You know that guy, the guy who says, right after the longest day, “Well, the nights are drawing in again”. Party pooper. Git.
I am not that guy, thankfully. I am, however, a pedant and what I would like to point out to that guy is that the summer nights are not actually drawing in. In fact, sunset will continue to get later until the middle of August but the mornings are instead drawing in, and at a faster rate than the evenings are getting later, so yes the days are getting shorter but sunset is getting later. I usually restrain myself because the pedant is just another type of party pooper.
I was explaining this to a friend recently and they asked me the perfectly reasonable question, “Why?”.
The answer is pretty straight forward. Noon is getting later in the day.
Ok, I’ll try again. Basically noon is when the sun is directly above you. And this is because that’s how time used to work, we didn’t care about globally consistent time keeping. We needed a way to keep our clock set correctly. And so what you would do previously was every day at noon you would set your clock to noon and then you’d hopefully be right for the next 24 hours – or right enough. The problem is that noon changes all the time, as does the sun rise and sunset time, but we don’t reset our clocks any more, which is why we experience this drift. Now noon on the clock is exactly 24 hours after the last time it was noon, rather than related directly to what the sun is doing.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been attempting to convince the world that it is time for a new calendar. But clocks could easily have been quite different too. There was a rival clock system in place which could have been chosen (you can still see one of the last surviving working version in Florence). The alternative idea was that actually noon is a bit tricky to measure. When is the sun directly overhead? You use a stick and a shadow, but what if you don’t have a stick? Sunset (or in theory sunrise) is much easier to measure. When you can’t see the sun anymore, that’s sunset. This alternative version was mainly used by farmers who presumably didn’t have sticks to hand or were using them for something else. The problem with this system was two-fold, one that midday was way more accurate than sunset to measure (what if there was a mountain in the way), and there were actually two forms of this sunset clock – one that was based on sunset, and the other that was based on “half an hour after sunset” which is a bit trickier to be accurate with when you don’t have an accurate clock.
The point is this, it is pretty much random that noon is 12 o’clock and that it happens to be when it’s mainly midday. We could have used the Italian system and had 24 o’clock be at sunset which would make noon around 17 o’clock. To us it seems crazy, but there is no natural order to this system. In fact, we are abstracting from the natural order of what we had. Why is new year in Europe in January? Why is new year in Asia in Spring? Surely if we think about it rationally, the Asian version makes more sense than the European version. The world is new in Spring and that’s when the year begins. In Britain, we used to celebrate new year that way, that’s why our tax year still starts in April for example.
But the French and then Pope Gregory wanted to fix time and the calendar, and so all of this changed in the 1500s.
But if they could fix the calendar and time itself, why can’t we? More of this shortly…