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YEARS OF REFORM IS WHY OUR CALENDAR’S SO SCREWY

SHARE YEARS OF REFORM IS WHY OUR CALENDAR’S SO SCREWY

QUESTION: Why is the calendar so screwy? Why does February have only 28 days? Why is September the ninth month instead of the seventh? Why is Jan. 1 when it is, instead of, say, at the winter solstice?

ANSWER: The calendar is like the white noise from a freeway, an annoyance that people take for granted. We regard the calendar as immutable, as though people never had a hand in it, as though February, for example, is allotted 28 days because February really DOES have 28 days, in real life, wherever that is.But if you take a few steps back and look again, the calendar takes on that character of grating absurdity that you previously associated with the scoring terminology in tennis. Thirty days hath September, April, June and November - if you can discern a pattern there, you ought to be in a lab someplace, studying muons and quarks, or working on the Mordell Conjecture.

The most obvious calendar reform ("calendar reform" is a concept sort of like "democratic president," something that people talk about even though it may never actually happen) would be to divide up the year in 13 equal months of 28 days. It would be convenient, because every month would have exactly four weeks, and the first of the month could always begin on the same day of the week. You wouldn't NEED a calendar. One less boring Christmas present. Although 13 times 28 only equals 364, the last day of the year could be a holiday, or a double-holiday in leap years, assigned no month or day of the week. It could have its own name. Like maybe "Murray."

Instead, we have confusion. The fundamental problem with calendars is that the astronomical indices of time - the rising of the sun, the lunar phases and the seasons - don't match up neatly. There's a full moon every 29.53 days, and a year lasts 365.2422 days. Whatever happened to integers, you know?

Early civilizations in the Near East built their calendars around the moon. Since a lunar month is about 291/2 days, these ancient calendar months had either 29 or 30 days. The Egyptians used a solar calendar, dividing the year into 12 months of 30 days each, with five or six slop-days at the end of the year. The ancient Greeks, meanwhile, came up with a baffling system in which 10 years of 13 months each were interspersed among 17 years of 12 months each. Come up with a rhyme for that, Plato.

In the year we would call 47 B.C., Julius Caesar threw out the moon-based Roman calendar and instituted what is, approximately, the calendar we use today, only more sensible. The first month, March, had 31 days. The second month, April, had 30 days. May had 31. The number of days alternated between 30 and 31. The final month, February, had 30 days only in the leap year; otherwise, 29.

Caesar decided that the calendar would go into effect on Jan. 1 ("Ianuarius I"), which he decreed would be the day of the first new moon after the winter solstice. Bad move. New moons and solstices are in no way synchronous, and so we now have a New Year's Day with no astronomical significance, stuck in the dead of winter.

After Brutus and his ilk murdered Caesar, the Roman Senate decreed that the fifth month, Quintilis, would thereafter be called Julius. Then, in 8 B.C., during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the Roman Senate had another fit of obsequiousness, and decreed that the sixth month, Sextilis, would become Augustus. This, however, posed a potential embarrassment: Julius had 31 days, and Augustus only 30. So the Senate stole the last day of the year, Feb. 29, and affixed it to August. POLITICS.

The calendar still wasn't quite right. The astronomical year is about 11 minutes and 14 seconds short of 3651/4 days. Over the centuries, this slight discrepancy caused the spring equinox, by which the date of Easter is determined, to drift inexorably toward February from its official date of March 21. By 1582 A.D., the real, solar equinox was arriving on March 11. So Pope Gregory simply zapped 10 days out of existence, and Oct. 4, 1582 was followed by Oct. 15. The Gregorian Adjustment included the proviso that, in the future, the leap year would not be observed at the century mark, UNLESS THE YEAR IS DIVISIBLE BY 400. Thus, there was no Feb. 29, 1900, but there will be a Feb. 29, 2000.

The Gregorian calendar isn't perfect. In 3,000 years it will be one day off. Our advice: Start planning now.

(BU) Speaking of moons, an alert reader, Charlie Mendoza, realized that we were rather imprecise, indeed we were actually wrong, if you can conceive of such a thing, when we stated recently that a Blue Moon - the second full moon in a single calendar month - appears, on average, once a year. We had done a quick scratch-paper calculation: The moon orbits the Earth every 28 days, we figured. Thus, there are 13 moon-months every 364 days. Obviously, that 13th full moon would have to appear in one of the 12 calendar months.

Our error was that we confused a SIDEREAL period of the moon with the SYNODIC. Is that a forehead-smacking boner or what?

A sidereal month is how long it takes for the moon to orbit the Earth; it comes to exactly 27 days, seven hours, 43 minutes and change. A synodic month is the time between new moons. Same thing, right? Nay. That's 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes.

A brief contemplation explains this mystery: As the moon orbits the Earth, so too does the Earth orbit the sun, and by orbit we mean really cooking along. By the time the moon gets around the Earth, relative to the stars, it still hasn't returned to its position relative to the sun. Maybe you should just draw yourself a diagram; describing this stuff in words ain't fun.

QUESTION: Why is the scoring terminology in tennis so dumb?

ANSWER: The first point in tennis gives you a score of 15, the second a score of 30, the third a score of . . . 40. Now, that doesn't make sense, especially since the scoring is on the sexagesimal "clock" system, with the game being won on the fourth point, which, though unspoken, supposedly gives you 60. The explanation from Tim Considine in "The Language of Sport" is most unsatisfying: At some point, people decided it was easier to call out "40" instead of "45." The same enunciatory shortcut may explain the origin of the strange habit of calling the first point "five" instead of "15."

The use of the word "love" to designate 0 points comes either from the French l'oeuf, meaning "egg," slang for a 0 (a baseball pitcher on a good night will put goose eggs up on the board), though we prefer to believe that it is laced with sarcasm, derived from the notion that love is for naught.

QUESTION: Why do fingernails and hair still grow for a while after you die?

ANSWER: This is an old wives' tale. The tissue of a corpse, particularly the skin and tips of the fingers and toes, shrinks as the body dries out. The result is an illusion of nail and hair growth.

Actually, the nails and hair illusion doesn't always occur. Sometimes corpses don't mummify, as the drying process is officially called. If the body is kept in a cool, moist place, such as a basement, it may decompose more slowly and become what is known as "adipocere."