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Everyone is preparing to celebrate the year 2000, but have we got the date right? Philip Johnston explains the confusion
Where will you be as the clocks strike midnight on December 31, 1999? On a sun blessed South Pacific island awaiting the first dawn of the new millennium - for the apocalyptic revelation that is at hand? If you are the pedantic type, you might treat this particular New Years Eve like any other, smugly aware that it is not the end of the century, let alone the end of the world.
The year 2,000 is, in fact, the last year of the present millennium and not the first of the next.
But try telling that to the thousands of revellers who have booked hotels for extravagant fin de siecle parties; or to the cultists, fundumentalists and millenarians who are preparing for something extraordinaire.
Try, for that matter, telling it to the computer programmers who are even now struggling to avert their very own Armageddon timed for midnight on the last day of 1999 when 95 per cent of the worlds computerised systems are set to crash.
The man we have to blame for the confusion is an obscure sixth-century monk called Dennis the Small (Dionysius Exiguous) who compiled a new calendar.
The efforts of Dionysius were the basis of the first universal dating system by the Venerable Bede, who 200 years later adopted Anno Domini as a means of reckoning the passing of the years from the birth of Christ.
At the time, dating was based largely upon the perceived age of the world, which was rapidly running out of its allotted 6,000 years before it was due to end in Apocalypse.
Damian Thompson, in his new book The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium, says that by providing a new system, Bede defused the calendrical timebomb then just about to explode. But he primed another: the 1,000-year collywobbles.
"The figure of a thousand is a straight forward product of the decimal system of counting," says Thompson. "The origins of the system also lie in a naturally occurring phenomenon - the 10 fingers and thumbs of the human hands.
If we had been born with 12 digits instead of 10, we would not think in terms of centuries or millennia."
Counting, however, does not come easy as the end of the second millennium approaches.
The correspondence columns of newspapers have been peppered recently with 1etters from those anxious to point out that the planned millennium celebrations will be taking place a year early.
According to the Royal Greenwich Observatory: "A millennium is a period of 1,000 years.
The question of which year is the first year of the millennium hinges on the date of the first year AD.
"Unfortunately, the sequence of years going from BC to AD does not include a year 0. The sequence of years runs 3 BC, 2 BC, 1 BC,1 AD, 2 AD, 3 AD etc.
The thousandth year was 1,000 AD and the first day of the second millennium was January 1, 1001 AD. It is thus clear that the start of the new millennium will be January 1, 2001."
The reason that o was missed out, according to Thompson, is that the concept did not exist in western Europe when the AD system was being devised.
"Modern suggestions that there should have been a year 0 would have meant nothing to Dionysius, who was working at a time when the concept of zero had not yet arrived from the Indian world," he writes.
Unaware of these finer mathematical points, the worlds computer systems are primed to greet the millennium in truly apocalyptic style.
As clocks strike midnight on December 31, 1999, most will crash because they use two digits to keep track of the year when they calculate the date. When the computer sees 00 it will assume the year is 1900.
This breathtakingly simple mistake - the result of the high cost of memory space on early computers - has plunged almost every company in the world into a crisis befitting a new millennium.
The implications were graphically explained by Ian Taylor, Britains Minister for Science and Technology.
"Centenarians could appear on primary school intake lists; all military and aeronautical equipment could be simultaneously scheduled for maintenance; thousands of legal actions could be struck out; student loan repayments could be scheduled as overdue; and 100 years of interest could be added to credit card balances."
Some airlines are thinking of grounding their flights on December 31, 1999, because they fear air traffic control systems will go hay wire or just shut down if the computer thinks there is an error.
As the millennium approaches, interest is likely to reach hysterical proportions.
Those who see it as an excuse for a monumental bash had better get their venues booked now as most of the better spots have already been reserved.
And those who always want to be ahead of the game can book a passage to the Balleny Islands in Antarctica where the penguins will be the first to observe the false dawn of the millennium.
There is an argument between Tonga and Kiribati over which is the first inhabited island to see in the New Year, though in fact the hour would appear to fall to the Chatham Islands.
The Royal Greenwich Observatory says: "The start of the new millennium is January 1, 2001 and not the year 2000.
This does not mean we should not celebrate the start of the 2000th year but we should get the nomenclature correct.
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