January 2017
New StratoChem Family Members
In keeping with the end of the holiday season and the beginning of the New Year, we have some new StratoChem family members to welcome. Seeing the fresh faces of these young geochemists-to-be gives us a sense of optimism and hope for the upcoming year--one we hope all our friends across the world share. So a 2017 filled with prosperity and happiness to you and yours, and best wishes for a successful, peaceful, and safe New Year.

Our 2016 Babies

Mohamed ("Billy") Saad's Grandchildren: 
Adam Mohamed Salah        Anas Mostafa Ahmed                   Malek Mohamed Saad
12, March 2016                         9, April 2016                               17, April 2016  
  Ahmed Farag's Son:                                          Refaat Mohamed's Son:

Mohamed Ahmed Farag, born                              Youssef Refaat Mahmoud, born
           17th of April, 2016                                           September 27th, 2016

 Mohamed Shusha's Son:                             Tamer Salah's Daughter:

Ahmed Mohamed Shusha, born                      Sondos Tamer Salah, born
    20th of November, 2016                                 1st of October, 2016 
Our 2015 Babies
Tarek El Azhary's                                                Mohamed Salama's 
Granddaughter:                                                           Daughter:    

Inas Amr Al Azhary, born                                          Reetal Mohamed Salama, born
1st of June, 2015                                                           23rd of October, 2015
01/16 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day 

01/20 - U.S. Presidential Inauguration

01/28 - Chinese New Year 

01/17 - Denver Well-Logging Society Meeting

Harnessing Time: The History of Calendars 
Human beings have always had an instinctual sense of time.  Our ancestors noticed the basic rhythms of day and night, the cycles of the seasons, and changes in the phases of the moon.  However, it was only with the invention of calendars that a formalized system for tracking time appeared. 

The first calendars appeared as far back as the Mesolithic, usually based on either the solar year or the lunar cycle.  Indeed, the oldest lunar calendar found to date is an arrangement of twelve pits found in Warren Field, Scotland, dated to roughly 10,000 years ago.  Calendars likely appeared in tandem with one of the other great changes of the mid- to late Stone Age: agriculture.  While hunting and gathering societies had little need for the precise measurement of time offered by calendars, the delicate cycles of planting and harvesting made a more exact understanding necessary.  As calendars became more refined and exact, grouping days into months, they began to be used for religious and astrological observances as well as agricultural planning.

In this month's issue of The White Paper, we will look at a selection of calendars from around the world, comparing and contrasting how different civilizations measured time.

From Emperors to Popes: Understanding our Present-Day Calendar

Many of the calendars we will look at are still used today, if only for religious observances and astrological purposes, but the calendar many of us think of when we hear the word is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII and introduced as a sixteenth century refinement of the earlier Julian calendar, invented by none other than Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar.

The Julian and the Gregorian are so similar that referring to them as different calendars is misleading.  Both have a solar basis and twelve months per year, named after a mishmash of Roman gods and emperors (including Caesar himself, who we memorialize every July). Today, however, the Julian calendar is actually 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar because of the distribution of leap years. According to the Gregorian calendar, leap years are those evenly divisible by 400, while in the Julian calendar all years divisible by 100 are leap years. 

Pope Gregory XIII, after whom our calendar is named.

This reformation was implemented in order to prevent the drift of the calendar due to the annual equinoxes and solstices which set the date for Easter celebrations. By keeping Easter aligned with the dates introduced by the early church in the 16th century, this reformation has resulted in the celebration of Christmas on different days among Christians worldwide, with Catholics and Protestants marking the 25th of December in the Gregorian calendar and Orthodox Christians beginning their thirteen-day celebration on January 7th (December 25th in the Julian calendar).

Understanding the Lunar Calendar

Dates in the Islamic (Hijri) and Gregorian calendars outside a library in Jerusalem (photo by Polskivinnik).
Throughout history, civilizations such as the Chinese, Babylonians, Greeks, Hebrews, Arabs, and Egyptians have used the lunar calendar to keep track of religious festivities and time. While some civilizations have used a combination of the lunar and solar year to create their calendars, the lunar calendar was frequently the basis of religious observances.  As a result, while civic and agricultural duties were fixed by a solar calendar, lunar-based religious festivities migrated every year.  For example, Muslims around the world fast during the holy month of Ramadan.  But by the reckoning of the Gregorian calendar, the month of Ramadan advances 11 days every year due to the lunar basis of the Islamic calendar, rotating through the seasons.

The Egyptian Calendar

Solar and lunar calendars tend to be especially common because the cycle of day and night is one of the most easily recognizable signs of time's passage, but not all cultures depended on the sun and moon for their calendrics.  Ancient Egyptians built their calendar around Sirius, the brightest star in Earth's night sky, the heliacal rising of which marked the onset of the Nile's flooding.   This flooding took place over three seasons known to the Egyptians as Akhet ("Flooding"), Peret ("Growth"), and Shemu ("Harvest"). These three seasons were distributed throughout the year, marking their agricultural events. 

While the Egyptians had three seasons, each season had four months of 30 days each. Around 4000 B.C the Egyptians added five extra days at the end of the year in order to reconcile their Sirius-based calendar with the solar year. These five days became a festival because it was thought to be unlucky to work during that time, a notion fairly common among cultures with advanced calendric systems (such as the Maya), indicating that despite geographical location, many civilizations designed their calendars with the same ideas in mind.

The Coptic Calendar

The months of the Coptic Year.

The Coptic calendar, also known as the Alexandrian calendar, was introduced by the Coptic Orthodox Church as a modification of the ancient Egyptian calendar and is still used in Egypt today. Like the original Egyptian calendar, the Coptic calendar has three seasons of four months each, plus five extra days at the end of the year, with each month taking the name of an Egyptian god. For example, the first month Tut, marks the beginning of Akhet (flooding season), and is named after the god of wisdom and science.  Tut is followed by Paopi, named after Hapi, god of the Nile, and so on.

Unlike among the ancient Egyptians, the five extra days at the end of the year are considered to be the thirteenth month in the Coptic calendar, Shomu or Shemou (meaning "harvest").  During the Coptic leap year, this month is actually six days.

Interestingly, the Coptic Church celebrates Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern Spring Equinox. This is why Coptic Easter always marks the beginning of spring. However, before the Christianization of Egypt, a similar holiday was celebrated among the Ancient Egyptians during the same time of year. This holiday marked the commencement of the harvest season, Shemu. As a result, when Christianity came to Egypt, the Copts adopted the name.

Shemu is now celebrated nationwide in Egypt. While Coptic Easter is the first Sunday after the Northern Spring Equinox, the following Monday now also marks Shemu in Islamic Egypt. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus unfixed relative to the solar year, the date of Shemu remains linked to the Christian date. As Egypt became Arabized, the term Shemu found a rough match in Sham el-Nessim, or "Smelling/Taking In of the Breeze," and has become a spring festival in which Egyptians hold picnics with their families and eat delicacies like fesikh, salted and fermented fish.

The Chinese Calendar

On the other side of the world, the Chinese had their own take on timekeeping, developing a calendar that includes elements of lunar and solar calendars, as well as calculations involving Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which, when grouped with the Sun and Moon are referred to as the Seven Luminaries. The Seven Luminaries are linked through complex astrological consideration to the five Chinese elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth, the essential components of the structure of the physical world.

The animals of the Chinese zodiac (photo by Felix Andrews)

Moreover, every year in the Chinese calendar is given one of twelve symbolic animals: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig.   According to Chinese legend, Buddha asked these animals to meet him on the first day of the New Year on the opposite side of a giant river, and the first to arrive would get to be head of the zodiac.  The ox came to the riverbank first and began to swim across, but the rat leaped on his back and jumped ashore before the ox could get out of the water.  Thus, the Chinese zodiac begins with the Year of the Rat.

The Mayan Calendar

El Castillo, the great Mayan observatory at Chichen Itza (photo by John Romkey). 

In a very different setting from Egypt or China, the Maya maintained a calendric system of such complexity and accuracy that it continues to evoke astonishment and mystery to this day.  Indeed, it is not entirely accurate to speak of one Mayan calendar, for there were in fact two.  The 365-day Haab' was a solar calendar used for the purposes of agricultural and civic management made up of eighteen months of twenty days apiece, each considered to have a patron god.  At the end of the Haab' were five days called wayeb considered to bring misfortune, which Mayan families spent in prayer, getting rid of broken tools and utensils to prepare for the new year.

While the Haab' had religious associations, the Tzolk'in calendar was more closely associated with ritual and astrological use.  The Tzolk'in follows a cycle of 260 days, though it is not known precisely why this number was used.  The most widely accepted theory is that 260 days is the length of one orbit of Venus around the sun, significant to the astronomically-attuned Maya for its association with the Plumed Serpent.  Another possibility is that 260 days is the rough length of a human pregnancy, possibly explaining the long history of ancient Mexican cultures naming children after their birth-dates in the 260-day calendar.  Interestingly, the use of the Tzolk'in did not die out among the Maya.  There are still contemporary "Daykeepers" in Mayan-speaking villages in Guatemala who maintain the same system their ancestors have for millennia.

The Maya developed a complex system for reckoning time using these two calendars that we refer to as the Long Count. Just as we group years into, decades, centuries and millennia, the Maya had their own, far more intricate system of categorization scheme.  Using a vigesimal (base twenty) system, the Maya grouped twenty 360-day years (likely discounting the final five days for religious reasons) into one k'atun, and twenty k'atuns into one 394-year bak'tun, and so on up to the alautun, a period of time equalling 631,233 years--especially impressive in an era in which many in the Old World considered the earth a few thousand years old at most.

A Long Count date written in the ancient Mayan alphabet.

The official "start" of the Maya calendar occurred in 3114 BCE (though why the Maya selected this date when the calendar itself first saw use in the sixth century BCE is uncertain).  Contrary to popular belief, there was never an expectation among the ancient Maya that the world would end in 2012 AD.  2012 was merely the end of another bak'tun that had begun in 1618, with no apocalyptic prophecy attached to it. The end of a bak'tun was considered holy and auspicious, and was generally marked with festivals rather than dread.

The Aztec Calendar

The iconic Stone of Tizoc, a massive calender showing the signs of the tonalpohualli, the Aztec version of the Tzolk'in. 

While we think of the calendar described above as being Mayan, in fact it was used by many peoples in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America, including the later Aztecs.
The Aztec version of the Mesoamerican calendar, like that of the Maya, consisted of a 365-day version of the Haab' known as the Xiuhpohualli and a 260-day ritual cycle called the Tonalpohualli. The two cycles together formed a 52-year period sometimes called the "calendar round." The solar Xiuhpohualli was predominantly an agricultural calendar, while the Tonalpohualli, like the Haab', was used for ritual observance. 

While the Maya had no apocalyptic prophecies of their own, the Aztecs believed that the end of every calendar round held the potential for the world's end, and they performed a rite called the New Fire ceremony in which a captive enemy warrior was sacrificed to the gods, his heart cut from his chest by priests wielding flint knives who would then attempt to kindle a flame in the empty chest cavity.  If the flame lit, the world was spared for another fifty-two years in which the Aztecs were obligated to conquer more enemies to provide more sacrifices to keep their gods strong.  If the flame failed to light, their gods would not have the sacrificial blood needed to prevent the death of the sun, and the world would be ravaged by earthquakes and the stars would transform into skeletal spider-demons who would devour the survivors.

Obsidian Butterfly, empress of the Tzitzimime demons who would threatened humanity at the end of every calendar round.


From a method for tracking planting seasons to a sacred part of religious observance, calendars have been a feature of complex societies for thousands of years.  Our Gregorian calendar is merely one of many different ways of timekeeping--just another method that humanity has used to harness time for the ends of civilization