I’m All Years

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 21, 2021

Surely it can’t be pure coincidence that the number of degrees in a circle is almost exactly the same as the days in a year. (Of course, 360 was more suitable, giving us 4 neat angles of 90 degrees.) But, while we’re on the subject, why do the times a circle’s circumference is bigger than its diameter have to be such an odd number – (and I do mean odd)? It’s called “Pi” (the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet) but has only been Pi since 1706, when an English mathematician gave it that name, representing (in both Greek and English) the word “perimeter.” As you probably know, “Pi” can’t be expressed as an exact number, no matter how many decimal places you carry it to. I’m no mathematician (obviously) – but wouldn’t it have been much more convenient if whoever designed the circle had made the circumference exactly three times the diameter?

What’s nice about circles is that they have no sides – or, if you like, they have an infinite number of sides. In any case, they’ve no beginning and no end, making them a nice metaphor for time and life and the universe. And, in their spherical 3-D persona, they seem to be a popular shape for space objects, even for ours, not to mention our own sun and moon.

That word “infinite” represents a concept not easy for mortal minds to grasp. But then, neither is “finite,” at least when it comes to human life, especially one’s own.

 In this culture (I’m not sure about all the others), we measure our lives by the number of times the Earth has gone around the sun. (Before Copernicus, it was the sun that went around the Earth, but, either way, the count was the same.) We call that revolutionary period a year. And traditionally, we date our own first year from the day we emerge from our mother’s womb (although many folks will give you an argument nowadays as to exactly when life begins). That, officially, is our actual birthday. But we don’t start counting birthdays until the first anniversary of that day. So, during that first year, we are, so to speak, 0 years old. But from then on, it’s a steady stream of numbers, first single digits, then – almost before you know it – double digits.  But very few people ever make it into triple digits – and, in our present primitive state of knowledge about aging, and what to do about it, I’m not sure how many of us even want to. (They call this academic field the science of “gerontology” – but even gerontologists, while they are studying the process of growing old and dying, experience it themselves.)

The year, as a unit of time, is so standardized that our lives tend to be built around it. But our systems of reckoning are sadly archaic. For example, the years, like the temperature, are thought of as a scale which goes down to zero, and then continues going down on the minus side. And because Christians set this up, they counted the birth of Christ as Year Zero, and called any year after that “Anno Domini” (A.D., “in the Year of Our Lord”) and the preceding years B.C. (“Before Christ.”)

But this meant that all the B.C. years had to be counted backwards – so, the farther back you go in time, the bigger the numbers become. It was (and still is, to me) very confusing. Then, as a further complication, non-Christians didn’t like this nomenclature, so, in many contexts, instead of “B.C.” and “A.D,” you now have, “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” meaning “Before the Current Era” and “in the Current Era.” But this is merely a cosmetic change.

Another aspect of year-counting stems from our ten-fingered hands, giving us “decades” of ten years, “centuries” of 100, and “millennia” of 1000. It’s really just a game which, like our calendar, could change at any time – although, considering the way we have clung to out-of-date customs, such as calling the last four months of our 12-month year by names which, in Latin, mean Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth – no sudden change appears to be imminent.

As the word suggests, those 12 “months” originally hinged on the behavior of the Moon. But there are 12, rather than, as previously, 10, only to honor two Roman Caesars: Julius (July) and Augustus (August). Nobody since then has ever been thus honored – but it’s something to aim for, once you’ve achieved the Nobel Prize. 

What’s nice about circles is that they have no sides – or, if you like, they have an infinite number of sides. In any case, they’ve no beginning and no end, making them a nice metaphor for time and life and the universe. And, in their spherical 3-D persona, they seem to be a popular shape for space objects, even for ours, not to mention our own sun and moon.

That word “infinite” represents a concept not easy for mortal minds to grasp. But then, neither is “finite,” at least when it comes to human life, especially one’s own.

 In this culture (I’m not sure about all the others), we measure our lives by the number of times the Earth has gone around the sun. (Before Copernicus, it was the sun that went around the Earth, but, either way, the count was the same.) We call that revolutionary period a year. And traditionally, we date our own first year from the day we emerge from our mother’s womb (although many folks will give you an argument nowadays as to exactly when life begins). That, officially, is our actual birthday. But we don’t start counting birthdays until the first anniversary of that day. So, during that first year, we are, so to speak, 0 years old. But from then on, it’s a steady stream of numbers, first single digits, then – almost before you know it – double digits.  But very few people ever make it into triple digits – and, in our present primitive state of knowledge about aging, and what to do about it, I’m not sure how many of us even want to. (They call this academic field the science of “gerontology” – but even gerontologists, while they are studying the process of growing old and dying, experience it themselves.)

The year, as a unit of time, is so standardized that our lives tend to be built around it. But our systems of reckoning are sadly archaic. For example, the years, like the temperature, are thought of as a scale which goes down to zero, and then continues going down on the minus side. And because Christians set this up, they counted the birth of Christ as Year Zero, and called any year after that “Anno Domini” (A.D., “in the Year of Our Lord”) and the preceding years B.C. (“Before Christ.”)

But this meant that all the B.C. years had to be counted backwards – so, the farther back you go in time, the bigger the numbers become. It was (and still is, to me) very confusing. Then, as a further complication, non-Christians didn’t like this nomenclature, so, in many contexts, instead of “B.C.” and “A.D,” you now have, “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” meaning “Before the Current Era” and “in the Current Era.” But this is merely a cosmetic change.

Another aspect of year-counting stems from our ten-fingered hands, giving us “decades” of ten years, “centuries” of 100, and “millennia” of 1000. It’s really just a game which, like our calendar, could change at any time – although, considering the way we have clung to out-of-date customs, such as calling the last four months of our 12-month year by names which, in Latin, mean Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth – no sudden change appears to be imminent.

As the word suggests, those 12 “months” originally hinged on the behavior of the Moon. But there are 12, rather than, as previously, 10, only to honor two Roman Caesars: Julius (July) and Augustus (August). Nobody since then has ever been thus honored – but it’s something to aim for, once you’ve achieved the Nobel Prize.

 

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