WASHINGTON -- The people at the U.S. Naval Observatory don't normally get dragged into petty arguments.
They run the nation's master clock. The other clocks do what they say. They calculate the position of every planet, star, galaxy and quasar in the universe. They do math.
But now, with the worldwide rush to capitalize on the new millennium, this unassuming Washington agency full of astronomers is tangled up in geopolitical and academic spats.
From the South Pacific to Maine, countries, towns and nearly unheard-of spits of land are vying to be the first to see the sunrise Jan. 1 -- even as ordinary Americans are arguing about whether 2000 or 2001 is the true date of the new millennium.
And because the agency serves as the last word on such matters, much of the controversy falls into the lap of Geoff Chester, an astronomer and observatory spokesman.
Until this year, Chester led a relatively conflict-free life explaining the astronomers' work to the public, answering questions about, say, the altitude of the sun at a certain place and time. "We usually quietly tick away time and produce almanacs, that sort of thing," Chester says.
Now people are calling him mean names. "Pedantic," for instance. "Ignorant" of eighth-grade geography. Most painful of all, they're prefacing insults with the word "old."
The 2000 camp is protesting the agency's view that, scientifically speaking, the new millennium begins in 2001. The 2001 camp faults the agency for not fighting hard enough to set the record straight. People have challenged sunrise calculations and taken extraordinary measures to win bragging rights to the first 2000 dawn.
The situation has brought a new understanding of human beings to a place that normally runs on calculus, physics, computers and telescopes.
"It's the nature of people to get a hold of something like this and worry it to death, make as big a deal as possible," Chester says. "And people will believe what they want to believe no matter what evidence you offer to the contrary."
At the center of the fuss is a monk named Dionysius Exiguus, who was directed by the pope some 1,500 years ago to help find the correct date for Easter. Because the concept of zero wasn't understood at the time, Dionysius called the year of Jesus' birth 1 instead of 0, and counted from there. The first 2000 years, then, will not have passed until 2001.
Muddling matters further, Dionysius apparently got the wrong date for Jesus' birth, which is believed to have been several years earlier than he thought. So the real millennium has already come and gone.
Locked into 2001
But never mind that. The argument of the moment is 2000 vs. 2001. And while Jan. 1, 2001, may be accurate, it is not an exciting number. "Everybody wants 2000 to be the millennium," Chester says.
They want it so badly that they are using creative reasoning to prove it, some arguing that Dionysius really meant to start his epoch at 1 B.C.
"Don't try to put words in the mouth of a guy who's been dead 1,500 years," Chester scolds. "The fact is they're wrong. We're locked into the calendar system we have, like it or not."
No less spirited are the debates about who will see the first sunrise.
According to the observatory's public statements, the first permanently inhabited place in the world to see the dawn will be a hilltop on Pitt Island, part of the Chatham Islands, a dependency of New Zealand just west of the international dateline.
But others in the South Pacific aren't letting the title get away.
The Republic of Kiribati has changed the time zone of its eastern islands so the entire nation would be west of the dateline, which allows it to witness sunrise before Pitt Island.
(The Kingdom of Tonga, motto "where time begins," reportedly complained to the United Nations -- but got nowhere because the United Nations has no power over what time it is in a sovereign country.)
Under Kiribati's new time zone, the country is claiming that its own Caroline Island will witness the first dawn, and even renamed it Millennium Island for the occasion.
But Chester points out that Caroline Island is an atoll of 20 or so chunks of coral that stick up above the surface of the waves, by 10 feet at the highest point. "One good storm, the place is under water," he says.
"At the time we initially did the calculations, about a year ago, it was not inhabited," he says. "We've heard through various and sundry sources that the Kiribati government has decided to settle some people there -- on what I do not know -- so that it will be on Jan. 1, 2000, a permanently inhabited site."
The sun does rise there some 27 minutes before Pitt Island, so if it is inhabited, Kiribati wins the sunrise contest.
Similar competitions are alive on the East Coast of the United States.