The Friday Fillip: Time… and Time Again

The hot new thought (again) in some physics circles is that time doesn’t exist. Take a moment on this Friday to wrap what remains of your mind around that thought. Not possible. It’s like those “yes, but” thoughts you used to have lying awake at night when you were a kid and wondered what was outside the universe: nothing, right? Yes, but…

Click on image to enlarge.

So lacking the math or the philosophical chops necessary to dispense with time, most of us reckon with it. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, ad infinitum. Yet of all of these measures, it’s really only the year and the day that are wedded to the natural order of things, a.k.a. the sun-earth do-se-do. The rest are constructs. There’s no necessity, for example, that there be seven days in a week — though there have been in the West since Sumerian and Babylonian times (except for that brief French flirtation with a ten-day week at the turn of a couple of centuries ago) — or, indeed, that there be a week at all.

But it’s when things come to months that the going gets rough for time-ravellers. The problem, as we all know, is that the Earth’s sidereal year of approximately 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes and 9.76 seconds isn’t divisible by a whole number without creating remainders, and remains of not quite a day at that. We all know that some time a while back Julian did something to Gregory (or vice versa) and now we have our only slightly cranky leap year thing, with the odd leap second thrown in to make the Taylorites happy. But you might not know that some people are still unhappy with this arrangement and are arguing for another grand change.

The latest model proposed is the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar explained in this Wired article. The gist of it seems to be a desire to have every February 10th fall on the same day of the week year in and year out. (Actually, it seems it’s already Feb. 11 on the Hanke-Henry calendar. Did I get paid for that lost day?) The thought is that this relentless regularity would make things easier for businesses and, well, for others who need to plan for when US Thanksgiving arrives, like… businesses. It would also mean that your birthday would happen on the same day of the week for the rest of your life. So if you were Wednesday’s child, there’d be nothing whatever you’d be able to do about it. Ever.

According to that Wired article, here’s how we’d get to this perfect state:

. . . eight months would each have 30 days. Every third month would have 31 days. Every so often, to account for the leftover time, a whole extra week would be added.

That extra week — Saturnalia/Carnival anyone? — would get added at the end of December “every 5 or 6 years.” Just in case you want to plan, those extra-week years would be, in fact: 2015, 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043 . . . which, I reckon, takes you far enough ahead to arrange for catering.

If you’d like to try your hand at ruling time, and why not, I say? you’ll find Calendar Wiki a helpful repository of a few dozen of humankind’s past and current attempts, my own sentimental favourite being theAbysmal Calendar, a sort of multicultural clockwork developed in Vancouver a few years back.


  1. Well … the Committee of Public Safety had a number of unusual ideas.

    On the other hand, North York had 6 days in the high school week in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (That’s when, as you’ll recall, it also had the “Best Law School in The Commonwealth”. Maybe there was a connection.)

  2. Another interesting question is whether timekeeping ought to be based on celestial events or on atomic clocks. There is a nice article on this debate by Randy Boswell, “Canada balks at ‘atomic’ time”, National Post, Saturday, November 12, 2011 ( He says Canada, the UK and China are on the stand-pat side. The US, France, Japan, Germany and India are pro-reform.

    On the celestial side is Universal Time (UT1) (, the successor of Greenwich Time (wikipedia), to which the definition of “standard time” in section 35 of our Interpretation Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-21, still refers. It is intended to relate to the rotation of the earth.The IERS noted above is, in fact, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service established by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). It turns out that the earth rotates irregularly. Because of this, Ephemeris Time was defined in 1952, on the basis of the observed positions of astronomical objects. A later version, Terrestrial Time (TT), was defined in 1991 by the IAU.

    On the atomic clock side is International Atomic Time (TAI) ( This is determined by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) on the basis of measurements from a number of atomic clocks around the world. TAI is reported, from time to time, in “Circular T.” For example, here is CirT.289 (February 9, 2012).Of course, UT1 and TAI don’t agree.

    It turns out that the umpire, because time measurements have to be communicated, is the Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). These folks have defined Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) ( in TF.460. Because astronomy has ruled, at least so far, the IERS sends out notices of upcoming leap seconds in its “Bulletin C“. Here, for example, is C 43 (January 5, 2012).

    As far as I know the current state of affairs at the ITU is stated in a press release, “ITU Radiocommunication Assembly defers decision to eliminate the leap second” (January 19, 2012) (

  3. it hurts us that you would use a graphic from theAbysmal Calendar to talk about the Henry-Hanke reforms, which in my humble opinion, fall short in addressing the Gregorian Calendar’s most contentious issues.

    I’ve been researching calendars, time, astronomy, astrology, history, archaeology and so on, which goes into the subject a little more thoroughly (if no more conclusively) than Henry-Hanke, despite their accomplishments in their respective fields.

  4. actually, it doesn’t hurt us at all…

  5. Clocks are subdivisions of the calendar, see our article in American Scientist:

    A recent meeting, “Decoupling Civil Timekeeping from Earth Rotation”, discussed the proposal to redefine UTC. Preprints, presentations and discussions are available from: