The Millennium Controversy

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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A Fitting End to a Cultural Desert

In a way, it's fitting that the 20th Century ended with a debate about whether the new century and millennium began on January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001. The century began with the Titanic, a boat that looked fine but was not built as well as many other ships of the time (double-hull construction was becoming widely used, but not for the Titanic). It ends with most organizations wallowing in a Dilbertesque morass of administrivia, drafting goals, objectives, mission statements and assessments. In between, we had a musical composition that consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, a crucifix in a jar of pee-pee hailed as cutting-edge art, the Dress for Success movement, the junk bond scandal of the '80's, and Milli Vanilli. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century is best remembered for inventing the paradox of "the set of all sets that are not members of themselves." In short, the 20th century was an age of scientific and technical brilliance and cultural vacuity. It's fitting that a century that consistently glorified form over substance ends with a group of purists arguing that the new century and millennium begin in  2001.

I have no use for purists. Every hobby I know of has been ruined by them. They can't simply enjoy coins or stamps or model trains, they have to look down their noses at other hobbyists whose collections aren't as fine as theirs. Purists might serve a useful purpose if they also achieved excellence in something meaningful, but they almost never do. Almost always, they pick some piece of trivia to obsess over and feel superior to everyone else about their ultra-fastidiousness. And for some, the mere fact that most people will celebrate in 2000 is reason enough to insist that the real millennium begins in 2001.

Some FAQ's

Most People Begin Counting With One, Not Zero

When you count on your fingers, you begin with one. It does not surprise me in the least that millennial purists count on their fingers. Timekeeping, on the other hand, starts with zero. You don't begin timing a race at one second, but at zero.

Computers also begin counting with zero. Zero is a perfectly good number, and computers need it, so why let it go to waste? The 256 characters coded by the 8-bit ASCII coding system are not numbered 1-256, but 0-255. In binary notation, 255 is 11111111, but 256 is 100000000, requiring one extra digit. Using an extra digit to code one lousy number is pretty wasteful, whereas the range 0-255 can be coded using only eight binary digits, and every number is represented.

Why Not Just Define 2+2=5, While We're At It?

Because 2+2 = 5 creates obvious practical problems and defining the millennium as beginning in 2000 doesn't. If you disagree, name one.

So When Does the Millennium Begin?

It begins whenever we decide it does. Calendars are made to serve people, not the other way around. And unlike the year (time it takes to go around the Sun), month (approximate time for the moon to circle the earth) and even week (time between major phases of the moon), centuries and millennia have no physical significance beyond the fact that we have ten fingers.

Our present dating system is a Christian year numbering system grafted onto a Roman calendar. When he took power, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, which was badly out of sync with the seasons. He brought the calendar back in line, creating a so-called "year of confusion" - it had over 400 days - to make the adjustment. He also instituted Leap Year to keep the calendar in tune with the seasons better, and set January 1 as the date of New Years'. January 1 is a completely arbitrary day with no astronomical significance at all - it is neither the solstice nor the date when earth is closest to the sun. The year had begun in March - September was originally the seventh month (Latin septem = 7). He renamed the month of Quintilis after himself and took a day off February to make "his" month longer. His successor Augustus (see where this is going?) did the same to the month Sextilis. You can thank the Caesars for "thirty days has September..."

In the Fourth Century, the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus thought it would be a good idea to redefine the year numbering system to begin with the birth of Christ instead of the legendary founding of Rome. He calculated that Christ was born in 753 A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita - "since the founding of the city"). In selling his system, which we use today, he created several problems:

The reformed (Julian) calendar was good but still not perfect and by the 1500's the accumulated errors added up to 10 days. This was important to the Church because the date of Easter is determined astronomically. Christ was crucified just before Passover, which is the first full moon after the spring equinox. Hence Easter is the first Sunday after that. To predict the date of Easter it is necessary to be able to predict the motions of both the Sun and the Moon.

Pope Gregory XIII convened a panel of astronomers, who recommended dropping 10 days from October 1582 to bring the calendar back in line with the seasons (if you think people were upset over paying a full month's rent for a 21-day month, you're right. There were riots.) They also added a slight refinement: century years would not be leap years unless they were divisible by 400. Thus 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not leap years but 2000 was - the rarest scheduled event in history.

Despite the problems between the Church and Galileo, the Church was solidly ahead of the curve on this point, and Protestant countries grudgingly fell into line over the years. In the interim travelers had the bizarre situation that a short trip from Protestant Augsburg to Catholic Regensburg in Germany required them to adjust their calendars by 10 days. England gave in in 1752. George Washington was born on February 11 in the old calendar, not February 22 (and definitely not on the third Monday in February!) Greece and Russia didn't adopt the revised, or Gregorian calendar until the 20th century.

Astronomers have needed to do calculations extending before the birth of Christ for years, and so they were the first to feel the effects of not having a year zero. So they created one. Astronomical year zero is 1 B.C. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. but -43 in astronomical years.

Resolving the Millennial Dispute

Since Christ was actually born in 4-6 B.C., if you really must be anal, the next millennium actually began somewhere between 1994 and 1996.

If we stick with the present numbering system, we have a choice. We can perpetuate the inconsistency of having years in the same century begin with two different numbers, or we can redefine the First Century so that century numbering runs logically and consistently: 1900-1999, 2000-2099, and so on.

Since the origin of the calendar is inaccurate to begin with, and our "year" is not strictly astronomically accurate but varies between 365 and 366 days, not to mention the more drastic adjustments of the Julian and Gregorian reforms, and astronomers occasionally insert extra seconds in the calendar to keep the astronomical and civil timekeeping systems in agreement, complaining about a First Century with only 99 years seems pretty nit-picky.

But a century means 100 years. It comes from Latin centum, for 100. So what? The dictionary is full of words that have different meanings than their Latin roots. But, if you really must have centuries of the same length, define the First Century to begin in astronomical year zero (which is A.D. anyhow). If you didn't know there was a year zero in astronomy, let me respectfully suggest you're not informed enough to tell others when to begin their centuries. That will have no impact at all on dates A.D. It will push B.C. centuries back by one year. Give me a list of practical effects such a change will have.

I guarantee that purists will not accept this solution. It's technically correct, and has no negative effects of any consequence, but it's no fun. How can you feel superior to everyone else if you adopt a solution that lets everyone celebrate on January 1, 2000?

If you really, really must be accurate, since timekeeping starts with zero, millennia, centuries and years should begin with the same numbers. The Zeroth century A.D. ran from 000 to 099, the 19th century from 1900 to 1999, and the 20th century will run from 2000 to 2099. The Zeroth millennium A.D. ran from 0000 to 0999, the 1st millennium from 1000 to 1999, and the 2nd millennium will run from 2000 to 2999.

Wait. We're not done yet. When we convert dates to decimal fractions of a year, April 1, 1999 becomes 1999.25. We can extend the system to B.C. years; April 1, 2 B.C. (astronomical year -1), becomes -0.75 (-1 + 0.25 = -0.75). This works just fine mathematically. But what do we call the year? Calling it -1 seems odd, since the fractional year begins with the digit 0. To have a completely consistent naming system, we would need a year zero A.D. and a year zero B.C. Below is a timeline. Above it is the conventional dating system. Below it is the astronomical system, and below that a completely consistent year naming system.

199 BC    99 BC    4 BC     3 BC       2 BC      1 BC  |   1 AD   2AD
-200 -150 -100    -2.5  -2  -1.5  -1  -0.5   0   0.5   1   1.5   2
               | Year -2 | Year -1 | Year -0 | Year +0 | Year +1 |
  |Century-1|          Century -0            |     Century +0

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Created 10 December 1999, Last Update 10 December 1999

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