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December 2000
Vol. 9, No. 12, p. 25.
The Chemist's Bookshelf
Mark S. Lesney
It's That Time Again!

Book cover of Time:Its Origin, Its Enigma, Its HistoryTime: Its Origin, Its Enigma, Its History
Alexander Waugh

(Caroll & Graf, Inc.: New York, 2000. 280 pp., $25.00 cloth)

The upcoming year 2001 is the “next” new millennium, as well as the real start of the 21st century. In case you missed celebrating the first time, you can join with purists this December 31 to ring in the REAL new era. But what is really “real” with respect to time? That question is at the heart of Alexander Waugh’s Time—a feisty little book of facts and history and anecdotes and editorializing and the odd dirty word on the subject delivered with all the ardor of an archetypal British satirist. (Alexander gets his cynical wit honestly; he is related to the far more famous Evelyn Waugh—for those not up on their humorists, Evelyn was a British HE and not to be confused with the similarly named but differently pronounced American lady of speed-reading fame.)

The format of the book is a simple one—sixteen chapters, each chapter dedicated to one of the subunits or parts of that thing called time. Whatever the unit in question, it is named first in Latin and then in English, presumably to provide an educational moment for modern philistines. Thus: “Initium-Beginning”; “Momenta-Seconds”; “Dies-Days”; and even the relatively unimaginative—”Millennia–Millennia”.

A quintessential example of the type and tone of narrative in the book is the tragic tale of M. Fabres d’Elegantine in the chapter “Menses-Months”. The French gentleman in question was given the glorious task after the glorious French revolution (of Tale of Two Cities fame) of purging calendar-keeping of its papist and aristocratic legacy. Not only was he appointed to rename all of the months, but he was also given the charge of giving “fancy titles to all 360 [the accepted number then] days of the year”. The years would forever be listed as beginning with the revolution itself—a memorializing of human liberty, not an homage to a then less–than–fashionable God. From Nivose or “Snow” (December 21 – January 19) through “Rain” and “Wind” and “Blossom” and all the rest he cataloged the months according to a world of time-appropriate natural phenomena.

But, poor Fabres. At the end (literally) he too was accorded the same fate as the doomed aristos and met the guillotine in 1794. Waugh comments: “He could comfort himself in his final hours, with these last warming thoughts: ‘At least my passing shall be forever recorded as having occurred on the Bumblebee of Seedtime in the Second Year of Freedom.’”

Needless to say, his scheme did not long outlive him, and by 1806 the French nation readopted the calendar used by everyone else in Europe and familiar to us today, and which had originally been instituted by Pope Gregory XIII (not of “chant” fame) 250 years before.

As for when and why to get out (again) the party hats for the new millennium, Waugh presents this bit of anonymous 19th century doggerel published in the Connecticut Courant on January 1, 1801:

Precisely twelve o’clock last night,
The Eighteenth Century took its flight.
Full many a calculating head
Has rack’d its brain, its ink has shed,
To prove by metaphysics fine
A hundred means but ninety-nine;
While at their wisdom others wonder’d
But took one more to make a hundred.

So happy 21st century.

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