Sixty

Time passes.

Or at least that’s how we think. The hours crawled by. Time flies. It is we who are the center of this universe.

In reality, time is nothing. We pass. In the US, the verb is synonymous with death. But in England you pass away.

Perhaps because we measure our lifespan that way, we’re besotted with time.

In the fullness of our mathematical incompetence, it’s the one piece of arithmetic we can operate. People who can’t multiply 12 by 5, or make change from a twenty dollar bill, can deal with years, days, and even hours and minutes.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Is it possible that time is the father of math? Eminently so, because tracking time requires a counting system.

And once we learned to count, many other things became possible—we began to calculate—and if you compute, you can predict.

The first counting unit must have been the day, because the sequence of light and dark is so obvious. Dividing the day into two periods is also immediate.

After the sun came the moon. The bright full moon, the dark sky of the new moon, it gave Man another natural rhythm—the lunations of The India Road.

Next, the seasons came into play—in temperate areas, the sequence of snowy winters and warm summers, modulated by spring and fall.

And this combination of day, month, and season led to the year. Once that was established, primitive peoples had their framework for time.

Humans learned to count to four in order to understand the seasons, to twelve to translate them into months, and to thirty to know how many days were in the month.

So true! If math was taught more sensibly, numbers would be more fun.

So true! If math was taught more sensibly, numbers would be more fun.

Those will have been the first needs, and because we were unable to compute time precisely, the astronomical time system must have been based around the magic number 360. Into which 90, the length of a season, goes 4 times. And 30, the number of days in the month, goes 12 times.

The Sumerians noted the circular orbit of the sun, a notion that persisted until the days of Copernicus and Galileo (Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake for it), and divided that circle into 360 intervals—days became degrees.

So, because of a few basic requirements we developed a numbering system with units, sub-units, and multiples.

The history of the hour is a bit of a god’s breakfast, or perhaps multiple deities, since the Egyptians and Greeks are to blame for it. The common man saw the daily cycle as two distinct parts, and the Egyptians used a duodecimal counting system—ancient civilizations counted in twelves, using the three segments of each of the four fingers of one hand.

The Egyptian sundial had twelve divisions, and at the equinox, when the day is as long as the night, the two twelve-hour periods were identical. Twenty-four hours. The number stuck, but for centuries each period always had twelve hours, so in winter, daylight hours were shorter, not less.

‘Sexagesimal’ sounds like a perverted copulation practice of math teachers, but actually it was a counting system created by the Sumerians four thousand years ago, and subsequently passed on to the Babylonians.

It’s a system organized around the number sixty. Now this is not a number that screams for attention, except when the fateful birthday hits, but it is a fascinating number.

For reasons I’m unable to explain, it’s always been my favorite number in the twelve times table, which I was forced to learn as a child.

There’s an apocryphal tale that the twelve segments, multiplied by the five digits of the other hand, led to the use of sixty.

However sixty became popular, here we have our unit. Multiply it by six and you get the days in our primitive year, 360. And as for sub-units, well… How about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for starters?

If an hour has sixty minutes, it can be divided without fractions into 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30 minutes. How cool is that? You rock, Sumerians!

And since we are besotted, our ancestors felt the need to break that minute down into sixty seconds.

Which is bizarre, because even by the time of Columbus, three thousand five hundred years later, we weren’t capable of measuring hours that accurately. So what use did the Sumerians, Babylonians, or even the Egyptians have for minutes? Not a lot.

The sixties logic found its way into space, as astronomers began to carve up degrees into minutes and seconds.

But when it comes to time, that precious commodity? The sixties system doesn’t quite work. Dog screwed it up and gave us 365.25 days in the year, and a lunar period of 29.5 days.

But that’s the fun of it. Life is a perfect imperfection.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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