An idea whose time hasn't come

Calendar: A Hopkins scientist wants to neaten up and stabilize the flow of days, starting in 2006.

December 24, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

If Richard Conn Henry has his way - and he concedes he almost certainly won't - the coming year will be the last with 365 days.

The Johns Hopkins University physicist and astronomer has devised a better calendar, he thinks, than the one that has sufficed for more than four centuries - the one that graces office desks and hangs on walls everywhere (including in Henry's kitchen):

Some months would lose a day. Others would gain one. Leap years would be abolished in favor of a weeklong "mini-month" tucked between June and July every five or six years.

And most years would end after 364 days.

But the result, Henry says, would be a stable calendar - identical from year to year - which would make for much more convenient planning.

Under his scheme, if you were born on Tuesday, your birthday would always fall on Tuesday. Christmas would always be on Sunday, the Fourth of July on Wednesday. Election Day wouldn't be "the first Tuesday after the first Monday" in November. It would always be Nov. 8.

Proponents of a fixed calendar say it also would reduce costs to businesses, schools and other organizations; they wouldn't need to buy new ones every year. People might tire of the pictures, sure - the same antique cars, quaint lighthouses, Clydesdale horses - but think of the trees it would save.

Henry, who is director of the Maryland Space Grant Consortium when he's not trying to manipulate time, has joined a long line of would-be calendar reformers who date back to Julius Caesar and beyond.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Henry was initially motivated by his own convenience. His scheme took root a few years ago when he realized this: Season after season, he was teaching the same courses at Hopkins. He was using the same textbooks. He was assigning the same homework. Yet he always had to change his syllabus to reflect the new year's dates.

At first, he thought, that's just the way it has to be. Then, he said, "I made a dreadful mistake: I looked into it."

Under Henry's proposal - developed using a complex computer program he devised - 30 days hath January, February, April, May, July, August, October and November. All the rest have 31.

"I am heartbroken over Halloween, because I love Halloween," he says, referring to the fact that Oct. 31 would no longer exist. Still, he thinks the holiday could be switched, without much trouble, to another day.

When he presented a paper on his proposed universal calendar at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society about a year ago, two young women approached him afterward. One was quite fond of his idea; the other, well, wasn't.

The critic happened to like it when her birthday occasionally fell on a weekend. Under his new calendar, she told him, she would be forever consigned to turning older on a Thursday.

But Henry, who at 64 deems himself an "old guy" who no longer pays attention to birthdays, has an answer: "You control when your birthday is celebrated. You don't have to have the calendar do it."

The Gregorian calendar currently used in the United States and much of the Western world was instituted in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. He modified a calendar Julius Caesar had adopted in 46 B.C. to bring it into sync with the seasons. Ten days were dropped that year - Oct. 15 directly followed Oct. 4 - and the rule for determining leap years was altered.

Leap years are necessary every four years for one maddening reason: An Earth year contains an uneven number of days.

"365.2422," to be exact, says Henry, who works in a discipline that requires such precision.

His calendar would eliminate leap years altogether and institute a seven-day period he has dubbed "Newton Week," in honor of Sir Isaac Newton (Henry is open to other suggestions about what to call it). Newton Weeks would occur irregularly: in 2009, 2015, 2020, 2026, for starters.

"I would like everybody to have a paid vacation on Newton Week," says Henry. "It comes so rarely - every five or six years - let everybody have a week and have a good time."

He placed Newton Week between June and July rather than at the end of December, he says, because he feared end-of-year partying might get out of hand.

Obviously, not many calendar reformers have been successful. The International World Calendar Association has been promoting one of the best-known perennial calendars since 1930. It divides the year into four equal quarters of 91 days each. As with Henry's calendar, birthdays and holidays would fall on the same day every year.

But in order to reach 365 days, the World Calendar would insert a "blank" day - with neither a number nor a weekday name-between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. Every four years, another blank day would be added between June 30 and July 1.

Henry argues that the World Calendar hasn't been adopted - and never will be - because it breaks the seven-day cycle of the week. To many of the faithful, that would be a sacrilege. According to the Bible, he notes, the Sabbath comes every seventh day. Period.

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