Hours, Accidental and Arbitrary: A year of writing lonely
Lee Weng Choy
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What I had wanted to work on then, and still want to now, is the topic of time. Time has been a recurring theme for me for—I don’t know how long—and questions about coincidence and relation have preoccupied me since the turn of the century. As 2021 drew to a close, I thought about how years, months and days contrast with hours and minutes. The first three units have a basis in astronomical phenomena that punctuate our lives: the orbit of our planet around the sun; the cycle of our moon; the rotation of Earth. But whatever led humans to partition the day into twenty-four hours, and each hour into sixty minutes? From the evolutionary accident of our ten fingers we have constructed the decimal system, which has become like the grammar of our measure of the world, so much so that, for many of us, other numeric systems seem unnatural. Yet when the Ancient Egyptians used sundials to break up their day, they employed the duodecimal system, which may have been based on the fact that our four fingers have a total of twelve joints, or that there are twelve months in a year. They divided the day into a dozen hours of daytime and a dozen of night-time. The extent of their hours fluctuated with seasonal variations: the hours of the day were longer and the night’s shorter in summer, and vice versa in winter.