Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

I have a certain resistance to the idea of celebrating New Year’s Eve in a big way (but, hey, any excuse to eat a festive meal and drink champagne is good) or make New Year’s resolutions, because the date is such an arbitrary, culture-centered convention. January 1 isn’t even the winter solstice or anything logical like that. (In the church calendar it’s commemorated as Holy Name Day, in honor of Jesus’ circumcision and therefore set eight days after Christmas, which at least makes liturgical sense even if not much attention is paid to it in some churches.) The Chinese New Year can fall in either January or February. The Jewish New Year usually occurs in September. The ancient Romans started their year in March, which is why September is named after the Latin word for seven instead of nine (and so on with October, November, and December).

Will interstellar ships reckon time by “stardates” as on STAR TREK, or will the crew and passengers cling to the familiar Earth calendar? The latter practice could cause some awkwardness, as in Robert Heinlein’s classic “twin paradox” novel TIME FOR THE STARS. In that book, it’s discovered that telepathy is not constrained by physical laws such as the speed of light and can thus be used for instantaneous communication between Earth and starships. Because telepathy occurs most often between twins, the communication team on the starship in the novel is composed almost entirely of twins. Because of relativistic time dilation, the narrator is taken aback to find a difference of several months between the day his brother on Earth celebrates their birthday and the day when it’s celebrated aboard the ship. The only way to avoid that kind of problem would be to invent a hyperdrive system that makes almost instantaneous travel possible and eliminates temporal discrepancies. Out among the stars, when the year begins depends very much on one’s point of view.

Come to think of it, though, New Year’s Day is less arbitrary than Mother’s Day and Kwanzaa, celebrated by millions even though invented by single individuals (the latter within living memory). So, what the heck, Happy New Year!

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