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Why is it 2017?

September 13, 2017 — Glyn Faulkner

I've written before about alternative ways to look at geography. Here I'm going to try to do something similar to the way you look at history.

We're a little over two thousand years after the epoch year of the most widely used calendar in the modern world, the Gregorian. The calendar itself dates from 1582, but it inherits its count of years from the Julian Calendar, of which it is a refinement, motivated by improved astronomical measurements available in the sixteenth century.

For four hundred year old technology, the Gregorian is an impressive achievement, accurate to within a few seconds a century. Still it has its shortcomings -- months are unequal lengths leading to "quarter-years" of unequal length, and that there are approximately 52.18 weeks in a year. Here I'll concentrate on just the count of years, which was chosen for cultural and religious reasons, and its three major shortcomings:

  1. the very fact it was chosen for cultural and religious reasons! There are a whole lot of cultures and religions in the world for which that particular year does not have any particular significance. Still others for which the significance is not a positive one. In point of fact, the best modern estimates place the birth of Jesus around 5 BC, so it even fails in its original purpose as a major Christian epoch.

  2. it doesn't express the scale of human history in a clear and meaningful way. People have an intuitive grasp of the span between different positive numbers that breaks down when you venture below zero. If you're anything like me, then while AD dates are easy to relate to each other and to your own time on this planet, BC dates kind of blur together into this amorphous zone of "long ago". This under-states the importance of all those things that happened before the dawn of Christianity.

  3. there's an awkward off-by-one error, caused by the lack of a "year zero" in the Gregorian calendar; the year one is immediately preceded by the year minus-one. This is not how numbers work, and introduces a host of exciting complications and error-introducing possibilities for anybody who needs to do accurate date calculations going back more than 2000 years!

Realistically, every attempt to put a start date on your calendar is going to be arbitrary. The possible exception being the start of the universe, but dealing with a year count in the billions is kind of impractical, plus our estimates for the age of the universe have varied a lot in the last century..

There have been a few proposals for alternative epoch years that attempt to address these issues, without requiring a complete renumbering of Gregorian years. These include Merlin Stone's After the Development of Agriculture calendar, which adds 8000 on to the AD year, and Cesari Emiliani's Holocene Calendar, which adds 10000 and is based on the approximate age of the earliest known permanent human settlements.

Calendar reform is a broad topic, and until I started reading for this post I hadn't appreciated quite how many of the things I take for granted out timekeeping are arbitrary or sub-optimal!

Tags: history

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