Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Time marches on

Happy New Year 2017 to all of my readers, and I hope this one brings you everything you hope for.  Me, I'm keeping my New Year's wishes fairly modest this year.  I'm currently working on two novels and I'd like to finish them both; I'd like to get my 5 K race time down below 27 minutes; and I'd like it if Donald Trump doesn't open the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse.

Other than that, I'm pretty content with the status quo.

But speaking of calendars, milestones, and benchmarks, apparently there's been a proposal to revamp our calendar.  According to a video by the Munich-based filmmakers that call themselves "Kurzgesagt" (German for "in brief"), we shouldn't be in the year 2017, we should be in 12,017.

The reason for this proposal is that marking our calendar based upon the beginning of Christianity is a fairly arbitrary zero year, given how many people in the world aren't Christian.  Plus, having a great swatch of history marked by the calendar-running-backwards "B.C." scale is confusing and unnecessary.  So Philipp Dettmer and his friends at Kurzgesagt have suggested a new scale, and one that conveniently would only require the addition of a "1" at the beginning of our current year.

So what happened 12,017 years ago that's so special?  Dettmer says this is when the first known permanent stone building was built in the hills of southern Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, marking the point at which we began to "build a new world on top of the old one."  At that point, we set in motion the massive terraforming operation that has characterized humanity ever since.

This would mean that we would do away with the old "B.C." and "A.D." designations; all years on the calendar after that point (and thus all of recorded history) would run forward and would be "H.E." (Human Era).

Roman calendar from the 1st century B.C.E., or the 99th century H.E., whichever you prefer (image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Okay, there are a few problems with this.

First of all, the temple that Dettmer et al. are referencing -- Göbekli Tepe, near the town of Şanlıurfa -- was not built 12,017 years ago, it was founded around 11,150 years ago, which is a 900-odd year discrepancy.  This is according to the oldest radiocarbon dates we have from the site, so it seems like a good estimate.  So if you really do want to measure the years based on the founding of this temple, you'd have to do more than simply adding a "1" to the beginning of the current calendar year, you'd have to add 9,133, which is not nearly as convenient.

Second, I wonder if they've considered the level of conniption that would be thrown by the Religious Right if this was seriously proposed.  These, after all, are the same people who founded the War on Christmas trope, which claims (among other things) that Starbucks changing its winter cup design was the moral equivalent of strafing the Three Wise Men while they were on their way to Bethlehem.  These are also the same people who regularly send me hate mail when I use "B.C.E." and "C.E." ("Before Common Era" and "Common Era") instead of B.C. and A.D.  (One memorable one said, "You're so much in love with your lord and master Satan you can't even bear to write Christ's name in an abbreviation.  You're despicable."  Which became a lot funnier when the final sentence made me think of reading the whole thing in a Daffy Duck voice, so I did.  You should try it.)

Hell, we're the culture that couldn't even agree to switching over to using metric units.  Nope, gotta stick with feet, inches, pounds, ounces, hundredweights, and furlongs per fortnight.  'Murika!  Fuck yeah!

Then there's a third issue, which is that it's not like we don't have commemoration of other deities in other parts of our timekeeping system, such as the days (Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Freyja) and months (Januarius, Februarius, Mars, Maia, Juno).  The difference is that pretty much no one worships any of these gods any more, which in Thor's case is kind of a shame because he was a serious badass.

Of course, it's not like calendar-keeping ever was a particularly exact science.  Our current zero year (well, 1 A.D., as there's no Year Zero in the contemporary calendar) is supposed to be based on the birth of Jesus, but the problem is, the most recent scholarship on the topic -- calculated from known dates of Roman emperors' reigns and the lives of biblical figures such as Herod -- has concluded that Jesus was born in 4 B.C.  He also wasn't born on December 25, but probably some time in the spring, given that "the shepherds were tending their lambs in the fields."  The settlement on December 25 as the date for the celebration of Jesus's birth probably started some time mid-4th century, and a lot of folks think that the date was chosen because it coincided with the part of the year when the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a solstice festival associated with meals, get-togethers, and gift-giving (sound familiar?).  The idea was that if you sanctified the date by putting a Christian spin on the celebration, you could let the former pagans still have their party but pretend it was something holier.  The church fathers figured with luck, the recent converts would eventually forget about the pagan part and focus only on the holy part, which 1,700 years later still hasn't happened, given Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and Black Friday specials at Walmart.

Now, my point is not that any of the above stuff is exact, either; the spring 4 B.C. date for Jesus's birth still rests on a lot of guesswork.  It's more that our calendar-keeping isn't based on anything real as it is.  It's hard enough to keep up with the inevitable vagaries that are engendered by the fact that the Earth's rotation and revolution cycles don't line up especially well, which is why we have leap days every four years (and had a "leap second" this year -- hope you used your extra second for something productive).  Trying to make a major-scale change to calendar-keeping would be too much for us, I think.

Me, I think if we're really going to have a meaningful calendar, we should start with the real milestone, which is the Big Bang.  Now that's a real Zero Year.  And with that thought, I'll end here, and pause only to reiterate my wish that your 13,800,002,017 A.B.B. is a special one.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Gordon. (I could happily comment daily here).
    Ok, had I the gumption to write on this subject, (after an exhausting day, in your case teaching and in mine, terraforming Israel), my points-list would have been uncannily similar to yours. Understandable, having long ago noticed the convergence of our interests and 'big picture' grasp of Reality. And yes, point by point, you expressed my own thoughts, only more entertainingly. Half-way through, I hoped, and was not disappointed to see, that you ID-ed the Natural Year One. And I awaken every morning saddened that, barring entropic revolutions, I may not be lucky enough to enjoy the next 13+ billion Skeptophilia gems.
    Human history is written by the victors. (We Jews call the year 5700-something; (post apple-strudel-party??) But any rational pure-hearted, immune-to cultural-delusions homo sapiens is well-advised to simply look upwards, to note Venus' travels in the sky, among a host of longer-scale 'progress', and then declare '2017' a sad 'book-keeping' artifact.
    (Ignoring, for discussion purposes, that it has as good a chance as the Cuban Missle Crisis year was, to be the End of Times...
    That said, enjoy your up-state pastorale while it lasts, my friend/ JS