to not survive its mission, so there was a strange sort of symmetry in that.

While I warned you about the Ides of March, the 25th should be full of nothing but anticipation, even in a plague year. It’s a date for exploration and discovery, whether out into the cosmos, or within the confines of whatever space you’re in right now. Make good with what you have, create all you can, and take advantage of our wonderful technology to share and connect.

After all, that’s what worked for Clavius and Huygens. They worked with the tech they had, then networked once they had an idea, and look how well that worked out.

Hint: It worked out very well, for them and for us.

Image Source: Titan, by NASA.

Sunday Nibble #8: Beware the what of when now?

Caesar’s wife Calpurnia may well have told him “Cave idibus martiis” — “Beware the Ides of March” — and history proved her to be right, whether or not her warning was made up later. In fact, the real warning may have come from a politically astute seer named Spurinna, who gave a general warning with no specifics.

There are a lot of myths around Caesar’s assassination, many of them attributable to Shakespeare taking dramatic license.

And the part that always gets left out is that Caesar was just about to declare himself dictator for life, so contrary to Shakespeare, perhaps the murderous Senators really were the heroes in this scenario.

Hm. Heroic Senators. What a concept… Except that they probably acted entirely in their own self-interest, since Caesar went more after their own corruption than after the common citizen or the slave.

But forget all that. The real question is “What exactly is an ‘ides’ that Caesar had to bewar?”

Well, for one, it’s a thing you’ve been pronouncing wrong since forever, and “ides” isn’t even the original Latin. It’s “idibus Martiis.” In this case, the endings of the words basically say that the first one belongs to the second. That’s how Latin works. No apostrophe stuff for them. They had an entire case, called the genitive, which could be read in shorthand as “thing of.”

It differs even more in English in that the owned object comes before the owner. I guess the most direct, yet cumbersome, rendering in English of idibus Martiis might be “the ides which belong to March.”

Oh yeah. Extra complication. More likely than not, the thing would have been rendered in classical Latin like this: “IDIBVSMARTIIS” or, to make it even more confusing, “IDBSMRTS.”

But what you’re probably really wondering about is that whole “ides” thing, which btw is pronounced “ee-dayce” and not “eyeds.”

First off, we need to look at the history of the Roman calendar and, like many calendars from that time and place, it was lunar, not solar. It was basically a hot mess and necessitated the addition of leap month every two or three years to keep things in synch. Q.V. the Jewish calendar, which adds a leap month every… it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, terms like the ides were basically meant to pin down the phases of the moon.

The Romans had three special words for days in their calendar, one of which gave us the name for the thing. That would be kalends, which indicated the day of the New Moon, i.e. no moon visible. The ides, then, indicated the day of the full moon, which would be two weeks after the kalends. Finally, the nones designated the 1st quarter moon.

What this meant to the Romans was that the kalends was always the first of the month, the nones could be on the 7th or 5th of the month — the former in March, May, July, and October, the latter in all others; and the ides would be on the 15th of the same months mentioned above, or the 13th of the others.

What this also tells us is that Caesar was assassinated under a full moon on the 15th of March.

When it came to time-keeping ancient cultures naturally latched onto the Moon. And, in fact, in many languages, the words for moon and month are very similar. This is pretty self-evident in English.

Judaism, the religion of Rome, and (later) Islam all came to settle on the same time-keeper, choosing the Moon over the Sun. At first glance, that might seem weird. After all, the Sun definitely creates our days and nights, so why shouldn’t it have been the primary calendar starter from the beginning?

Simple. The Sun seems to be constant. The Moon is not. In fact, Shakespeare even commented on it in Romeo & Juliet:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Ironically, it was the apparent inconstancy that led us to use the Moon to mark time. And why did the Moon seem the better choice? Because the Sun was the really inconstant one.

Let’s say that humans have already divided a day into 24 hours, but it can be any arbitrary number. Then they try to figure out another arbitrary measure, let’s call it an hour, based upon how long daylight lasts. “Okay,” they say. “Half of that day length will be light, and half dark.”

So they get about measuring, only to realize that it’s a moving target. If they use some physical constant to measure, like how long it takes X amount of water to drain from one bucket with a hole in it to another, then they may notice over time that while it’s daylight for sixteen buckets in June, it’s somehow only daylight for eight buckets in December.

            `

Well, that’s not a great way to measure things. But, on the other hand, here’s this thing up there that changes in a regular and predictable pattern, and it shouldn’t have taken too much observation to realize that the regular change took about 28 days — regardless of how long day or night were relative to each other.

So we have a winner. Start with the day the Moon disappears, mark off a point when it has fully reappeared, then put a pin in a point between invisible and totally there. That’s your regular and easy cycle, and the source of your lunar calendar.

It wasn’t until people who were keeping track of the longer phenomena — basically, how the Sun’s position and the apparent angle of the Earth’s axis also changed consistently, but over years, not months — that we also finally realized, “Crap! A lunar calendar is going to throw us off of what time it ‘really’ is.”

But… is that a valid question or concern? Does anybody really know what time it is?

How many phases of the Moon have passed since your birth? How many years on the Jewish or Muslim calendar? Is your birthdate now still in the same month it was then?

Ultimately, does it matter? We’ve come to consider the number of times the Earth circles the Sun to be the important measure, hence birthdays based on solar time. But that is totally anthropocentric, meaning to measure everything about the world based on human terms.

But… what about all the dogs I’ve known and loved who have gone from infancy to advanced senior citizen and death in about as many orbits as it took me to go from birth to driver’s license? What about the few pet rats I’ve had and loved who lasted about as long as it took me from birth to say my first words?

And what about all those turtles that look at us humans and think, “You retire at 65? Lazy-ass bitches. Grow a shell!”

In physics, time really is just what a clock reads, nothing more nor less. After all, a clock here on Earth will read a quite different time from the same clock launched into space at a large fraction of the speed of light.

Here are the salient points: While the ides of March, 44 BCE, is the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated, all we really need to remember for practical purposes is that this day was March 15th. His wife never predicted his doom on this day, and the one seer who gave warning only said that Caesar was moving into a politically dangerous month, and he did that back in February

The real heroes in the story were kinda sorta the Senators who stabbed him to death with daggers (not swords) in an antechamber off of the Senate (not on the floor), in order to save everyone, except that they were totally acting in their own self-interest in a way that only inadvertently benefited the Plebes, Soldiers, Citizens, and Slaves.

Finally, everything got distorted to turn a dude who was probably a power-hungry and dangerous asshole into a martyr. At least his first successor, Augustus, had it a bit more together.

Getting back to calendars, though, our Roman calendar got more modern when what was originally the fifth month was renamed in honor of Caesar after his assassination, and so we got July.

Meanwhile, August was renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 BCE. In this case, the Senate decided to make it happen, and so the sixth month took on what wasn’t even his real name, just his title. And so September, October, November, and December made sense for a while, since they meant seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

It wasn’t until the winter months got names again and March was no longer new year’s month that the last four months of the year lost touch with the origin of their names.

And, finally, we had a calendar that aligned more closely with the more meaningful solar year, and only needed to be adjusted by stuffing an extra day into February every four years, and omitting that same stuffing if said leap year happened to occur on a century year (one ending in 00) that was not divisible by four.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. And, in modern America, the only real warning we need to heed on the Ides of March is that it’s one month until tax day. Otherwise, carry on!

%d bloggers like this: