Decimal Time

In a metric world of kilograms and centimetres – a world which includes almost all countries save for the international backwaters of Myanmar and the United States – what’s up with time? Sixty seconds make a minute, sixty minutes make an hour, twenty-four hours make a day, seven days make a week, while around thirty days make a month and twelve months together make a year, after which we finally begin to work consistently in powers of ten. It’s a mess, in other words. We’ve tried to clean up more than once, and it’s hardly the only system that’s been developed over history, but we seem to be stuck with a chaotic and unintuitive system for the measurement of one of the most fundamental quantities we experience. What a strange world we live in.

According to the Institute for Creation Research’s now two months old video, Seven-day Week, the sticking power of just one of these divisions – the week, and it’s seven-day length – is evidence for young Earth creationism. Or, at least, a “testimony,” which may not be quite the same thing.

T & C:

So, a day is how long it takes for the Earth to rotate once on it’s axis, and a year is how long it takes for Earth to orbit once around the Sun.

The problems with expanding the metric system to time begin with an embarrassment of riches. Defining most units is easy: the first thing you need is an arbitrary distance, or mass, or light intensity, or whatever you were defining. This can be chosen any way you like – using distance as an example, the metre was originally defined as being one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator via Paris. As time passes we’ve changed the definitions to become more rigorous, making use of fundamental constants that have been discovered to explicitly define an exact value. Now that you have your unit, however you obtained it, it becomes trivial to transform it into smaller or larger units by multiplying by powers of ten.

But time presents a problem. While above we got to pick an arbitrary quantity to be our base unit, for time there exist multiple equally important natural phenomena that need to be taken into account: the lengths of the day and of the year, and potentially others. You can’t pick one to the exclusion of the other (dividing a day into tenths and hundredths may be all very well, but having three-hundred and sixty-five and a bit days in a year is the exact problem we were hoping to avoid), and you certainly can’t pick something else so long as you are still under their influence (having the sun come up every 32 centitemps, and the Earth go around the Sun every 0.117 kilotemps for example isn’t pretty either). Any and all attempts to reform the measurement of time therefore face significant innate hurdles. The current state of affairs seems to involve precisely defining the second and then hoping the rest will work out by itself.

So why is a week seven days long? After all, there isn’t an astronomical reason behind a seven day long week, or why we traditionally work for six of those days and rest on the seventh.

These are two different questions, the second of which the ICR will look at first. As for the first while it’s true that there is no immediate astronomical basis for the seven day week, that doesn’t mean that there is no basis there at all. For example a third natural phenomenon, the orbit of the moon, takes a little over 27 days – a time that is useful but could also do with a bit of subdivision. 27 itself is prime [ED: Whoops, no it’s not, but it’s still potentially worse than 28 for factors], while 28 has limited options for divisors. Seven days, for around four weeks in a lunar orbit, may just have been the best option available. The trouble, as I’m sure you can see, is that while we can suggest infinite reasons why a week might be seven days long, we cannot easily determine which reason is true (certainly not from my desk).

But back to the resting on the Sabbath thing. Modern tradition at least where I live (and probably most places) of course has two days of rest to five days of work, while the day chosen for spiritual “rest” varies between religions. But a break from tradition here isn’t dissuading the ICR:

Some say the practise came from “market days,” but even market days clustered around every seventh day, instead of every fifteenth or nineteenth or some other day.

A question for you, the reader: would you wait a whole fifteen days to buy fresh vegetables? And would you regularly attend the market if it ran every third day? Similar questions could be asked of the producers and stall owners. While a reliance on markets may not single out a seven day cycle as the only possible length, it does narrow the range of options significantly.

Others believe that the seven day week started with Moses and the ten commandments. But the people that became Israel and other nations observed the Sabbath long before Moses was alive.

The observation of the Sabbath is mandated in the Ten Commandments, but the ICR reckons, not unreasonably, that this was merely the codification of a previously existing rule.

Instead, we have to go back to Genesis, where it says God created for six days and then rested on the seventh. And that’s how we model our week since then.

Others would suggest that while the idea may have come from the middle east, it didn’t require the creation of the Earth to adhere to its timetable. Consider, for a moment, how the Genesis explanation doesn’t really answer our question. If the week is seven days long because the Earth was created in six days plus a rest day, then why did God, who could presumably have taken as long as He wanted to, choose seven? Perhaps it’s symbolic of something, or has a deeper meaning, but in that case why does the symbol have to have a literal component at all? And if not, then the choice is arbitrary – which is really out of character for the Abrahamic God.

The video moves on to detail a doomed attempt to change the length of the week by the Soviets:

The Soviets tried to change the week to five days in 1929, but this didn’t help productivity and ruined family life, since people had different days off from work. Also, machines couldn’t handle the constant use, and would often break down. So they switched to a six day week in 1931, but when that didn’t work out either they restored the seven day week in 1940.

I can’t tell you how much of this is true, knowing little Soviet history, but I suspect the problems listed may have come from giving different people different days off and trying to run operations continually, rather than being an inherent property of shortening the week.

A French Republican ClockAnother attempt at changing the length of the week came of course during the French rush to metricise the universe after their revolution, as previously alluded to. The French republican calendar, which counted years from 1792 (the year the republic was founded; the calendar was adopted in ’93) until its abolition around 12 years later. While there were still twelve 30-day months in a year, there were now ten days in a week. This didn’t last either, as I said, but whether its short lifespan came down to inherent shortcomings or the unstable political climate of the time is perhaps a matter for debate.

The video concludes:

Seven just seems to work out better when it comes to days in the week. And that’s a great testimony to the fact of creation. That we observe the same seven day week God established when he first created us.

And here we have the money quote. Do they really think the perseverance of an inefficient system can be chalked up to the influence of an omniscient and omnipotent being? Here’s another idea that was flirted with during the French revolution: decimal time.

The day, from midnight to midnight, is divided into ten parts, each part into ten others, so on until the smallest measurable portion of duration.

This didn’t last either, but if the 24 hour day originally had ties to some ancient religion you wouldn’t say that the abolition of this system was “great testimony” to the Babylonian pantheon (or whoever it was). Similarly, when the 10-day week was done away with (at the same time the catholic church was re-established in France, hence the potential political connection) the old names of the days were restored as well. As you may have noticed, the names of the days of the week in the English language come from the names of pagan gods – the old Germanic pantheon of Woden and Thor. The French system, too, is named for pagan deities (the Greco-Roman pantheon in this case). Would we conclude that these gods had some influence on the process? That would be silly, but maybe not out of the question given the logic being used here.

I have probably over analysed this ninety-five second video, but you get the idea. Cultural persistence has very little association with reality.

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6 thoughts on “Decimal Time

  1. Interesting article. The odd logical leap to the 7-day week being testimony of god’s creation was what got me,
    Regarding the period of the moon’s orbit, I thought 27 wasn’t a prime number (17, 23 and 29 are)- it’s divisible by 3 and 9. Or am I getting my mathematics terms mixed up?

  2. A Sumerian text has been found that uses 6 tablets describing the gods creating the world, followed by a seventh praising the gods for doing such good work.
    Since genesis is a 4th hand version of the Sumerian creation myth, have we discovered the origin of the 7 day week?

    Also, the ancient Egyptians had a 19 day week, with a 3 day weekend to accomodate the needs of the farmers who worked building pyramids during the off season.

    The pre- industrial chinese had a 15 day week with 1 day off.

    The Romans had many minor holidays where little or no work was done., but nothing like a week.

    It’s funny how none of these cultures has a 7 day week, in spite of being decendents of the ark crew, who supposedly observed a 7 day week.
    .

  3. If trying to make hay from time units is something ICR things may help YECism, I think they have too much time on their hands. Their time would be much better spent trying to deal with and frankly face the mountains of compelling physical evidence for evolution and an old earth. Whether time is measured in days, deci-weeks, or anything else, it’s high time they abandoned their long discredited view of earth history.

  4. Talking of the backwaters of Myanmar and the United States, over on Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait manages to use in a single article: mole, AMU, gram, degrees C, liter, cm, foot, cc, and ounce (both as a unit of mass and a unit of volume). Last Wednesday was ‘Mole Day’ as the date is written in the US (Myanmar?) as 10/23.

    There is a perfectly good SI unit of time called a second. Seconds can be expressed as decimal numbers with no difficulty at all. Minutes may be anything from 59 to 61 seconds long although 60 or 61 is most common. We have just had a 25 hour day in Europe though 23 hour ones are just as common. Don’t even talk about months. What happened to year zero?

    The first mistake in the video is that a day (at least not as ICR intended it) is that a day is not the length of time it takes for the Earth to revolve once on its axis. The rest is not even amusing.

  5. I haven’t checked in here for a bit, great new layout. I like it.

    I don’t really see the problem with our current time system. Sure, it’s not decimal. It’s not the most convenient system. But AFAIK databases use either the day number (from 1 to 365) or day and month numbers. It’s not a great system but it works.

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