Yesterday was February 29, Leap Day. And it’s kind of a fun day because it only comes around once every four years. So people who are born on the 29th have one fourth as many birthdays as normal people. It makes them mini celebrities. They even focused on some Leap Babies on the Today Show yesterday. It makes me realize that this peculiarity is totally arbitrary. If our calendar was different, then other peoples’ birthdays would be fun. If our number system was different and not base 10, the world would be quite different. That seems like a stretch, but it’s not.

How many times do we celebrate a 50th or hundredth anniversary in a special way? It happens all the time. The Hundred Years war would be called something else. If we used base sixteen (hex), we would celebrate less often. Perhaps our days of the week would all be different, (but maybe not). People get depressed when they turn 30, well, with base sixteen that depression might get delayed two years. Car companies make a big deal when their cars get 30 mpg, but the target might be higher if we were hex. And then when you think of all the rounding that’s done in business, have a different number system could make significant differences to a company’s profits. It could be a make or break difference. It’s really kind of mind boggling.

At least computers have made us think outside of the base (ten). Digital stuff is Base 2 and a lot of programming does use hex characters, but we have to borrow from the alphabet A, B, C, D, and E and the math becomes much less intuitive. 2E – 3 = 2B just doesn’t seem right, (and it might not be right because I’m no expert in hex math).
But maybe we’re meant to be a base ten civilization. We do have ten fingers. That doesn’t explain the whole Roman numerals thing. It’s a good thing that the Indians came up with our modern day number system and that the Arabs took it back to Europe. I can’t imagine computers ever being invented if we had to describe large numbers using Roman numerals.

+ Atul

I just asked my boyfriend about the significance of our use of the base ten number system a few days ago. I should have known better - he teaches math and he launched off on an explanation that left me more confused that before. Yikes!

Posted by: Elizabeth McQuern | March 02, 2008 at 03:32 AM

But the calendar system is anything but base 10. I've always been puzzled though by the fact that we have the period of the earth's rotations on its axis (day), the period of the moon's orbit of the earth (Month), and the period of the earth going around the sun (year).

So why the heck is a week 7 days? It's to our disadvantage advantage I think since most of us go 5 days work 2 days rest....10 day week would have been 7 days work and 3 days rest which which is 30% rest days vs. 28%...

of course if we had metric time....we'd have 10 or 100 hours in a day...instead of 24....

I think some of the early calendar system was due to the year seeming to be close to 360 days and that fit well with 12 months in terms of making everyting evenly divisible (12, 360, 30, all have lots of common factors a 6 or a 9 day week would have worked better) My take is that the 7 day week is a Christian thing, but why they picked 7 probably has a lot to do with how contrary Christianity is in general. The problem though is that a lot of cultures figured out the 365 day year surprisingly early.

365.25 though....that's really weird....especially since even the leap year correction still needs a fix every now and then.

Posted by: chancelucky | March 03, 2008 at 01:44 PM

Bella,

Hopefully I didn't confuse you as much as your boyfriend did. It's amazing that you actually asked about this not too long ago and I ended up writing a post about it.

Chance,

The fact that we have 7 day weeks doesn't impact our base ten math. I don't know where that came from, but we would probably still have 7 days in a week even if we were base 16. I like the idea of a base ten week though. A 3 day weekend every weekend would be sweet. The 365.25 was decided by the randomness of nature and we can't to a base 36.525 type math system.

Posted by: Atul | March 03, 2008 at 11:41 PM