The Age of Observation

How long have we been counting?

I recently watched Louis C.K.’s latest standup routine on Netflix. One of his bits is that even though all religions are “equal,” he tells his kids that “the Christians won.” His proof: What year is it?

This got me thinking. The Gregorian Calendar does implicitly uphold the birth of Jesus as the Most Important Event Ever. Maybe that’s fine, because all timekeeping systems are invariably arbitrary. And changing the one we’ve got would be a phenomenal inconvenience. But what if we’d rather emphasize values that aren’t uniquely Christian? Science. Reason. Egalitarianism. The kinds of things people are marching in the streets about. Could we do better? Ideally, what would a secular, globally acceptable calendar look like?

Historically, most attempts at resetting the calendar pick a recent start date. French Revolutionaries adopted a weird metric calendar that started the previous year, 1792. It didn’t last long. The Bahá’í calendar begins in 1844, the origin year of the movement that would become their religion, and while technically still in use it’s certainly not popular. It always strikes me as hubristic to tether time itself to your own niche social movement. That’s why I’d hesitate to initiate a calendar within the last century. As noble as the founding of the United Nations was, for example, who are we to say that this particular institution will be significant in the long run? Besides, then I’d need negative dates just to figure out when my grandmother was born.

Likewise, we shouldn’t base a calendar on a universally meaningful milestone like the Big Bang, the origin of life, or the evolution of Homo sapiens. We can’t pinpoint such things to a particular year. And I don’t want to write out all those digits every time I pay my rent.

The sensible thing would be to root a calendar about 200 to 800 years ago. That way, most years you deal with on a day-to-day basis would be positive and have only three digits. Y2K-like bugs would be less likely. But there were so many important events in that period. What would you pick as the start of the modern era?

Before we get to my choice, here’s some historical background. Let’s travel back in time about a millennium and look around. The largest city in the world, Baghdad, would have seemed like the best hope for future progress. The jewel of the city was the House of Wisdom, an enormous library and academic center. The best scholars of the Islamic Golden Age gathered there, including the guy who invented algebra, and experts in optics and medicine. Baghdad was poised to lead the world in technological success.

Then in 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad. Legend says the Tigris ran black with ink from the texts of the House of Wisdom. Baghdad never fully recovered. We would hardly even know of its former glory had not Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued thousands of manuscripts before the siege. The 57-year-old al-Tusi was probably the most accomplished scholar alive on the planet at the time. He had formulated an early model of biological evolution, and had made contributions in trigonometry and geometry, notably the Tusi couple designed to explain astronomical patterns. I can only imagine his despair as invading forces besieged his homeland, destroyed priceless documents, and eventually captured him.

That could have been the end of humanity’s enlightenment. The Siege of Baghdad could have plunged us all back into a Dark Age in which we could still be wallowing. But al-Tusi did a remarkable thing. He immediately convinced his captor to sponsor a new intellectual center. The Maragheh Observatory was built in 1259 on a hill in present-day Iran. It was arguably the first research institute: a place designed specifically for a team of scientists to collect data on the natural world. Like the House of Wisdom, there was a library with tens of thousands of books. But unlike the House of Wisdom, or European monasteries, the main goal wasn’t to read and translate the books. It was to measure the universe. Together al-Tusi and the Maragheh astronomers recorded and predicted the motions of heavenly bodies and revised Ptolemy’s model of the solar system. Their work likely influenced Nicolaus Copernicus nearly three centuries later when he proposed that planets revolve around the Sun. Of course, the heliocentric theory sparked further scientific developments in Europe, and, long story short, you’re now reading this on an electronic screen. But Maragheh first combined two crucial elements: empiricism and community. That is, true scientific observation, as opposed to mystical guesswork or scholasticism. And communication among scientists working together and sharing their findings.

Maragheh thrived because it was funded as a public institution. Al-Tusi wasn’t a wealthy gentleman naturalist pursuing a hobby. He can’t have been too keen to negotiate with the same despot who had just gutted the House of Wisdom. But he recognized that science is for everyone, and he designed Maragheh to outlast his own death. That moment of optimism, laying stone on mortar for future discoveries while the ashes of Baghdad were still wafting on the breeze, gives me hope today. From that point onward, we’ve kept pursuing facts. All our modern technological achievements are founded on that. Of course there have been disasters. Subsequent conquerors have destroyed libraries, lives, even whole civilizations. But it’s been 759 years since anyone has ripped right through the heart of human knowledge. 759 years of slowly building upon what we know. 759 years of observation. Let’s not reset the clock.

If I were to take on Louis C. K.’s challenge, I’d reassign 1259 to be Year 1. The first Year of Observation. The current year is thus 759. A small, three-digit number. It feels like it has a lot of potential to grow. I realize there is a negligible chance that anyone will actually take my suggestion. But I do think we can do a better job living the values that this calendar represents. That doesn’t happen automatically. We need to speak up. We have to petition our leaders even when we hate them for the destruction they have already wrought. In fact, that’s exactly why folks will be marching on Washington next Saturday. Learning about nature is a good thing. Building and supporting public institutions for that purpose is in society’s best interest. Leaders should listen to scientists and act accordingly. We should create knowledge. And keep it safe.

A few keys dates on the Calendar of Observation:

182    Gutenberg invents printing press
234    Columbus sails to Caribbean
285    Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres published
362    Bacon describes scientific method
429    Newton’s Principia published
518    Declaration of Independence signed
601    Darwin’s Origin of Species published
687    Nuclear weapons deployed and United Nations founded
704    Carson’s Silent Spring published
759    Up to us


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