I hope you all had a good Twosday. Based on what I saw on social media, yesterday was celebrated widely in many parts of the world that use Pope Gregory’s calendar. I had two sandwiches to in honor of the date, and two scoops of ice cream.
In the United States, the joy continues today, it being now 2/23/22. Though not quite as wonderful as 2/22/22 on Tuesday, it’s still another nicely symmetric number worthy of note. In fact we get a full week of this, including 2/24/22 tomorrow, 2/25/22 on Friday, and so on, concluding on 2/29/22 … uhh, (oops) I mean, 2/28/22, because 2022 is not a Leap Year. For some reason.
In other countries, where it is 23/2/22, the celebration is over for now … because without symmetry, where’s the love? Ah, but they’re just more patient. They’ll get their chance in a month, when it’s 22/3/22, a date that will go unnoticed in the USA but not in Europe.
But what, exactly, are we getting so jazzed about? After all, what is the significance of it being the 22nd or 23rd date of the second month of a year labelled 2022? Every single bit of this is arbitrary. Somebody, long ago, decided January would be the first month, making February month number 2; but it wasn’t that long ago that March was the first month, which is why September, October, November and December (7, 8, 9, and 10) have their names. It’s arbitrary that January has 31 days instead of 30; had it been given thirty, the day we call the “22nd” would have been the “23rd” of February, and our celebration would have been one day earlier. And 2022 is arbitrary
two too. Other perfectly good calendars referred to yesterday by a completely different day, month and year.
This, my friends, is exactly what General Relativity (and the rest of modern physics) tells you not to do. This is about putting all of your energies and your focus on your coordinate system — on how you represent reality, instead of on reality itself. The coordinate system is arbitrary; what matters is what actually happens, not how you describe what happens using some particular way of measuring time, or space, or anything else. To get excited about the numbers that happen to appear on your measuring stick is to put surface ahead of substance, math ahead of physics, magic ahead of science. It’s as bad as getting excited about how a word is spelled, or even what word is used to represent an object; a rose by any other name.
But we humans are not designed to think this way, it seems. We cheer when we’ve driven a thousand miles, a milestone (hah) which combines the definition of mile (arbitrary) with the fascination with the number 1,000 (which only looks like an interesting number if you count with ten fingers, rather than 12 knuckles, as the Babylonians did, or eight tentacles, as certain intelligent sea creatures might do.) We get terribly excited about numbers such as 88, or 666, which similarly depend on our having chosen to count on our ten fingers. A war was ended on 11/11 at 11:00 (and one was started on 22/2/22 — coincidence?)
Celebrating birthdays is a little better. No matter what calendar you choose, or whether it even lasts a year (as, for example, in Bali), the Sun appears to move across the sky, relative to the distant stars, in a yearly cycle. When it comes back to where it was, a year has passed. If we define your age to be the number of solar cycles you’ve experienced, then that means something, no matter what calendar you prefer. Your birthday means something too as long as we define it not by the arbitrary calendar but by the position of the Sun on the day of your birth.
Similarly, the solstices that mark the days with the shortest daylight and shortest darkness, and the equinoxes that have days and nights equal in duration, are independent of how you count hours or minutes or seconds, or even days. It doesn’t matter if your day has 24 equal hours, or if you divide your daylight into 12 and your darkness into 12, as used to be the case. It doesn’t matter what time zones you may have arbitrarily chosen. If you want to mark days, you can use the time that the Sun is highest in the sky to define “noon”, and count noons. A year is just over 365 noons, no matter what your calendar. The time from solstice to solstice is about half that. But the date we call “December 25th” does not sit on a similarly fundamental foundation; it shifts when there’s a leap year, and sometimes it’s three days after the solstice and sometimes four. Many other holidays, driven by Moon cycles rather than a Sun cycle, are even less grounded in the cosmos.
Being too focused on coordinates can cause a lot of trouble. The flat maps that try to describe our spherical Earth make all sorts of things seem to be true that aren’t. They all make the shortest path between two points impossible to guess. Some wildly exaggerate Greenland’s size and minimize the entire African continent. Most of them make it difficult to imagine what travel over the north or south pole is like, because there’s a sort of “coordinate singularity” there — a single point is spread out over a whole line at the top of the map, and similarly at the bottom, which makes places that are in fact very close together seem very far apart.
A coordinate singularity of a more subtle type prevented scientists (Einstein among them) from realizing for decades that black holes, which were once called “frozen stars,” have an interior, and that you could potentially fall in. The coordinates originally in use made it seem as though time would stop for someone reaching the edge of the star. Bad coordinates can obscure reality.
Physics, and science more generally, pushes us to focus on what really happens — on events whose existence does not depend on how we describe them. It’s a lesson that we humans don’t easily learn. While it’s fine to find a little harmless and silly joy at non-events such as 22/2/22 or 2/22/22, that’s as far as it should go: anything that depends on your particular and arbitrary choice of coordinate system cannot have any fundamental meaning. It’s a lesson from Einstein himself, advising us on what not two do.