The Fixed Reference Point

Just to explain: I was reading a Cracked article whose comments led me to look up the ‘Kennewick Man’ remains in the USA, and from there I found myself looking at a Wikipedia article on the ‘B.P.’ dating convention.


In this case, B.P. apparently means ‘Before Present’: it’s a way of identifying how old something is, or how long ago it happened, by enumerating the years between then and now.  This avoids all the contention that apparently accompanies the use of the Gregorian BC/AD system, with its awkward religious connotations.  ‘BC’ means ‘Before Christ’, and ‘AD’ ‘the Year of Our Lord’ – referring to Christ[*].

It may be that you’re looking at the idea of dating something ‘Before Present’ and having the same thought as I had, which is: how does that work if time keeps moving? Something that’s 2,000 years ‘BP’ would, as I write, have happened in AD15 by the Gregorian calendar – but give it another few months and that same event would have happened in AD16 instead.  Using ‘BP’ references everything relative to a moving present, which means every date given would have to be constantly updated.

And that’s stupid.

Ah, but the greybeards [**] have that angle covered.  They’ve decided that for dating purposes ‘the present’ will be AD1950. This, apparently, is when atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were found to be a great fun way for governments to waste colossal amounts of money and scare everyone shitless into the bargain. Their gleeful abandon in firing off ever-more massive crimes against humanity rendered radiocarbon dating of everything after around 1950 unreliable, so 1950 is now the fixed reference point for the ‘Before Present’ scale.

This presents (hah) a problem: the ‘BP’ scale doesn’t actually reference ‘the present’. So it has what’s technically referred to as a ‘stupid’ or ‘stupid and inaccurate’ name. Some people, according to Wikipedia (So It Must Be True), have altered the abbreviation in response to this obstacle, and have declared that it now means ‘Before Physics’ – because apparently physics doesn’t include rolling different masses down a slope, Galileo: you were just cocking around until the Bomb men came along. Layabout.

Pictured: Not physics.

What this is all about, it seems, is the desire amongst good, rational science types to distance themselves from all that religious nonsense that primitives are still so into.  If you use the Gregorian system, you see, it means you’re tacitly agreeing that Christianity is true. ‘Before Present’ is a way of making an important point about religion at the bargain cost of just a little scientific clarity.

But there is a way of making that same point about religion without costing anyone anything at all, except perhaps a little wasted time. You could, instead, use the ‘Common Era’ dating system, which is where you pin your calendar on the traditional birth year of Jesus Christ, date your entire history before and after that date, but – and this is the clever part – you call it something else.

Instead of writing this in the year AD2015, essentially telling everyone that I’m Christian, I write it as ‘2015 CE’; because then everyone knows I’m not Christian but they can still easily see what date I’m talking about. Problem solved!

Except that the argument actually offered for using the Common Era system is that it’s more respectful of other cultures, in our ever-shrinking global village, for whom Jesus’ birth just might not be a thing. And that would make sense, if Common Era wasn’t simply the Gregorian system with a handwritten label hastily Sellotaped over the bit that says ‘Jesus’.

Look, I’m not Christian. I am religious – kind of – and I have no particular problem with Christianity in general terms. But I’m not some fundamentalist American right-winger bemoaning the removal of Jay-zus from all our civic doings. I’m British and, to be honest, while yes we do have bishops in the House of Lords, Jay-zus – or even Jesus – isn’t a big public part of our civic doings anyway. When we relidge, we tend to do it slightly less flamboyantly than our brothers and sister across the Atlantic. I’m not saying “We should use AD because otherwise we’ll all go to Hell”; or even “We should use AD because I believe and I say so”.

I’m saying we should Fight Or Void The Field. If we want simplicity, then we continue to use the BC/AD system, because everyone’s familiar with it – whether or not it’s a country’s native cultural calendar, it’s been in global use so long that most if not all international business is planned according to the Gregorian system. Simply put, it ain’t badly broke, so it’s arguable whether it needs fixing or not.

If we do decide we need something else, then we should actually recalibrate the calendar so that it’s pinned on a less contentious reference point. My own favourite would be to use what’s now called Ad Urbe Condita – the traditional year of the founding of Rome in 753BC, making this year 2768AUC. But I accept that that’d still be considered skewed towards ‘western’ culture and history.

We could pick a natural event as our reference point – something that has no religious or political connotations at all. The Tunguska event (which would make this the year 107)? The eruption of Krakatoa (132)? Or the Vesuvius eruption that buried Pompeii (1936)?

It didn’t give a hoot about anyone’s culture.

But even then, all we’d be doing is re-syncing the year numbers. We’d still face the problem that everything else about our calendar is also Gregorian. The exact system of hours, days, months – it’s all part of the same system and it would all need to be changed. And that’s before we even get into the fact that the days of the week are religious – Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Saturn’s Day – and that several months are named for Roman gods (Janus, Mars, Juno) and people (Julius, Augustus).

What I’m saying is: if it needs doing it’s going to take a damn sight more work than just using a different name for the same thing.

[* Some people insist that ‘AD’ stands for ‘After Death’ (of Christ) leaving around 33 years undateable between his birth and execution and presumably depriving Christianity of the Resurrection.]

[** I come over a bit Hugo Rune sometimes. Don’t be fooled: I actually like science. To me, ‘greybeards’ are those people who spend more time buggering about with superficial frills than actually doing stuff. Another example would be the people who advocate using ‘mebibytes’ to measure data capacity.

“I think we’re all beginning to lose sight of the real issue here, which is: what are we going to call ourselves?” – Arnold Rimmer ]

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