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Archive for Friday, December 31, 1999

S JUST NOT TOMORROW

December 31, 1999

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Scholars and nitpickers agree -- the millennium doesn't start until next year.

It's a question that comes up every thousand years: When does the new millennium begin?

Not this year, many say, including Oliver Phillips, a retired classics professor at Kansas University, and MENSA, an organization made up of those with IQs in the top 2 percent of the population.

Even the Web site for Greenwich, England, in Greenwich Mean Time where the New Year will first begin, states: "All the experts agree that the millennium officially starts on 1 January 2001 and NOT on 1 January 2000 as much of the hype would have you believe."

The U.S. Naval Observatory even has a definition on its Web site.

"Mil*len*ni*um n, pl -nia or -niums: a period of 1,000 years. The end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third will be reached on January 1, 2001. This date is based on the now globally recognized Gregorian calendar, the initial epoch of which was established by the sixth-century scholar Dionysius Exiguus, who was compiling a table of dates of Easter. Rather than starting with the year zero, years in this calendar begin with the date January 1, 1 Anno Domini (AD). Consequently, the next millennium does not begin until January 1, 2001 AD."

This is a point that people have been raising all year. The Kansas Sunflower MENSA chapter unanimously agreed that 2001 is the start of the new millennium. It even sent out a press release citing common examples of proper counting, such as Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Arthur C. Clarke's latest book "3001: The Final Odyssey."

As many people around the world prepared for massive 2000 celebrations tonight, nitpickers are reminding them that a millennium is from 1 to 1000, not 0 to 999.

Therein lies the rub: The Gregorian calendar starts with a one -- 1 A.D. -- not a zero.

Oh, that pesky zero

So zero is the source of this debate, as well as the main factor in the Y2K bug.

The concept of "zero," a symbol for nothing, didn't exist in Western culture when our calendar was set in the sixth century. Zero didn't make it to the West until almost 700 years later, KU math professor Saul Stahl said.

Stahl is among those ready to call 2000 the millennium.

The first millennium was some 600 or 800 years old when the concept of zero was invented in India. When religious debate about the year of Christ's birth sent monks in search of an answer, "those guys didn't know about zero," says Stahl, who teaches history of mathematics.

It wasn't until the 13th century that the concept of zero filtered into Western civilization -- some 700 years after Dionysius Exiguus suggested that the years be counted from the birth of Jesus, which he designated as A.D. 1, Stahl said.

Before Dionysius Exiguus, also known as Dionysius the Small, made his proclamation, Romans were content to date time from the founding of Rome. When Greeks needed to date time they used the years of the Olympic games, Phillips said.

Hindu mathematicians not only used zero, but also invented the numerals commonly used worldwide for business and other calculations.

The zero did two things, Stahl said.

"It provided ease in writing down large numbers. A 'one' with a zero becomes 10 or 100 or 1,000 and so on. Secondly, the zero made it easy to manipulate large numbers -- multiplication and division."

The excitement of many of them together is keeping party-goers from counting correctly, Phillips said.

He theorizes, "There's just something about seeing all those zeros lined up in a row that excites people. As teen-agers, we would prepare to whoop and yell when the odometer in an old car turned over at 100,000 miles."

An old controversy

Phillips' father was a young adult in 1899.

"I remember him talking about a similar confusion, whether the 20th century began in the year 1900 or 1901. Most people celebrated 1901 as the beginning of the 20th century. Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, however, declared the new century began in 1900.

"... I don't want to come down on the same side as the Kaiser on anything," Phillips added.

Most people, Phillips said, agree after a brief discussion that the millennium begins in 2001. That doesn't mean anyone is holding off their millennium hoopla, and that's just fine with him.

"Why not have two parties?" he asked.

So those out to celebrate the millennium this evening will get another chance to celebrate -- next year.

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is fhaynes@ljworld.com.

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