Sixty

The most interesting thing about sixty, is sixties are interesting things. (Sorry, that just got stuck in my head, and I had to get it out. Stupid Tiggers.)

Anyway, the most interesting thing about sixty is that we use it for something so crucial to us — telling time. Very little in our lives is based around the number sixty, but clocks are. Sixty seconds to the minute, sixty minutes to the hour. It’s a very confusing thing for children to learn, when everything else seems to be based around hundreds. What comes after 8:59? Well, 8:60, right? Nope. 9:00. I imagine that kids growing up in countries with the metric system (which is to say, every single country outside the United States) find it even more confusing. At least here in America we’re used to seemingly arbitrary numbers for units. Ten inches to the foot? Nope, twelve. Ten ounces to the pound? Nope, sixteen. A thousand feet to a mile? Nope. Well then, five thousand? Closer, but nope. Try five thousand, two hundred eighty.

Anyway, around the world, people use this sixty-centered clock. It probably comes from the Sumerians, via the Babylonians, or something like that. Google it if you’re interested. What I find even more fascinating than its history is a particular trait of the number sixty, which might explain why it started, and why it stuck. Dividing a circle into sixty segments is actually a very useful thing. Because with sixty segments, you can quite easily make:

  • Half a circle (30 segments)
  • A third of a circle (20 segments)
  • A quarter of a circle (15 segments)
  • A fifth of a circle (12 segments)
  • A sixth of a circle (10 segments)
  • A tenth of a circle (6 segments)
  • A twelfth of a circle (5 segments)
  • A fifteenth of a circle (4 segments)
  • A twentieth of a circle (3 segments)
  • A thirtieth of a circle (2 segments)
  • A sixtieth of a circle (1 segment)

That’s a lot of options, 2 more than you’d get with 100. (It’s the third of a circle that clinches it, really.) The reason for this is that the number sixty has a whole bunch of factors, i.e. numbers that you can divide it by without remainder. In fact, sixty has more factors than any integer below it. It’s custom made for this kind of work. (This might also be why circles are also described in terms of 360 [60 times 6] degrees; lots and lots of factors.) If you view the time of day as tracing a circle (as we often do, through analog clocks, and formerly through sundials), it makes a lot of sense to divide that circle in such a useful way.

And here’s a factoid that gives this theory a little more weight: guess what other number has more factors than any integer below it? Twenty-four. That’s right — you can divide the day in half (12 hours), thirds (8 hours), quarters (6 hours), and so on. In a time before computers, this all made a perfect sort of logic. The needle of time traces through 60 seconds every minute, 60 minutes every hour, 24 hours every day, and well, after that it does kind of lose the mathematical grace. There may be good reason for seven days to the week, but it’s not because you can easily divide the week up into halves (or anything else), that’s for sure!

But the most wonderful thing about sixties is I’m the only one! (Sorry.)

Featured Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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