Happy New Year 404 ME

As the common era carried across the world by European colonialism contracts to its core, everyone is again aware of multiple celebrations of new years. In India different regions have slightly different ways of counting the year, so there are many Indian new years, but there are two major groups: one in the middle of April, another about a month earlier. These traditions are actually wider, being celebrated across much of south and south-east Asia. The Chinese new year falls between the last weeks of January and February. Korea, Vietnam and Tibet have customs similar to this. Parsis and Iranians celebrate the new year on the day of the spring equinox. Several African cultures have a new year during the summer of the northern hemisphere. And there are a whole set of cultures who celebrate new year in autumn. So is the year just a human social construct?

You could treat it as such, but it is also true that the earth has cycles which are independent of humans. The succession of day and night, the slower waxing and the waning of the moon, the even more stately tilting of the axis of rotation which produces seasons, they are all cyclic astronomical phenomena. We base the day on the first, the month on the second, and the year on the third. What we see as the tilting of the earth’s axis is actually due to its pointing in a (more or less) constant direction in space as it takes us on its grand circuit around the sun. So the year is a measure of the time the earth takes to go around the sun. You may think of different cultures of new year as different ways of marking a special point on the earth’s orbit around the sun.

But 404 years ago Kepler opened a way to showing us that one point is really special. He found that the earth’s orbit around the sun is an ellipse, and not a circle as many cultures had concluded. He also discovered that on the day when the earth passes closest to the sun, it is travelling fastest on its orbit. This is the point which the earth reaches today, every January 4. I guess that makes it the true astronomical new year. Today we enter the new year 404 Modern Era.

A happy new year to you.

The one true new year!

Niece Mbili sent The Clan a New Year’s greeting card which shows two aliens puzzled about why humans celebrated yet another turn of their planet around the sun. That’s exactly what a year is: one complete orbit around the sun. The year begins each time you reach a fixed point on the orbit. Which point? Aye, there’s the rub. All calendars in use are too ancient to have made an informed choice.

But not the one true calendar (“One of the two true calendars”, Simplicio interjects). Since the orbit of the earth is an ellipse, and not a circle, there are two points on the orbit which are special: the point at which it is closest to the sun (perihelion), and the one at which it is furthest away (aphelion). The earth comes closest to the sun some time today: January 4. That’s pretty close to what you may have been celebrating, so remember to make that little correction next time (“Easily solved,” Sagredo chides Simplicio). And this naturally gives us a second holiday: mid year on July 4, when the sun is furthest from us.

Another magic of this new year is that it occurs at the same instant around the globe: whether you are in Mumbai or Mombasa, in Madrid or Manitoba or Manila, in Melbourne or Motsomi or atop Monte Darwin. When the earth comes closest to the sun has nothing to do with where on earth you are. So I’m planning a wild New Year’s party at just after noon today. You can check the local time of your party in this calculator, but it will be at the same instant as mine.

Now you might ask whether there is a special meridian on earth, one where the party happens at midnight every year. Very strangely, the answer is no. The length of the day and the length of the year have (almost) nothing to do with each other. As you know, a day is the time that the earth takes to spin around itself once, the year the time to spin around the sun. The word “almost” is important: the year being an exact multiple of the day is forbidden by an interesting piece of physics: resonance. The story seems to be that when two times (such as the day and year, or the month and year) become multiples of each other, the orbits become unstable. So in a solar system which has lasted for billions of such orbits, you’ll never find these “resonances”. It’s an amazing piece of physics, discovered only about seventy years ago (at the height of the cold war) by the Russian physicist Andrey Kolmogorov.

All that for the time of the new year. Now the counting of the year zero. Since the definition of the new year’s celebration depends on the shape of the earth’s orbit, one has to have a special place in the calendar for the date of the discovery of this shape. Johannes Kepler published this discovery 403 years ago. So that’s why the new year, 403 Modern Era, starts today.

A very happy new year to you.

Unfortunately, the universe is also a little more complicated than the pretty picture which gives us calendars. Einstein would have us know that this is all approximate, and that when you try to pin down the time of the new year’s party to an accuracy of a few parts per hundred thousand, the whole idea of a new year, indeed of a cyclic calendar, becomes meaningless. Lucky for us that our senses do not have that accuracy, and we can live generations with the lie called a year.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

A different new year

When should a new year start? It’s just a conventional date. But all of us have our own delightful customs built around that date. The Bohras of India have a wonderful way of celebrating the last evening of the year; it’s called the “birthday of the plate”. This Gujarati speaking Shia community traditionally has communal meals seated around the big plate you see in the photos here.

On its birthday the plate is loaded with food: half of the dishes are savoury and half are sweet. The dinner starts with salt, and then alternates between sweet and savory, ending with a biriyani. Apart from this the order is open. If someone has a special favourite, he or she can ask for it, and it becomes the next thing to be eaten. The nicest of plates I’ve eaten at had 51 dishes. A tiny taste of each is enough to fill you.

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When you play the slideshow, you’ll see a gap between the end of the loading phase and the first shot of the eating phase. I’m afraid that’s the part where I forgot about the camera because I was too involved in the eating.