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.

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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!