The Longest Brunch

Tomorrow, December 21, is the winter solstice, marking that point in the Earth’s orbit where something-or-other points in a certain direction…or was it in another direction…? Oh, just go look it up on Wikipedia – they’ll do a much better job of it that I could.

Anyway, in Stockholm this translates to the sun creeping sluggishly over the horizon at 8:46, hovering a bit in a despondent manner, and then slipping away again 6 hours later at 14:46. This leads to people going to work and returning home in complete darkness, leading in turn to depression, binge-boozing and the occasional voting into power of the Christian Democrats.

And also, according to everywhere I have looked on the Internet, it marks “the beginning of winter”. Now this I find a bit strange, as anybody living North of the equator will tell you that winter has been going on for quite a while now. Of course the solstice – and the Christmas celebrations bolted very unsubtly onto them by the Christian church – are really an excuse for some rabble-rousing and heavy drinking and lighting of great fires before the long, shiftless, mouldy-apple-eating slide into spring.

Now there are only 4 days in our calendars that are “natural”, days our ancestors would have recognised as soon as they could raise their hairy heads: midwinter, midsummer and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. All the rest are made up, even St. Patrick’s Day and pancake Tuesday. And the only measures of time that are “natural” are the day, the (lunar) month and the year.

Which leads to the question – so where did the idea of minutes, hours and seconds come from then? And why the magic numbers 60 and 24? And why have I completely ran out of ideas for stuff to talk about that I have to get into nerdy stuff like this? Oh fuck it then, go somewhere else if you want, it’s a free Internet. Here, try this link, and have some fun for a change. Otherwise sit back and listen, the lecture has barely begun.

A second is quite close to the counting rate or heartbeat of a fit, strapping Sumerian, so it’s easy enough to work out why that is used.


Figure 1: Some Sumerians getting it on, and Theda Bara (no excuse needed)

But why 60 of them? Well the Sumerians had a thing for the number 60 but I have found no good reason why. I have found many explanations: about 60 having the handy factors 3*4*5; or being almost exactly 2 lunar months; or 60 being the result of various systems of finger-counting (5 digits and 12 sections on the fingers gives 12*5=60). Or sixty days being almost one sixth of a year…and so on.

But 60 seconds in a minute it was, and by grouping those there minutes into another handy unit of 60, we get the hour. Then the wily old Sumerians just fudged the length of the base unit, the second, in order to squeeze a useable number of hours into the day and, given their apparent love for the digit 6, they settled on 6*4 or 24. And then the Greeks liked the sound of the system and took it home, and tried to sell their fancy new sundials to the Romans who liked them so much they went and bought up the whole country.

And then we have the old AM/PM system, guaranteed to send Swedish people, and most others, into squirming confusion. You see, 24 was a tricky number for the average person to use, and it was a chore having to ring the church clocks 19 times to signify it was time for dinner, as well as nearly impossible to keep track of all those dongs and work out what the stupid time was. And besides that, 24 tiny numbers squeezed onto a clock face was a pain for the apprentice clock-makers, and so 12 became standard, as the day is rather obviously divided into 2 parts, the dark bit and the bright bit.

And now for the lesson: AM, meaning “Anterior Manifold”, refers to that part of the day up to, but not including, midday. 11:59 is AM, but 12:00 is not. Then PM (Pneumatic Mammaries) winds its merry way up to 11:59 at night (tip – it will be dark) and at 00:00 the hands rolls over into AM once again. Easy!

And finally, if you want to buy a thoughtful and useful present for a Swedish person, I recommend you get them an alarm clock that displays in AM/PM, and allow the person in question to practise their time-telling skills. You will be rewarded by them pulling their hair out and screaming, morning after morning, until they eventually throw the thing at the wall and refuse to shag you for a very very long time indeed.

/ paddy


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