Thursday, July 10, 2008

It's Always April Fool's Day...

It never ceases to amaze me what can arouse fear and trembling here in the Land of the Tiny-Brained Folk. Just when I thought we'd put millennial madness behind us with the non-event that was Y2K, Lo! it just begins again. Case in point: this piece from the world-famous AOL newsroom about a bunch of mystics that have their shorts in a wad over the Long Count.

I've had a long-standing interest in calendars of all kinds. I think they're cool. I came to the study of calendars from my long-time interest in astronomy, and eventually got interested in them in their own right. It's a fascinating business, how people choose to mark time. Do they mark the passing of the Sun, or the Moon, or some combination of the two? What do they use for their epoch date, and why? That choice alone tells you a lot about the mind-set of the calendar maker.

The modern Julian Day calendar, for example, is in broad use by those of us who study the motion of the planets for both fun and profit. Its epoch was chosen purely arbitrarily. The Julian Day is the number of days that have elapsed since January 1, 1950, UTC. It's not a whole number, but a decimal, so that you can get as precise as you need to. Interesting factoid, useless to most people. But I find it curious.

The Byzantine calendar, now... They date their calendar from when they believe the world was created in Genesis, some 7500-odd years ago. The year 2000 AD, for example, would have been
Etos Kosmou 7508 on January 1, rolling over to 7509 on September 1, which was their New Year. Neat, but again, mostly useless.

Our calendar dates from the estimated birth of Christ ... but they got the year wrong. Whoops. The really funny thing about people getting their shorts in a knot about the passing of the 2000th year since the birth of Christ? They were getting excited about four years late. Maybe. We just don't know for sure. (I suppose I could ask when I get there... Provided that I still give a rip.)

And then there's the Hebrew Calendar, a combination lunar/solar calendar that I've never entirely understood. Their epoch date is a year before Creation. I find that slightly nuts. What, it took the Almighty most of a year to get His blueprints past peer review? But it's best not to consider such things too deeply. That way lay madness.

The point is, all calendars are arbitrary. They're tools for marking the passing of years, no more, no less. By far, their most important role in ancient societies was telling people when they should plant crops. That's serious business, because if you plant too early or too late, you go hungry. But aside from that, their use is purely ceremonial, and the Universe at large simply does not care how we measure time, or for that matter, if we measure it at all.

Which brings us to this barge of fools crying "Doom! Doom!" for 2012, because the Mayan calendar is running out. Why, pray tell, do they think the Mayans have a unique groove? Personally, I find it hard to take their word on the date of Doomsday if they never got around to inventing the freaking wheel. The second simplest machine of all time, and it never once occurred to them? Not one of them looked at the round calendar carved into the side of a temple and mused to themselves that something roundish might make hauling fifty-ton stone blocks easier?

You have to admit, failing to invent the wheel kind of disqualifies you from the leader-board of History's Cleverest People.

Besides, it's not as if they have the only cyclical calendar. The Hindu calendar, for example, will trundle merrily along for another 420,000 years give or take before its current age ends. But we don't see anyone getting excited about that bit of prophecy, do we?

Well, that's partly because no one seriously expects to be around then. But that's beside the point.

Or is it? After all, 2012 is tantalizingly close. Most anyone alive today can seriously expect to be around then. Whatever happens then, they'll be here to see it. There are always people just chomping at the bit to see Armageddon in their time. Some of them, I expect, bounce from one round of "Doom!" to another like Tarzan swinging through the Jungle of Life. Y2K proved a bust, and this was the next one to come along.

Me, not so much. I take great confidence in the fact that mystics have predicted 10 of the last 0 ends of the world. I expect December 21, 2012 to come and go just like any other day. No one from Galactic Utilities is going to come by and tell us that we haven't paid our calendar bill.

You won't get off that easy, guys. You'll have to wake up the next morning and go to work, just like the rest of us. Get used to it.

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