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Jack Smith

Millennium Reasoning Has Zero Defects

December 21, 1987|Jack Smith

In observing the other day that our century will end at midnight, Dec. 31, 2000, instead of midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, I knew I would provoke some flak. Expressed another way, my point was that the 21st Century will begin on Jan. 1, 2001, not on Jan. 1, 2000.

I realize that this knowledge will disappoint many people who were looking forward to a big night on Dec. 31, 1999, thinking it will be not only the turn of the century but the turn of the millennium. In fact it will be neither.

The proof is simple. Since our calendar is divided into the Christian era, beginning with the year AD 1, and the pre-Christian era, ending in the year 1 BC, AD 1 is the first year of the first century. A century is 100 years long. Thus, the first century ended at midnight, Dec. 31, 100--after 100 years had passed. And so on. There was no year zero.

David Kase of Palos Verdes Estates argues that there was no year 1, either. He says it was in the fourth century that the Christian clergy dumped the Roman system and began counting from the year of Christ's birth (the date of which nobody knew) instead of from the founding of Rome. "Times before this were obviously before Christ, and a system of counting from 1 BC was adopted. . . .

"Not having gotten the 0 from the Hindus yet, the Church fathers naturally began counting from 1. . . . There is no reason why we should feel bound to adhere to this pre-algebraic way of counting. The year 1 BC could just as easily be counted as the year 0, and thus bring our dating system into coherence with the latest mathematical advances of the Middle Ages. . . ."

I don't follow. If we called the last year of the pre-Christian era 0, the first year of the Christian Era would still be 1, wouldn't it? And its second millennium would end on Dec. 31, 2000.

Emily S. Fishbein of Pasadena also argues that there had to be a year 0. "The year 1 occurs at the end of the first year, just as a child's first birthday is celebrated at the end of the first year of life. . . . In the 12th month of life a child is not yet a year old, and is, moreover, considered to be 11 months old. His or her 10th birthday will occur at the end of the 10th year of life, at the moment when the 11th year begins.

"Just so, this century will end at the moment when mankind manages to survive its 2000th year, which occurs at the conclusion of the year 1999."

The year 0 is obviously impossible. We do not begin counting at 0. We begin counting at 1. If we have 10 marbles we do not have a zero marble. A century is 100 years. The first year is 1; the last year is 100. Thus, the first century ended on the last day of the year 100; the 20th Century will end on the last day of the year 2000. The era will then be 2000 years old, just as a child is 10 years old after 10 years of life.

Here's how the science magazine Discover recently answered a reader who insisted that the 19th Century ended on Dec. 31, 1899, instead of Dec. 31, 1900, as the magazine had implied:

"For (the reader's) calculations to be correct, either the first century began with the nonexistent year 0, or it lasted only 99 years. In fact it began with AD 1 and lasted 100 years, through Dec. 31, AD 100. Centuries end on the last day of the year ending with the numbers 00; the 21st century will not begin until Jan. 1, 2001."

Gregory Wright of Mount Washington concedes that my date is right, but proposes that we exploit the confusion by spending the whole year 2000 in celebration of the second millennium's end. "This could be a very salubrious and fortuitous happenstance," he points out. "And it's been dropped right into our laps. A lot of things that are good for the global economy, global understanding and global good will can be planned to mark the world's passage into the Third Millennium."

I think a yearlong celebration, culminating in the true turn of the century, is a great idea.

I just hope I'm here to help kick it off.

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