Once a week

English: Lunar libration. see below for more d...
English: Lunar libration. see below for more descriptions Français : Librations de la lune. Voir une description détaillée en dessous. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been pondering the topic of ‘the week‘. Not the ‘topic of the week’. The week, as in seven days. It’s an unusual number to use as a unit for a length of time, as it is a prime number of days, and this makes using fractions of a week a bit tricky. Half a week is 3 and a half days long, so it’s not usual to, for instance, agree to meet someone in ‘half a week’.

No, we say ‘See you in three days’, or four days. We might say ‘this paint will take 2 and a half days to fully dry’, but this is a bit odd. We’d usually say something like ‘this paint will take between 2 and 3 days to fully dry’. We usually treat days as ‘atomic’ when counting days. The number of days is usually an integer, although we could break days down and use fractions or real numbers with them.

Unusual Calendar
Unusual calendar. 12 months 9 days in week

The fact that the number of days in a week is a prime integer also makes converting from weeks to days and days to week interesting. Quick, how many days in seventeen weeks? The answer is 119. How many weeks is 237 days?  The answer is 33 with six days left over. It’s not easy.

Four weeks is 28 days, which is approximately a lunar cycle. It is also very approximately one month. There are approximately thirteen 28 days period in a year, assuming a 365 days year which is approximately correct. This is probably why some calendars have thirteen months.

Lunar eclipse
Lunar eclipse

The lunar cycle is around 29 and a half days, whereas the month defined as one twelfth of a year is around 30 and a half days. Nothing fits! The month is based on the lunar cycle, and the ancients noticed that that the twelve lunar cycles is 354 days which was close to the 365 and a bit days that comprise a year.

So, they decided to make it fit. They divided the year into 12 months, which left them with bits of days just lying around. This was obviously untidy so they scrunched up the bits into one days and tagged them onto the various months more or less at random. The final left over bit that they ended up with they ignored.

Monthly bus pass
Monthly bus pass

That’s how we ended up with mnemonic rhyme “30 days hath September, April, June and November…” with that horrible line that doesn’t scan. That’s rather appropriate really, as the reason that the rhyme is needed is because the days don’t fit properly into the months. It’s an uneven rhyme for an uneven scheme.

The ancients ignored the odd bit of a day that was left over until someone noticed that the year was still sliding out of synchronisation with the seasons. So they added or took away a day or two here and there in special, short or long years. Problem solved.

Leap year 1908
Leap year 1908

Well sort of. They ended up with a super complex list of rules for working out how many days there are in a month, where to fit extra days into the calendar, and when to fit them in. Horror!

Finally scientists decide to cut through all this confusion and define a second by using an atomic clock. Providing you don’t accelerate the clock to a significant fraction of the speed of light and keep it at absolute zero. Easy!

First atomic clock
First atomic clock

Again, sort of. The standard second times sixty give a standard minute. The standard minute times sixty gives the standard hour. The standard hour times twenty four gives the standard day and the standard day times seven gives the standard week. Yay, you might say.

Unfortunately the actual day and therefore the actual week is not exactly equal to the standard day or week. It would be quite legitimate to claim “Wow, this is a long week, it’s 0.608111.. standard seconds longer than a standard week”. But don’t expect much sympathy.

Leap second 2016
Leap second 2016

Seven days is actually a pretty reasonable length to a week. We divide it into “the weekend” and “the rest of the week”. If it was a couple of days longer, it would be a long time between weekends. We’d probably be tempted to add an extra day to each weekend, or maybe alternate weekends…. But now we’re getting complicated again.

If the week was shorter, we’d probably get less work done. If the week was five days and we still had a two day weekend then time available for work would be about 17% less. Of course five day working weeks are fairly recent in historical terms, but I’m not going to work out the numbers for a 6/7 working week and a 4/5 working week.

Aztech Sun Stone Replica
Aztech Sun Stone Replica

Speaking of work, and assuming that most people would not work unless they have to, we have developed various coping strategies. We count the days to the weekend. “Only three more days to the weekend.” Tomorrow is Thursday and that means only one more day to the weekend.”

We designate Wednesday as “Hump Day”, since it is the middle of the week and if we reach Hump Day before having a breakdown or perhaps killing someone, that’s a win. There’s only half the week to go and we’ve broken its back.

We celebrate Fridays, often with a quick drink, then shoot off to enjoy the weekend. We come in on Mondays, faced with five more days of toil. On Tuesdays, we’ve at least knocked off one day, but it’s still a bit beige. Wednesday is Hump Day and we’re halfway there! When Thursday comes we’re almost there, and Friday is relatively easy. It’s practically the weekend, when we block out the thought of Monday all together if we can.

TGIF - switch off
TGIF – switch off

The week has a sibling called the “fortnight”. Two weeks, as a chunk. At one time the fortnight was usually reserved for a summer holiday. A fortnight at the beach or the bach. Time away with the kids. Idyllic golden weather by the sea. Of course, we only remember the good times, and forget the bad ones, but still it would be summer, it would be fairly warm, and the weather is usually better in the summer.

Weeks are the medium sized sections of our lives, often used to split up the humdrum from the pleasant parts of our lives. We should appreciate our weeks, no matter how many standard seconds long they are.

Girl on a swing
Girl on a swing


English: The Clump looking from the Redhouse
English: The Clump looking from the Redhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where ever one looks, things mostly seem to be in lumps or clumps of matter. We live on a lump of matter, one of a number of lumps of matter orbiting an even bigger lump of matter. We look into the sky when the bigger lump of matter is conveniently on the other side of our lump of matter and we see evidence of other lumps of matter similar to the lump of matter that our lump of matter orbits.

We see stars, in short, which poetically speaking float in a void empty of matter. We can see that these stars are not evenly distributed and that they gather together in clumps which we call galaxies. Actually stars seem to clump together in smaller clumps such as the Local Cluster of a dozen or so stars, and most galaxies have arms or other features that show structure at all levels.

Ancient Galaxy Cluster Still Producing Stars
Ancient Galaxy Cluster Still Producing Stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The galaxies, which we can see between the much closer stars of our own galaxy, also appear to be clustered together in clumps, and the clumps seem to be clumped together. Of course, the ultimate clump is the Universe itself, but at all levels the Universe appears to have structure, to be organised, to be formed of lumps and clumps, variously shaped into loops, whorls, sheets, arms, rings, bubbles, and so on.

OK, but in the other direction, towards the smaller rather than the larger, our planet has various systems, weather, orogenic, natural, social and evolutionary. All sorts of systems at all levels, from global scope to the scope of the smallest element.

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In other personal worlds, below the level our interactions with our families, we have all the systems that make up our own bodies. The system that circulates our blood, the system that processes our food, the system that maintains our multiple systems in a state homeostasis.

That is, not a steady state, but a state where all the individual systems self-adjust so that the larger system does not descend into a state of chaos, leading to a disruption of the larger whole. Death.

The main pathways of metabolism in humans, sho...
The main pathways of metabolism in humans, showing all metabolites that account for >1% of an excreted dose. ;Legend PNU-142300, accounts for ~10% of excreted dose at PNU-142586, accounts for ~45% of excreted dose at steady state PNU-173558, accounts for ~3.3% of excreted dose at steady state (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By and large most systems in our environment are made up of molecules, which are in turn made up of atoms. Atoms are a convenient stopping point on the scale from very large to very small. They are pretty “well defined”, in that they are a very strong concept.

Atoms are rarely found solo. They are sociable critters. They form relationships with other atoms, but some atoms are more sociable than others, forming multiple bonds with other atoms. Some are more promiscuous than others, changing partners frequently.

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These relationships are called molecules, and range from simple to complex, containing from two or three atoms, to millions of atoms. The really large molecules can be broken down to smaller sub-molecules which are linked repeatedly to make up the complex molecules.

To rise higher up the scale for a moment, these molecules, large and small are organised into cells, which are essentially factories for making identical or nearly identical copies of themselves. The differences are necessary to make cells into muscles or organs and other functional features, and cells that make bones and sinews and other structural parts of a body.

A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-li...
A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-like units (nucleotides) in the center carries information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, atoms are a convenient stopping point. Every atom of an element is identical at least in its base state. It may lose or gain electrons in a “relationship” or molecule, but basically it is the same as any other element of the same sort.

Each atom consists of a nucleus and surrounding electrons, a model which some people liken to a solar system. There are similarities, but there are also differences (which I won’t go into in this post). The nucleus consists a mix of protons and neutrons. While the number neutrons may vary, they don’t significantly affect the chemical properties of the atom, which makes all atoms of an element effectively the same.

An early, outdated representation of an atom, ...
An early, outdated representation of an atom, with nucleus and electrons described as well-localized particles on well-localized orbits. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each component of an atom is made up of smaller particles called “elementary” particles, although they may not be fundamentally elementary. At this level we reach the blurry level of quantum physics where a particle has an imprecise definition and an imprecise location in macroscopic terms.

Having travelled from the largest to the smallest, I’m now going to talk mathematics. I’ll link back to physics at the end.

Nucleus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all familiar with counting. One, two, three and so on. These concepts are the atoms of the mathematical world. They can be built up into complex structures, much like atoms can be built into molecules, organelles, cells, tissues and organs. (The analogy is far from perfect. I can think of several ways that it breaks down).

Below the “atomic” level of the integers is the “elementary” level of the rational numbers, what most people would recognise as fractions. Interestingly between any two rational numbers, you can find other rational numbers. These are very roughly equivalent to the elementary particles. Very roughly.

Half of the Hadron Calorimeter
Half of the Hadron Calorimeter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One might think that these would exhaust the list of types of numbers, but below (in a sense) the rational numbers is the level of the real numbers. While many of the real numbers are also rational numbers, the majority of the real numbers ate not rational numbers.

The level of the real numbers is also known as the level of the continuum. A continuum implies a line has no gaps, as in a line drawn with a pencil. If the line is made up of dots, no matter how small, it doesn’t represent a continuum.

Qunatum dots delivered by ccp
Qunatum dots delivered by ccp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A line made up of atoms is not a continuum, nor is a line of elementary particles. While scientists have found ever more fundamental particles, the line has apparently ended with quarks. Quantum physics seems to indicate that nature, at the lowest level, is discrete, or, to loop back to the start of this post, lumpy. There doesn’t seem to be a level of the continuum in nature.

That leaves us with two options. Either there is no level of the continuum in nature and nature is fundamentally lumpy, or the apparent indication of quantum physics that nature is lumpy is wrong.

Pineapple Lumps (240g size)
Pineapple Lumps (240g size) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that a lumpy universe would permit the concept of the continuum. If the nature of things is discrete, it’s hard to see how one could consider a smooth continuous thing. It’s like considering chess, which fundamentally defines a discontinuous world, where a playing piece is in a particular square and a square contains a playing piece or not.

It’s a weak argument, but the fact that we can conceive the concept of a continuum hints that the universe may be fundamentally continuous, in spite of quantum physics’ indications that it is not continuous.

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