Resolutions – in culture, language, and science

New year is a time for resolutions. Whether it’s to exercise more, learn a language, or be more environmentally conscious, this popular concept hits a peak in January. So let’s have a look at where resolutions have come from and gone to, in culture, language, and science.


Travel back some 4 000 years to the Babylonian empire, and already there were people making resolutions – releasing people from their debts, and returning borrowed items – with the hope that the gods would favour them. Since the year was centred around the farming calendar, these resolutions were made in spring, which fell in March.

Along with the introduction of the Julian calendar by Julius Caesar, the western world moved their resolutions to the new start of the year, making promises to the Roman god of gateways and transitions, Janus, for whom the month of January is named.


It is appropriate then, that the word resolution comes from Latin, which was spoken in the Roman Empire. The Latin resolvere means to loosen, or release. Perhaps it is this connotation of releasing, like the Babylonians releasing people from their debts with the new year, that links this word to our modern-day new year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, it seems that while we are good at making resolutions, we are also very quick to uh, release them!

Looking at the meaning of resolvere as loosening, we find ourselves with a different sense of resolution: that of optical resolution. In this sense, the whole is loosened, and separated out into component parts. This brings us to the meaning of resolution as the shortest distance between two points that can be distinguished as separate entities – something that is very useful for scientific observation.


Observation has always been an important aspect of science. So it makes sense that with the ability to see things that are indistinguishable to the naked eye, whole new fields of science would emerge. In 1608, the telescope was patented by Hans Lippershey, a spectacle maker in the Netherlands. Galileo Galilei soon heard about it, and built his own telescope. Although there is some controversy about who invented the microscope, Galilei is sometimes credited as the inventor of the compound microscope, having found that he could focus his telescope on small nearby objects as well as far away stars.

So optical resolution is important when it comes to microscopes, telescopes, and even the camera on your cell phone. With improvements in technology, this kind of resolution is only getting better as time goes on, allowing us to learn more about micro-organisms and the universe, as well as capturing memories of a snapshot in time.

Thus we come to the conclusion that while there are some kinds of resolution that just keep improving as technology moves forward, humans are pretty bad at keeping new year’s resolutions, even though we’ve been making them for 4000 years!

Happy new year everybody!



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