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At Year's End, Reflecting On Cycles In Modern Life

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The New Year inspires many people to start fresh. Some vow to exercise more or quit smoking, others clean house or meditate. And we do it again and again, year after year. Astrophysicist Adam Frank explains the role that cycles — natural and arbitrary — play in our lives, and how technology has altered those cycles over time.


Today, we mark the winter solstice, in three days, one of the major holidays of the religious calendar, followed by an entirely arbitrary start of the New Year. All of us observe cycles, patterns that regulate our lives from season to season, or Olympiad to Olympiad, or the return of the 17-year cicadas. Some, like the solstice, are dictated by celestial mechanics. Others - well, we've simply invented: spring cleaning, for example, or spring training. What's the cycle you live your life by?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Adam Frank joins us from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. He's co-founder of and contributor to NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, and a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. Nice to have you with us again, and happy solstice.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And who decided every year ends on December 31st?

FRANK: Yeah. Well, that actually is associated, obviously, with the - first, the Julian calendar, which was set up by Julius Caesar. And then we kept that with a - there was a major revision of the calendar in the 1500s by the Gregorian calendar, Pope Gregory XIII. But it is sort of very arbitrary. And I've always thought that New Year's is kind of a stupid holiday in some sense, because it's not tied to really anything other than the arbitrary whims of calendar-making. And, in fact, I actually locked myself in a bathroom one time at a New Year's Eve party to protest the arbitrariness of it, as an astronomer. And, of course, my girlfriend was very, very angry.


CONAN: I can understand. There are other rituals that are supposed to accompany the moment. But in any case, calendars - not just the Julian and Gregorian calendars, as you point out - a lot of cultures have calendars, and they mark time in different ways.

FRANK: Well, the interesting thing about calendars - if you look, you know, if you really wind the clock back to prehistory, is that before there were even calendars, certainly, humanity has always been very closely tied - our cultural rituals were very closely tied to the cycles that nature imposes upon us. There's the, obviously, the day, the month, you know, the round of the lunar cycle, also tied to women's - the menses - and then, of course, the year.

And it wasn't really until we became a more complex culture, really, you know, around 4,000 years ago, the beginning of urban, you know, building urban empires, that calendars came into play - before that, people, in particular the solstice or the equinox, very important to early cultures. But the calendar was something that was really a political and religious creation. It was needed by people because you wanted to mark off the ruler's birthday or the day that he ascended to the throne. So - but before that, we were really always tied - and still are, even if we don't really recall it - really very much tied to the astronomical cycles.

CONAN: And so, yes, it was springtime to plant, maybe. But whether that was a Friday or a Monday, who cared?

FRANK: Right. Exactly. I mean, what, really, people needed to watch for were the natural signals of watching where the sun rose every day on the horizon. And, of course, the solstice, the winter solstice is when the sun reaches its southernmost point and begins now marching northward, which also means it's going to be higher in the sky each day and the season - the days are going to be longer and warmer. And so it's no surprise, in some sense, that so many things cluster - like Christmas or New Years - cluster around the winter solstice because that really was, you know, going far enough back, that was the cycle.

That was the main cycle we needed to mark both, you know, in our spiritual and mythic connection to the world, and also, you know, needing to plant crops at the right time.

CONAN: It might be apocryphal, but I had read that Christmas - four days, usually, after the solstice - was the first time, using old instruments, you could tell the days were actually getting longer.

FRANK: Yeah, something along those lines. I mean, many people think that Christmas was really originally tied to the Roman celebration for the solstice, the, you know, the sun unbowed - that's one translation of it - which was, you know, the Roman representation of the fact that the sun was returning in its might, and that the early Christians sort of tied Christ's birthday to that, because it was already a celebration.

CONAN: Well, then we get to the Middle Ages, and still no accurate way to tell time, among other things.

FRANK: Well, the interesting thing is, you know, we sort of think - you know, we count years now, right - our cycle, our New Years counts off - you know, the calendar turns, and it's another year. You have 2011, 2012. But really, that didn't - you know, even in the Middle Ages, people weren't counting from Christ's birthday. In general, people were always counting from some important person's political date, the date - as what we've talked about, the date when, you know, the ruler ascended to the throne.

And even though the idea of counting from Christ's birthday started sometime right in the fifth or sixth century with one particular monk who was tasked with it, for a long period of time, it was forgotten. It really wasn't until the 1700s again that people began sort of counting years off from, you know, from Christ's birthday.

CONAN: Now, wait a minute. Wasn't there a big kerfuffle around the first millennium, the millennium that was supposed to be the end of the world?

FRANK: Right. But that was actually - and that's an interesting point. So it's really, you know, it was a smaller group. I mean, people, you know, people knew about this day, because it went back to - Dennis the Little was his name, in around 523, was, you know, the first guy who sort of said, look, you can count from Christ's birthday, rather than the local emperor. So people knew that it was there, but most of the society really wasn't paying attention to it. So that millennium thing is very interesting, right, because you actually see - one strange thing about our lives is that our lives are linear. We're born, and then we die. It's a journey from birth to death, and yet we have these cycles imposed on us, right, by the world.

And in our calendars, even though calendars are arbitrary, whenever we reach special numbers - like a century or a millennium - we suddenly get this idea that, oh, the world's going to end, right? And that is, in some sense, almost echoes what's happening in our lives, because our lives do end. So we see - even though we're embedded in these cycles, we still want to impose some kind of ending at special times.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Arbitrary or natural, what is the cycle that determines your life? 800-989-8255. Email us: Joe(ph) is on the line with us from Parker, in Colorado.

JOE: Hi. I live my life by the Wisconsin Badger Football season, which begins in the fall and, you know, then I get lost after the Rose Bowl. And then I live that, in that sort of state of being lost a little bit until it's sunscreen season, in the summer. In Colorado, you just have to slather all the sunscreen on. Those are the seasons in - that I experience in my life.

CONAN: I gather it is not sunscreen season today in Colorado.


JOE: You know, hardcore sunscreen people say you it's always sunscreen.


JOE: We have, like, 18 inches of snow. The sun is not out today.

CONAN: Well, hunker down and listen to the radio, OK?

JOE: There you go.

FRANK: You know, what's interesting is that the Romans for a while didn't count on January and February. They had 10 months in their year. And they knew full well there were more days, but there was no reason to count, essentially, because nothing was going on, and you weren't planting anything. So in some sense, you're living - you're recouping that idea that basically, in between, you know, your favorite sports team season or the summer, there's nothing to do, so why even bother counting?

CONAN: Christina's on the line with us from Stockton, California.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHRISTINA: I live in San Joaquin County, which is the largest producing vegetable county in California, and we follow the farmer's market pattern. We try to buy our produce and vegetables as close to home as we possibly can, which means that most of our vegetables and fruit come from at least 10 miles or less. But...

CONAN: And, Christina, what are you eating right now? What's at the farmer's market?

CHRISTINA: There's a lot of squash at the farmer's market, which...

FRANK: Fruit, vegetables and things.

CHRISTINA: ...I personally don't care for.

CONAN: Yeah, me neither.


FRANK: Me neither.

CHRISTINA: So it's harder to get a lot of the different fruits that, like, my kids would eat. But I've got a daughter who's a citrus fan, so oranges are in season right now. So we're eating a lot of citrus dishes, a lot of fruit salads with different kinds of, you know, oranges and the tangerines and that type of thing. A lot of lemons are in season.

FRANK: The clementines, right?

CONAN: Absolutely. Clementines, that's the Christmas present. Christina...


FRANK: Right.

CONAN: ...this is one of the...

CHRISTINA: She's actually - she's getting one of those in her stocking.


CONAN: Well, we're not going to give it away. Christina, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. But, Adam Frank, this is, perhaps, the oldest of cycles.

FRANK: I think - and that's a fascinating point for the - for all of us to consider, because one of the most interesting things that happened to us over the last 200 years is that with the birth of the industrial economy and, you know, having all these cheap energy to, you know, keep our cities lit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is that we really were removed from those - that most fundamental cycle of where does your food come, and when do you get it, right?

You know, when you can go get your, you know, your eggs any time of day, then you've sort of been lifted out of this very essential connection between you and the world, where it used to be that market day - the market was only open at certain times, and often the market was only open certain days.

CONAN: Well, let's go a little bit further back, Adam. Hunter-gatherers, we have to follow the herds.

FRANK: Right, exactly. That fundamental connection that human beings - which is built into our genes, into the connection with the world cycles. We have been lifted out of those in the last 100 years in the petro-economy. And, you know, it's - in many ways, I think, it's been to our detriment. I mean, the convenience is wonderful. But really, how many people, if you go on to your supermarket, who do you know there? Do you know the green grocer? Do you know the guy who gives you the meat? Whereas if you go to a farmer's market, as part of this ritual of attending the market, you know, you end up kind of knowing the guy that you're getting the meat from.

CONAN: As a Jewish educator - writes Dan in Napa, California - much of my life was lived according to two harvest-based calendars: the Hebrew calendar and the school year, often leading to a lot happening all at once in the fall. And we forget. Yes, of course, the school year is an agricultural calendar.

FRANK: Right. And that's a very - you know, and it's an agricultural calendar imposed on top of an industrial model, right, because we needed the kids to be schooled in a very particular way. You think about cycles for, you know, an industrial model, and yet, still, you know, some fraction of them needed to be - needed to leave for the harvest. And, of course, now, what's happened is that very few people are involved in agriculture anymore. And so there's lots of people asking: Do we still need that cycle?

CONAN: Well, here's an email from Jim: the start of the NBA season. So it was seriously messed with this year.


CONAN: He's a San Antonio Spurs fan. Good luck to him in the last year, therefore, the big possibility. We're talking with Adam Frank, co-founder and contributor of NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, about the cycles of our lives. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And this is Ted. Ted's on the line with us from Cincinnati.

TED: Hi, there. This may sound a bit strange, but the cycle I have in mind is the sunspot cycle.

FRANK: Good astronomical cycle.

TED: Yeah. I hung around radio and shortwave-listening such for a good big part of my younger life. I didn't get my ham radio licensed until I was about 22. But I have found that - well, I should explain for those who might not know that when there are more sunspots, it's more easy for you to communicate across shortwave with multiple bounces to far away places. And where there are fewer sunspots, it's harder to talk to people in far away places.

And I found that, unfortunately, in my life, typically, when the sunspot cycle has been at its highest, I've been wrapped up in family affairs or business affairs or whatever. One time I was studying for my PhD and, of course, couldn't play radio. So I've missed a number of the last sunspot cycles, and the one that we are in now is supposed to be a late one and a down one. And I'm feeling very frustrated about not being able to participate in something that some of my mates have been able to enjoy.

CONAN: Well, don't worry about it, Ted. The DX will rise again in the next cycle. So...


FRANK: You know what - that's actually a really fascinating example, because we talk about some cycles that we've lost because of living in a high-technology culture. But actually, the sun cycle is one that we've gained in the sense that what happens with sunspots, when you're at solar maximum, there tends to be a lot more solar storms. And those solar storms can be - as we're learning, as we become a space-faring race that uses the orbital domain around the Earth for communication satellites, weather satellites, you can really have major disruptions by, quote-unquote, "space weather" from storms that happen. And so we are going to have to become more and more cognizant of that cycle, of the weather in space from the solar - the cycle of sunspots.

CONAN: Well, of course, you mentioned sidereal patterns. This is, again, very ancient, but as soon as Thomas Edison really got involved, that began to change. We could rise or go to sleep whenever we chose - maybe not healthily, but we could.

FRANK: Yeah. That's actually a remarkable thing, that what changed with the introduction of artificial lighting is that people's sleep patterns changed, because it used to be that there were two sleep - there were patterns of two deep-sleep patterns each night, where people would call it first sleep and second sleep. You'd go to bed when the sun went down, or somewhere around there. And then you'd sleep for a while and you'd wake up around 1 o'clock, you know, sort of slightly restless, and then sleep again maybe an hour later. And you can find in diaries from the 1600s, people talking about I've had my first sleep. And that language is completely gone now, that that - those cycles have been completely erased because of the technologies.

CONAN: Let's go next to Greg, Greg with us from Kensington, Kentucky.

GREG: Hi. What's up? Thanks for having me on the show. Love it. I'm back stateside for a little bit. I'm really glad I got to catch you guys jamming on air. I just wanted to speak about a little cycle that I'm following around the world, you know, speaking about the suns and sunspots. Don't ever want to get skin cancer or anything, but I, you know, I'm surfing out there on the waves. Somewhere, it's summer in the world at all times, and, you know, I'm going to be there, right there with the summer, always catching some major Z's after I've been surfing all day, if you know what I mean.

CONAN: So you're going to be heading down to Australia after this?

GREG: Oh, yes, sir. Yes, sir. I just had to see my folks for Christmastime, sir.

CONAN: Well, Greg, thanks very much. And is there any other pattern that you can follow in an El Nino year, for example? Is it better one place or another?

GREG: Oh, sure. I mean, you're talking smaller islands that have sort of a - anywhere Southern Hemisphere, talking, and weather patterns. I've only been doing this for three or four years, but the real grizzly guys, they know the hot islands. You know, we just go jumping from one to the other. You know, you can't surf from one to the other, but, you know, the boats, that's what they're for.

FRANK: Right, Greg.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much and have a great time.

GREG: Thank you.

FRANK: You know the - with the whole idea of tides, right, there's another cycle that we, you know, that - depending on where you live. If, you know, certainly if you're a fisherman or you're involved in the sea, that's one that you need to be accounting of. And as we, you know, move forward, especially as we kind of look at the end of the oil era and we start thinking about all other technologies that might be able to replace oil, many of them actually will connect us to cycles again. If you talk about tide power, you are certainly going to be thinking about, you know, how to engineer things so that you can capture the max amount of energy from the tides.

CONAN: This from Noreen in Tucson: I'm a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. I rescue and care for hummingbirds. My life cycle coordinates with their cycle of life. No kidding. In this rich hummingbird area, I have taken in 63 hummingbirds in various stages of their development this year. There's a cycle I have not considered. Of course, my life revolves around the spring training, the regular season, the play-offs and, well, we're now in the Hot Stove League. But, Adam Frank, thanks very much for bringing up this subject for us.

FRANK: Oh, a real pleasure. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Adam Frank, co-founder, contributor to NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York. His new book is "About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang," and he joined us from member station WXXI. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with the annual bird count. We'll be back here on Monday. Merry Christmas, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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