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JACK SMITH

Count On It: It's 7--Yes, 7--Years to Millennium

January 10, 1994|JACK SMITH

My old friend John Weaver called me the morning of Dec. 31 to ask if I had seen a story on Page One of The Times that day about New Year's Eve parties.

I had. It noted that "the granddaddy of all New Year's is fast approaching. The turn of the millennium: 1999 is six years away."

Weaver knew I had often argued that the millennium would turn at the end of the year 2000, not 1999.

"I thought you might get a column out of it," he said.

I told him I doubted it. I had already written two or three columns on the subject without damaging the misguided popular notion that centuries expire with years ending in 99.

I have a six-inch file of letters, most of them either angry or patronizing, explaining, often at great length, why I am wrong. Some of them are accompanied by long mathematical tables allegedly proving their theses.

I have been called all kinds of names, from irreverent to merely stupid, and some die-hards have even promised to pray for me.

What amazes me is that otherwise intelligent and erudite people cling to the notion that the 20th Century will end on Dec. 31, 1999. In fact, it will end on Dec. 31, 2000.

What surprised me was the academic credentials and the vehemence of some who disagreed. After a heated exchange of letters, a UCLA professor abandoned the argument, implying that I had insulted his intelligence. A retired Caltech professor reluctantly conceded that I was right.

Quoting the Millennium Society, The Times story acknowledged that some people hold my point of view, but our arguments were dismissed as "technical" and we were characterized as "smarty-pants."

There is really nothing to it. There was no year 0. The first year of the Christian Era was AD 1. The first decade ended at the end of AD 10. The first century ended at the end of AD 100. The 20th Century will end on Dec. 31, 2000, and the 21st Century will begin the next day--Jan. 1, 2001.

It is incredible how frenzied the arguments against this simple logic can be.

Readers' arguments include treatises on the origin of the Gregorian calendar, the historicity of the birth of Jesus and tables of exhaustive calculations.

None of these alleged proofs mean a thing. The simple fact is that the final dates of decades and centuries end in 0. The dates of new decades and centuries end in 1.

In my losing campaign to establish this fact, I have quoted at least a dozen prestigious encyclopedias, almanacs, scientific institutions and pundits, including the late Isaac Asimov, the century's most popular science writer.

Writing 10 years ago, Asimov tried to enlighten his readers: "And the 10th and last decade of the 20th Century will begin on Jan. 1, 1991, not a moment sooner."

But being wise as well as intelligent, Asimov conceded that the facts would not keep people from celebrating on Jan. 1, 1990. "And 10 years after that," he predicted, "Jan. 1, 2000, will arrive and the whole world will burst with joy. It will be 'a new millennium.' The celebrations will be unbelievable. . . . But just the same the new millennium will not begin till Jan. 1, 2001."

Although I may not be here, I have no doubt that the whole world will prematurely burst with joy in celebrating the supposed advent of the 21st Century on Jan. 1, 2000.

I can hardly blame them. Who wouldn't want to get out of this wretched century a year early?

Musing over the question in Smithsonian magazine, Chalmers M. Roberts suggests that the popular notion that centuries and millennia begin with a zero at the right end of the year is emotional, not rational, and nothing can be done about it.

"My point," he says, "is that mathematics can't bend a sense of fate, as witness the millenarians who predicted the end of the world as we knew it near the year 1000 and will no doubt do so again as Dec. 31, 1999, and Jan. 1, 2000, approach.

"Meanwhile our hearts will tell us that as soon as we hit that Big Two--2000--a humongous turn will have been made, and then and there we are into the new century."

As I falsely promised when I last mentioned this subject, I am through with it. I rest my case. As Asimov and Roberts suggest, it's emotional, anyway; it's in the heart, not the head. The change from 99 to 00 is somehow transcendental.

I just hope that, in my memory, The Times will have a little front page box on Jan. 1, 2000, saying "No folks, as Jack Smith kept telling us (God rest his soul) today is not the first day of the 21st Century. It won't be for a year yet."

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