Microcentury

By Susam Pal on 17 Jul 2020

Optimal Lecture Time

I recently found this interesting paragraph from an article titled Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught that is based on a talk presented by Gian-Carlo Rota in Apr 1996:

Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say) everybody's attention will turn elsewhere even if we are trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. One minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures.

That's fine advice. In fact, the whole article is full of good advice like this. Although it was written primarily for mathematicians, a lot of what is said in the article applies quite well to professionals in other fields too.

The excerpt I have quoted above got me thinking about exactly how long a microcentury is. It couldn't be exactly 50 minutes, could it?

Wiktionary on Microcentury

The English Wiktionary entry for microcentury (as of revision 59316064 on 7 May 2020) mentions:

A time period of a millionth of a century, equal to 52 minutes and 34 seconds.
Not a standard unit of measurement, and used mostly humorously to denote the maximum length of a lecture.

This looks incorrect to me. This is based on the oversimplified assumption that a century contains 36500 days, that is, it assumes that a century is a span of 100 years where each year has exactly 365 days. If a century were to have exactly 36500 days, then indeed it would have 3 153 600 000 seconds and one millionth of it would be 3153.6 seconds which is equivalent to 52 minutes 33.6 seconds. This looks consistent with the Wiktionary entry. However, an actual century on the calendar does not have exactly 36500 days. Some years are leap years, so the actual number of days in a century is more than that.

Assumptions

Let us find out how long a microcentury is as accurately as possible. We will count the leap years. We will ignore leap seconds because they are irregularly spaced and unpredictable. We will also ignore the following gap between 2 Sep 1752 and 14 Sep 1752 when the British Empire switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar:

$ cal 9 1752
   September 1752
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
       1  2 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

The above output can be obtained by running the cal command as shown above on a Unix or Linux system. Ignoring this gap is equivalent to assuming that we are working with the Gregorian calender since the year 1 AD.

We will call a year that is a multiple of 100 to be a centurial year. Further, we will not debate whether a centurial year begins a new century or ends one, that is, we don't care whether the current century runs from 2001 to 2100 or if it runs from 2000 to 2099. The computation presented in the next section works equally well for any span of 100 years.

Computation

Any span of 100 years contains exactly one centurial year, that is, a year that is a multiple of 100. A centurial year is a leap year if and only if it is also a multiple of 400. Apart from the centurial year, a century contains 24 occurrences of years that are multiples of 4 and these are all leap years. From these facts, we can conclude that a span of 100 years contains:

Therefore a century has either 36524 days or 36525 days. In other words, a century has either 3 155 673 600 seconds or 3 155 760 000 seconds. Here is a quick demonstration of this with a simple Python program:

#!/usr/bin/env python3

import datetime

for year in range(1, 2400, 100):
    delta = datetime.date(year + 100, 1, 1) - datetime.date(year, 1, 1)
    print('{:04}-{:04}: {} d = {} s'
          .format(year, year + 100, delta.days, delta.total_seconds()))

Here is the output of this program:

0001-0101: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0101-0201: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0201-0301: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0301-0401: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s
0401-0501: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0501-0601: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0601-0701: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0701-0801: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s
0801-0901: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
0901-1001: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1001-1101: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1101-1201: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s
1201-1301: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1301-1401: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1401-1501: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1501-1601: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s
1601-1701: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1701-1801: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1801-1901: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
1901-2001: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s
2001-2101: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
2101-2201: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
2201-2301: 36524 d = 3155673600.0 s
2301-2401: 36525 d = 3155760000.0 s

Thus one millionth of a century has 3155.6736 or 3155.7600 seconds, that is 52 minutes 35.6736 seconds or 52 minutes 35.7600 seconds.

Conclusion

If we round off the number of seconds in a microcentury to one decimal place, we can say that a microcentury has 52 minutes 35.7 seconds.