What numbers mean to non-mathemagicians
Having gone through school with the magical number line on the wall of many of the classrooms, it came to represent a sense of time for me.
Do this experiment. It won’t take long and I promise to wait. Do an image search for “calendar” then do one for “clock”. Notice anything?
How do we number time?
I’d like to clarify my use of two terms: to number is to assign a number to identify something in no particular order; to count refers to a calculation of units.
Currently: the Gregorian
- Years: numbered 4713 BCE to BCE and 1 CE to 2017 CE. But no 0
- Days of the Month: numbered 1st, 2nd, 3rd, … which are ordinal numbers
- Hours, minutes, seconds: counted from 0
Most of the world’s calendars seem to use either of the first two methods of numbering days, months, and years.
- Years: counted 0 to various.
- Quarters of the Year: counted 0 to 3
- Months of the Year: counted 0 to 12
- Weeks of the Year: counted 0 to 51
- Weeks of Quarter: counted 0 to 12
- Weeks of Month: counted 0 to 3
- Days of the Year: counted 0 to 363
- Days of Quarter: counted 0 to 90
- Days of Month: counted 0 to 27
- Days of Week: counted 0 to 6
- hours of the Day: counted 0 to 23
- minutes of the hour: counted 0 to 59
- seconds of the minute: counted 0 to 59
If nothing else, it at least associates a consistent system of counting, from the second (about the rate of our heartbeat), through the Equinoxes and Solstices at the Quarter Year, and to the Year and up through larger measures of time.
Psychological Affect of our Image of Time
I’ve been living by this calendar for a decade, and can attest to my experience with it. I’ve been trying to find the right image to describe how my way of thinking has changed. There’s a good deal of information I got from Mircea Eliade’s the Myth of the Eternal Return which I believe is relevant here.
He discusses the Abrahamic view of time as a line between two eternities, the one before Creation, and the one after Apocalypse. The calendar we use globally is a combination of Babylonian Week, Roman Month, and Christian Year. The clock was developed by monasteries.
WWhen we number something, like a hotel room, or a lacrosse uniform, the sequence is incidental. Like 2nd floor rooms beginning with 200, even if there are far fewer rooms than that. These are static. Each day is a block, plunked into place, and we’re in it. This is literally thinking inside the box, day after day in a trudgefest to the horizon.
Going back to the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago, we’ve been living by the rhythm of day, moon, year generation after generation until very recently. The Earth, Moons, Planets are all circles in circular orbits around a circular Sun. These were images that would be recognizable to our ancestors, as well as anyone living today.
Since the image of calendar time is numbered blocks arranged row after row, it does present an image of bricks on a linear road. We do organize Years by Decades, Generations, Centuries, Millennia, all along our number line to the Apocalypse (as per Eliade).
However, I’m convincing myself that this way of experiencing time puts the Apocalypse just over the horizon. It’s the Year 1000. No? 1666! No. 2000! 2001! 2005! 2012!!! Any day now. Two minutes to midnight. This might explain a great deal of our massively self-destructive behaviour. If the Apocalypse is just around the corner, why take care of anything? It has to be distressing, especially when the limited solutions we have available are superficial and numbing.
Counting from Zero to Now
With the clock, our Day was divided up for us by the Babylonians. Counting is very different from numbering.
Counting from 0, as we do with heartbeats, seconds, minutes, hours creates a different model of time. We don’t assign a number to a measure of time until it is completed. Midnight starts off the Day with 00:00. When the first 3600 seconds have elapsed, then we can slap that 01:00 up there. To my mind, this puts time, as counted, in the past. We don’t assign a number until it has elapsed.
For example, I’m typing this at Year 4 Month 6 Day 18 hour 18 minute 37 second 41. Instead of viewing time as a block, it forces me into the moment, because the counted days are already past.
A Brighter Future? Probably?
How do you view the future in terms of time, not events? Is it a road that disappears over the horizon?
If we think of each measure from second to year as a circle, that gives us a better image. If we imagine each as a broken circle, this is even better. Instead of the flat surface of the clock, what if the end of one hour were connected to the beginning of the next. Like this:
Our circular model of time becomes spiral.
If we think of time in these terms, it might give added meaning to Mark Twain’s words.