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by William H. Benson

January 14, 1999 

     Because the Roman numeral system lacked a zero, Dionysius Exiguus, the sixth century monk who devised our B.C./A.D. division of time, failed to include the year O A.D. in his chronology.  He actually started with year 1 A. D.  As a result, if we insist that all decades must have 10 years and all centuries 100 years and all millennium 1000 years, then 2000 A.D. remains in the second millennium and not the beginning of the third.  According to pure logic, the new century and the new millennium will not begin until January 1, 2001.  Common sensibility dictates otherwise.

     But the same clamor arises every 100 years, and so, who is right?  George Washington died on December 31, 1799.  Did he miss the 19th century by a few hours or 365 days?  Did Arthur C. Clarke get it right with “2001: A Space Odyssey”?  Samuel Sewall, one of the infamous judges at the Salem Witch Trials, hired four trumpeters to herald the “entrance of the 18th century” by sounding a blast on Boston Common right at daybreak on January 1, 1701 and not 1700.

      One hundred years ago a letter to a newspaper editor commented, ” I defy the most bigoted precisian to work up any enthusiasm over the year 1901, when we will already have had twelve months experience of the 1900’s.”  But, the passing of the twentieth century really counts this time around because this is the blockbuster, the passing of the second millennium into the third.

      “The focus on 2000 is basically a fascination with the triple zero and the flipping of the cosmic odometer,” said Jay Gary, an editor of an online newsletter.  “In popular cultrue around the world, 2000 has eclipsed 2001 as a date of significance with the help of modern communications in the media, which have zeroed in on the former.” 

      Someone suggested to Stephen Jay Gould, Professor of Paleontology at Harvard, that we should begin the new millennium on January 1, 2000.  Let us assume that “the first decade had only nine years,” he wrote, adding that he considers this to be an elegant solution.  Perhaps.

      He further writes, “Many of our most intense debates, however, are not resolvable by information of any kind, but arise from conflicts in values. . . . Ultimately trivial, but capable of provoking great agitation, and thus the most frustrating of all, they have no answers because they are about words, rather than things, and therefore phenomena of nature have no bearing upon potential solutions.  The century debate lies within this vexatious category.”

      The Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking in his book A Brief History of Time equates time with space, calling it “space-time”, implying that they are one in the same.  An equally good corelation is between time and life, for time is the valuable thing, that which measures the beginning, ending, and length of our lives.

      In the introduction to Hawking’s book, Carl Sagan wrote, “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world.  We give little thought to the machinery that generates the sunlight that makes life possible, to the gravity that glues us to an Earth that would otherwise send us spinning off into space, or to the atoms of which we are made and on whose stability we fundamentally depend.  Except for children, few of us spend much time wondering why nature is the way it is.”

      A seventh century monk named Dionysius Exiguus applied a faulty number system to that aspect of physical nature called “time”, and thirteen centuries later we, the living, have a problem.


 My New Year’s Resolution–to devote very little of my time worrying more about that problem.