Looking Ahead Six Months to the Year 11,995

June 26, 1994|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE

Just as you were beginning to get used to the idea of living in the year 2000 -- now just 5 1/2 years away -- a respected scientist has proposed quite seriously that we reset our calendars and launch the new millennium on Jan. 1 in a year he would renumber 12,000.

Cesare Emiliani, 71, a University of Miami professor emeritus of marine geology, says it makes more sense to start our count of the passing years from the beginning of the current geological period -- the Holocene, which began about 12,000 years ago -- rather than from the birth of Christ, which occurred 1,994 years ago according to now-questionable calculations made by church officials in the 6th century.

"The present system cuts in half an important historical period," he said. "It produces an artificial boundary, and . . . it selects [as the starting point] the birth of Jesus Christ, which has created problems in the past and possibly in the future" from Muslims, Chinese and others who count their history from other events.

Dr. Emiliani's calendar would start counting at Jan. 1, 10,000 B.C. Using that reckoning, today is June 26, 11,994. The D-Day invasion was launched on June 6, 11,944; the traditional date of Jesus' birth is Dec. 25, 10,000, and work on the Great Pyramids of Egypt began in 7,300.

He began his campaign for calendar reform in his 1992 book, "Planet Earth," and followed with recent articles in the journals Nature and Eos.

He proposed it again in a paper distributed at last month's meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Baltimore. The AGU has now scheduled a formal discussion of Dr. Emiliani's proposal at next year's spring meeting, also in Baltimore.

Tinkering with our clocks and calendars has been a human preoccupation for thousands of years.

This Thursday evening, just as millions of Americans are tuning in their TV sets for the start of "The Simpsons" at 8 p.m., the network clocks will be halted for one second, along with the world's master atomic clocks, while our lagging planet catches up.

The "leap second" will be added worldwide at precisely 7:59:60 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

It all comes on orders from the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, whose job it is to keep track of the Earth's irregular (and generally slowing) rotation and to adjust our master clocks to keep pace. They've added 18 seconds in all since 1972, most recently just a year ago.

Without the occasional tweaks, 12 noon would eventually part company with the midday sun and creep around the dial to become midnight, and vice versa.

A similar clash of human timekeeping with the messy mathematics of astronomy has plagued mankind ever since we began trying to invent calendars to keep track of the days, months and years.

Here's the problem:

* A year -- the time it takes the sun to pass through the vernal equinox twice -- lasts 365.2422 solar days. That nagging fraction adds almost six hours a year, or a full day every four years.

* A lunar month -- the time from one new moon to the next -- is days long. The Egyptians rounded that off to 30 days and decreed 12 months of 30 days each. But that left more than 5 extra days at the end.

The Romans under Julius Caesar addressed the problem in 46 B.C. They set up the irregular system of 28-, 30- and 31-day months we use today, and added an extra day to the February calendar every fourth year -- Leap Year -- to take up the slack in the solar year.

But that wasn't a precise solution either, and by 1582, the calendar had slipped behind the seasons by nearly 12 days. Pope Gregory XIII ordered that Leap Years be omitted in years divisible by 400. (The last was 1600; the next is the year 2000.)

And to get the calendar back into synch with the seasons, he also decreed that Thursday, Oct. 4, 1582, be followed by Friday, Oct. 15.

Thus was born the "Gregorian" calendar we use today, although it took the Protestant British Empire until 1752 to accept the pope's solution and add the 12 days it had fallen behind. Russia joined up in 1918 and added 13 days.

Patch-job that it is, the Gregorian calendar works tolerably well. But that hasn't diverted today's would-be reformers from their tinkering.

Dr. Emiliani is no lightweight. He is an expert in isotope geochemistry, the author of 160 scientific papers and seven books. His seminal work in the study of deep-sea sedimentation and the history of glaciation has won him the prestigious Vega Medal from Sweden in 1982 and the Agassiz Medal from the National Academy of Science in 1989.

His proposal would challenge a keystone of the modern calendar established in A.D. 526 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

It was Justinian who ruled that the years should be counted forward or backward from the birth of Jesus. That was the beginning of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno domini, Latin for "in the year of our Lord").

As awkward as Dr. Emiliani's idea may seem at first, Justinian's was no bargain.

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