The Millennium? Not what you think - and what about those 10 missing days in 1582?

September 28, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Stephen Jay Gould will be 58 years old when Jan. 1, 2000, rolls around, a day he has been thinking about with fascination and trepidation since the first week of January, 1950, when he was 8. In the meantime, he has found sufficient time and arcane material to become one the great popularizers of modern times.

Why the calendar fuss? Well, Gould muses early on in "Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown" (Harmony Books/Crown. 190 pages. $17.95), "here we are, engulfed in a millennial madness utterly unrelated to anything performed by the earth and moon in all their natural rotations and revolutions. People really are funny - and fascinating beyond all possible description."

And then, near the end of the book, he concludes, with great wisdom, "The more trivial an issue, and the more unresolvable, so does the heat of debate, and the assurance of absolute righteousness, intensify on each side."

And, finally, to justify it all, Gould confesses: "I do so love human foibles; what else can keep us laughing (as we must) in this tough world of ours?"

Gould has a chair in zoology and is a professor of geology at Harvard University and is curator for invertebrate paleontology at that university's Museum of Comparative Zoology. He has written 15 previous books.

Those that I have read share with this newest one the qualities of love for learning simply to learn, of devotion to the principle that much of truth must be found in irony and of certainty that both language and life are a great deal of fun. He clearly believes that anybody who doesn't understand and live by all three of those principles has no one but self to blame.

Ultimate bliss

The origin, the magic idea, of the millennium is that 1,000 years of universal bliss for believers is to begin with the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse, the ultimate defeat of evil by good. The Book of Revelations, which so reveals, does not specify when this is to occur.

For centuries, earnest, learned, obsessed and irresponsible theorists have calculated the meaning of the millennium and its date. Along the line, there evolved a common view among Christians that 6,000 years had to pass between the Creation and the Second Coming.

Dating the Creation, however, is a bit of a puzzle. Previous estimates have put the Apocalypse at the year A.D. 500 and that failing, 800. Then 801. Gould's examination of history insists there was relatively little general fear surrounding the year 1000.

The religious calendars, Judaic, Christian, Muslim and others, have been changed again and again. The problem was exacerbated when Dionysius Exiguus, or Dennis the Short, was ordered by Pope St. John I in the sixth century to establish a chronology for Earth - which he diligently did but without the concept of zero in mathematics as it is known today, and which did not come into usage for centuries later.

The root of all calendric confusion lies in the fact that the turning of the earth around the sun and of the moon around earth and of the earth around its own axis produce unresolvable conflicts. Despite the burning temptation to see God as ultimate mathematician and clockwork-maker, none of those rotations harmonize with each other.

Even for the nonbeliever, there are very serious millennial concerns. As Gould deftly and respectfully examines the history of millennial movements and influences, he concludes: "Apocalypticism is the province of the wretched, the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the political radical, the theological revolutionary and the self-proclaimed savior - not the belief of people happily at the helm."

He finds among the perils the truth that "the fusion of Christian millennialism with traditional beliefs of conquered (and despairing) peoples often led to particularly incendiary, and tragic, results." Besides the conquered there have been Heaven's Gate and other cults, led to mass suicide.

Delicious trivia

Not dwelling upon the grim side, characteristically, Gould illustrates with a delectation of trivia:

* Every year, every full cycle of the earth around the sun, is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.96768 seconds. So leap year doesn't quite do the job. The solution? You will not get it here, but you can look it up - in Gould's book.

* The moon takes 29.53059 days to circle the earth. (Since more ancient and traditional calendar forms, with strong lunar roots, tend to be used in religious ritual, Easter, Hanukkah, Ramadan are constantly in motion on our commonly accepted Gregorian calendar.)

* Had you any idea that because of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar on Feb. 24, 1582, by papal fiat the days Oct. 5 through Oct. 14, 1582, do not exist, and never did?(Can you think of a single reason that you should - or shouldn't - know that?)

When does the present millennium end? Gould is scholarly and forthright: That cannot be resolved. The arguments, history, calculations, decisions of yore, leave perfectly defensible cases for the contention that the millennium ends with the last day of the year 1999 or at midnight, Dec. 31, 2000.

And so comes a delicious Gould line: "It is better to not know and to know why one can't know than to be clueless about why the hell so many people are so agitated about 1999 versus 2000 for the last year before the great divide."

For himself, Gould goes with the popular consensus and his childhood assumption and will celebrate Jan. 1, 2000.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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