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Unit of time

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Visualisation of units of time from one second to one average year of the Gregorian calendar

The base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI), and by extension most of the Western world, is the second, defined as about 9 thousand million periods of radiation of the caesium atom.

Historically units of time were defined by the movements of astronomical objects.

  • Sun based: the year was the time for the earth to rotate around the sun. Year-based units include the olympiad (four years), the lustrum (five years), the indiction (15 years), the decade, the century, and the millennium.
  • Moon based: the month was based on the moon's orbital period around the earth.
  • Earth based: the time it took for the earth to rotate on its own axis, as observed on a sundial. Units originally derived from this base include the week at seven days, and the fortnight at 14 days. Subdivisions of the day include the hour (1/24th of a day) which was further subdivided into seconds and minutes.
  • Celestial sphere based: as in sidereal time, where the apparent movement of the stars and constellations across the sky is used to calculate the length of a year.

These units do not have a consistent relationship with each other and require intercalation. For example, the year cannot be divided into 12 28-day months since 12 times 28 is 336, well short of 365. The lunar month (as defined by the moon's rotation) is not 28 days but 28.3 days. The year, defined in the Gregorian calendar as 365.25 days has to be adjusted with leap days and leap seconds. Consequently, these units are now all defined as multiples of seconds.

Units of time based on orders of magnitude of the second include the nanosecond and the millisecond.


Main article: History of calendars

The natural units for timekeeping used by most historical societies are the day, the solar year and the lunation. Such calendars include the Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese, Babylonian, ancient Athenian, Hindu, Islamic, Icelandic, and Mayan, and French Republican calendars.

The modern calendar has its origins in the Roman calendar, which evolved into the Julian calendar, and then the Gregorian.

Horizontal logarithmic scale marked with units of time in the Gregorian calendar.

Scientific time units[edit]

  • The jiffy is the amount of time light takes to travel one fermi (about the size of a nucleon) in a vacuum.
  • Planck time is the time light takes to travel one Planck length. Theoretically, this is the smallest time measurement that will ever be possible. Smaller time units have no use in physics as we understand it today.
  • The TU (for Time Unit) is a unit of time defined as 1024 µs for use in engineering.
  • The Svedberg is a time unit used for sedimentation rates (usually of proteins).
  • The galactic year, based on the rotation of the galaxy.[1]
  • The geological time scale relates stratigraphy to time. The deep time of Earth’s past is divided into units according to events which took place in each period. For example, the boundary between the Cretaceous period and the Paleogene period is defined by the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The largest unit is the supereon, composed of eons. Eons are divided into eras, which are in turn divided into periods, epochs and ages.

The light-year is not a unit of time, but a unit of length about 9 trillion kilometres.


  1. ^ NASA - StarChild Question of the Month for February 2000