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An Astrophysicist's Quest To Reform The Gregorian Calendar

Calendar Reform

First Posted: 01/04/12 07:12 PM ET Updated: 01/05/12 08:14 AM ET

Richard Conn Henry, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and former deputy director of NASA's astrophysics division, is just the sort of person to be irritated by imperfections.

Humanity's reluctance to improve on those imperfections is perhaps more vexing still.

For the better part of a decade, Henry's hobby irritant has been the Gregorian calendar, that 430-year-old system of marking time that has come to serve -- with no small measure of inefficiency in Henry's view -- as the internationally accepted temporal ledger, superimposed on the otherwise indifferent movement of the heavens, for the conduct of everyday business.

About 10 years ago, Henry says he found himself enmeshed in the tedious task of preparing his course syllabus for the following semester. "They are the same courses I teach every year -- almost identical -- but every year I have to adjust everything by one or two days," Henry recently recalled. "And so I made the dreadful mistake of a professional astronomer and asked myself, 'Is this really necessary?'"

After poking around a bit, Henry decided it was not, and he's come up with what he considers a cleaner, more logical alternative. It's one that, among other things, firmly and predictably ties each day of the week to a specific date of the month, year after year. December 25th, for example -- the date millions celebrate as Christmas -- would always be on a Sunday. July 4th? It would always land on Wednesday.

Of course, things in the heavens being what they are, such a system would require some regular mathematical adjusting, as well some changes to the months as we know them, but Henry says he's worked out a way to make all of this relatively painless. The problem is, despite multiple attempts at promoting the idea, including a press blitz last week, his vision has failed to take hold.

"Change is possible," Henry said. "I just don't know how to do it."

In the simplest sense, calendars attempt to impose a user-friendly system on what is otherwise a very messy mathematical relationship between days and years. Put another way, the time it takes the earth to rotate around the sun -- a nominal year -- is not evenly divisible by the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis, or what we would call a day. So while, our current calendar suggests that the earth spins on its axis 365 times for every trip around the sun, we all know that this number is rough.

"We simply can't have a perfect calendar because the earth's path around the sun doesn't take an even number of days," said Richard McCarty, a professor of philosophy at Eastern Carolina University who curates a Web site devoted to the history of calendar reform, and who was familiar with work like Henry's. "I wouldn't have designed it that way," he added wryly, "but that's of course not for me to say."

Astronomically speaking, there are actually 365.2421896698 days to a year. Those fractions of days, naturally, add up over time, and if they're not accounted for, heavenly-influenced events and our manmade calendar will inevitably drift out of sync. The change would be slow, of course, but over the centuries, winters and springs, summers and autumns would have no fixed relationship to our calendar months.

The Julian calendar, which was instituted in 45 BC, adjusted for this drift with the introduction of an additional day, or what we'd call a leap day, every four years at the end of Feburary. That trick worked well enough for centuries, but it was, in fact, a slight over-adjustment. By the 16th century, the arrival of the spring equinox had drifted a full 10 days from its calendric designation, which the Catholic hierarchy had officially pinned to March 21st.

Given the import of the event in determining the date of Easter -- and not wanting Easter to drift into another season -- Pope Gregory XIII, armed with new calculations that modified the leap-day system slightly, introduced a revised calendar in 1582. The new system maintained leap years, which now occurred every four years unless the year was divisible by 100, in which case, no change would be made -- unless that year was also divisible by 400, in which case, it is treated as a leap year. To kick things back into sync, Pope Gregory also erased 10 days from the calendar that first year, so that the Roman Catholic world went to sleep on Oct. 4, and woke the next day on Oct. 15.

Universal adoption of the new calendar was not automatic, of course, and numerous other religious and non-religious calendars have been in play over the centuries. But the Gregorian version, which, when averaged over 400 years produces 365.2425 days per calendar year -- a very close approximation of the actual astronomical year -- has been more or less accepted worldwide as the de-facto secular calendar for conducting business.

This has been to our detriment, according to Henry, who says the annual deliberations over his syllabus are replicated in businesses and organizations the world over, each wasting precious time and capital laboring over the relentless day-shifting that comes with each annual turn of the Gregorian system.

Efforts to get around this problem are not new. The International Fixed Calendar, for example, favored a calendar of 13 months of 28 days each, with an extra day concluding each year known only as "Year-end Day." Another famous example is the World Calendar, a so-called perennial system dating to the 1930's that added an unnamed leap day every four years, as well as a "WorldsDay" to be celebrated annually as a year-end holiday.

But these alternatives have typically failed to gain traction, at least in part, because they toyed with the seven-day week -- a cycle embedded in many religious traditions and one unlikely to be abrogated by invented days now. "That is completely unacceptable to humankind," Henry writes on his Web site, "and that will never happen."

His alternative is designed to avoid all that. It is uniform from year to year, and maintains most, though not all, of the attributes of the current calendar as we know it -- including the seven-day week. The drift problem is handled by the addition of 7 days, which Henry described as a "mini-month" dubbed "Xtr" or "Extra," attached onto December every five or six years.

All months have 30 or 31 days -- though not the ones many readers will remember by rhyme. And folks born on Jan. 31, among other days, will be disappointed to find their birthdays eliminated.

(The scientist encourages those so-affected to make up a new birthday.)

All in all, Henry's calendar, while not entirely novel, generated a good deal of attention in 2004 when it was first made public by the Johns Hopkins public-relations apparatus. But the researcher says he soon realized that a flurry of media coverage would not push his plan into action.

"It was all just end-of-year fluff," Henry said of the coverage.

Indeed, his calendar was quickly forgotten until last week, when the system was re-introduced as the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, adding the imprimatur of his Johns Hopkins colleague Steve H. Hanke, the prominent economist.

Writing in an article reprinted at the web site of the CATO Institute, where Hanke is also a senior fellow, the pair emphasizes the copious economic benefits of Henry's system, which, as it happens, also calls for the elimination of time zones so that everyone all over the world is attuned to the same clock.

Will it ever be adopted? Henry said he believes so -- though he added, with a slight air of exasperation, that he'll need to rely on the enthusiasm of others, given his day job.

"I'll be returning to my desk to study diffuse ultraviolet background radiation," he said, "which is my specialty."

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