Last week, bizarre as it may seem, I found a copy of the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘Questioning the Millennium’ lying upon my infamous couch . Not having the faintest idea as to where it had materialised from, I went and read it. I’m an admitted Gould virgin, not having managed to get round to perusing his texts, but while he is spoken of fairly highly with regard to his evolutionary work, I gather that there is some hestitation towards attributing kudos to his exploits outside his this field.
In ‘Questioning the Millennium’, Gould carefully weaves his way through our numeric foibles, pointing out the absurdity of our obsession with the forthcoming change of millennium. He’s quick to ram home the understanding that the millennium is not something that will happen in a couple of years time — that the millennium is an arbitrary period of 1000 years, not an event that will take place on some December 31st. I say some, as Gould takes time to highlight the ‘which year’ problem – should we be celebrating the turn of millennium at the change of 1999-2000 or 2000-2001? It’s worth bearing in mind that the media and the ‘elite” classes refrained from celebrating the new 20th century until January 1st 1901, whilst the ‘vernacular classes’ had their hooley on December 31st 1899. This time round, the big push is for 1999-2000, a choice which is open to some debate, and perhaps criticism. Gould attributes this to the homogenisation of popular and ‘elite’ culture, and I would add the widespread growth of literacy to this soup.
This controversy, Gould tells us, is due to the work of Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little), who, in 525, was instructed by Pope St. John I to prepare the ‘Cyclus Paschalis’, a history of the Christian Era. To be very brief, Dionysius placed the Birth of Christ at the beginning of year 1 AD – rather than 0 AD. This causes a problem — for instance, it presumably places Jesus’s age at 1 year old on the day of his alleged birth. Gould expands on this, explaining that if each decade has to have 10 years (in the case of Dionysius, that goes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10), and every century is to have 100 years, year 100 becomes stuck in that century, and the dawn of a new century is on January 1st 101. Continue on, in this pattern and we arrive at 2000-2001 as the change to the new millennium.
As Gould points out, ‘we should not be overly harsh on poor Dennis’, as western mathematics in the sixth century had not yet developed a concept of zero. The Egyptians had used one, albeit sporadically, and the Chinese didn’t have one (although it was implied by the abacus). The Mayans did have a zero, but it was not used in a ‘fully systematic way’ in their calculations’ — and it’s fair to say that wee Dennis knew nothing of the Mayans.
There’s much more to Gould’s research into the millennium – he goes to great lengths to discuss the history of ‘millennium as apocalypse’, and the many failed predictions which concerned the apocalypse, especially those which imply that the world is only in the sixth millennium of existence, the post apocalyptic seventh becoming a questionable metaphor for the final day of biblical God’s burst of creativity, on which he rested.
In contradiction to the popular opinion concerning the last millennial change, i.e. that there was *no* hysterical apocalyptic panic, Gould tells of a lecture that he attended, where Medieval historian Richard Landes claimed that the ‘famous chronologies of Venerable Bede, that redoubtable eighth century English cleric and scholar, had been copied extensively and widely distributed to almost canonical use among ecclesiastical timekeepers throughout Europe. Bede followed and popularized the B.C-A.D. system. Through his works, the advent of the year 1000 — and its millennial implications — had probably diffused to all social classes’. The idea that *nothing happened* is based on the theory that no one really knew when the new millennium started — personally I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me either way.
A pleasant read, but I fear that the only people who will read ‘Questioning the Millennium’ are already wearing their ‘I am a Millennial Cynic’ t-shirts, where as those who would benefit the most from a brief perusal have been happily whisked along in the pre-millennial stampede of hope and faith.
‘Questioning the Millennium : A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown’ from Amazon.com
‘Questioning the Millennium : A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown’ from Amazon.co.uk
. . . AND FOOLS SELDOM DIFFER
Interestingly, in Blather 1.47 was emailed out on April 3rd. In a piece regarding God’s Salvation Church, Blather stated:
‘From Blather’s perspective, God’s Salvation Church seem like just another cult obsessed with their own version of the Rapture. The media police presence on Tuesday was apparently due to fears of a mass suicide. Blather would like to suggest that many of the media representatives covering the story were *hoping* for a mass suicide, to achieve a major *scoop*, therefore blackmailing the police force and emergency services into tagging along. It would have been a major embarrassment for the local authorities had something deathly *actually* happened, given the clouds of media scavengers collecting in the area. ‘
On April 4th, The Economist had an article on page 29 titled ‘Waiting for God. Oh’.
‘The odd thing was not that Mr Chen persuaded 150 Taiwanese members of God’s Salvation Church to move to Garland in the hope of being sucked up by God into a flying saucer made of tin cans; it was that American newspapers and television found the tiny sect worthy of headlines. Religion, alien abduction and prophetic movements related to the millennium are now big news. A chance of mass suicide–as with the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego last year, or in the inferno of the Branch Davidians in Waco–tempts the networks to give air-time to the strangest groups, just in case they do something horrible on a large scale.’
Due to the realisation that we are now in the same league as the esteemed aforementioned journal, Blather hopes to soon start carrying news of weekly stockmarket anomalies.
Dave (daev) Walsh
April 17th 1998