Gloom, doom are still in bloom

February 27, 2000|By Brendan Maher | Brendan Maher,contributing writer

So the arrival of Y2K was a joke for most of us, an anticlimactic moment, devoid of major computer malfunctions or cosmic catastrophe.

For some, though, the doomsday clock is still ticking. Ahead on the calendar are numerous dates seen as possible deadlines for oblivion. None may have the resonance (or get the same breathless PR) as the coming of 2000 had, but you can bet that hoarding of batteries and 20-pound bags of rice will not cease completely -- just in case.

Here are some dates to look out for:

* Leap Day 2000: Feb. 29, of course, is the extra day every four years that keeps our 365-day calendar year in sync with the 365.2422 or so days it takes the Earth to make one full orbit around the sun. But the creators of our current calendar also decided we had to skip a leap year once every century to get 365.24 days a year on average. To account for those extra two-thousandths of a day, a leap year coincides only with century years divisible by 400. Thus, 2000 has the first Leap Day on a century year since 1600.

The worry about Feb. 29, 2000, is that the subtleties of the 16th-century calendar regulations may have slipped by a few inexperienced computer programmers, who either left it entirely unaccounted for or put its arrival off-schedule. While the absence of an entire Tuesday may excite a few, it's scaring a few more.

* The Grand Conjunction: Some have marked May 5, 2000, as the day of reckoning, when a rare celestial alignment may either tear the Earth asunder, or do absolutely nothing.

On this date, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be more or less aligned on the far side of the sun. Add in the moon passing between the sun and the Earth, and it makes almost a straight line. This "Grand Conjunction" has New Agers across the country predicting that the combined gravitational forces, coupled with a phenomenon known as tidal force, will cause any number of "Earth Changes," blockbuster movie scenarios including earthquakes exceeding 13 on the Richter scale, winds of 500 to 2,000 mph, sea levels rising from 100 to 300 feet, magnetic shifts and Earth crust slippage.

Less inflammatory scientists say that gravitational forces from the other planets, even if combined, wouldn't even equal the force exerted by the moon, which at its strongest can only make an average human weigh 0.0009 pounds heavier on average. Tidal force, they say, which if strong enough could conceivably shear the Earth in two, will be even less significant. (The tidal force exerted by Jupiter, the largest planet, wouldn't be enough to part your hair.)

How can we be sure? Well, in February of 1982, not only did all these planets align, there was an eclipse of the sun. Some may remember that day as one on which the world did not end.

* The Greenwich Millennium: For the people who keep time as a career, the first millennium isn't quite over. We'd heard it over and over again as we approached Y2K: 2000 isn't the first year of the new millennium but the last of the old.

Why?

Step back to the year 1 A.D., then step back one more year to ... 1 B.C. Notice something? The monks who created the calendar for Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 neglected to use a Year Zero. While computer gurus are only mildly wary of the dawn of the "true" new millennium, others see it as the moment the real trouble will start: rapture, the Apocalypse, Judgment Day, the First (or Second) Coming. Unfortunately for these folks, 2001 still lacks a catchy nickname.

And if somehow you are thinking your PC is safe now, still more computer dates to fret over loom ahead:

* Jan. 19, 2038: UNIX, the operating system that is simultaneously the programmer's best friend and worst nightmare, will run into trouble on this date. The 32-bit date field is set to run out of space at exactly 3:14:07 in the morning. Better set your alarm.

* Sept. 18, 2042: Anyone still using an IBM System/360 will experience an overflow in the date field. No, that doesn't mean going out with six people at once. It means that either through belligerently freezing up or by rolling back to an earlier date, the program will refuse to recognize a single day after this date.

* Jan. 1, 10000: Ready for Y10K? It may sound like some sort of charity foot race, but some fear all the carbohydrates in the world won't help your computer through this one. If you thought 2000 was tough, try multiplying the problem by five.

* Jan. 1, 29940: An ad for Apple Computer wowed us last year during Superbowl XXXIII with the company's amazing foresight in avoiding the year 2000 rollover problem. But the guys at Apple still had to admit the Macintosh operating system had its limits: It would run smoothly, they said, only until this date. Might be a good idea to extend your warranty.

Some have marked May 5, 2000, as the day of reckoning, when a rare celestial alignment may either tear the Earth asunder, or do absolutely nothing.

OK, maybe the arrival of Y2K came off almost glitch-free, but there are other great moments in hysteria yet to come.

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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