The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 42.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

COLUMN

By The Numbers

Kris Schnee

Congratulations! You have now entered the third millennium. Or have you?

Come to think of it, which century is this? Or are we back in 1900? And what should we call this decade?

It’s been difficult to keep track of the time lately, due to the media frenzy over numbers. The end of last year was a time of constant attention paid to one mistake, and little attention paid to two others. The famous one, of course, was the “Y2K Problem,” caused by a lack of foresight by computer programmers. Rather than treating it as a simple computer glitch, some people blew the error slightly out of proportion, stockpiling food (and sometimes ammunition) in anticipation of civilization’s imminent collapse. These patriotic Americans surely helped our nation’s fledgling Internet commercial sector; they will do so again when they go to eBay to auction everything off. Look for bargains on canned food and weapons. Some religious groups, traditional and New Age alike, also capitalized on the phenomenon of nines becoming zeros.

As Scott Adams wrote, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, but he uses a base ten counting system and likes round numbers.” Especially given the Y2K bug, what better year could a sect designate as having special mystical significance?

Despite the failure of apocalypse to happen on schedule, there are rumors of a few Y2K-related problems cropping up. Supposedly, one man was assigned jury duty for 1900, another faced a very large late-return fee at a video store, and some government automobile-registration computers classified ’00 model cars as “horseless carriages.” We can continue to blame shortsighted programmers for the Y2K problem, but we will of course leave the Y10K problem for others to deal with.

But the very fact that the word “millennium” has been overused recently by a factor of several thousand can be blamed on one man: Dionysius Exiguus. Around the year 523, he started the modern custom of numbering the years with reference to the birth of Jesus, with year AD 1 being his birth year, and 1 BC being the year before. There were several problems with this system. Dionysius was not familiar with the idea of a number between -1 and 1, and to this day we therefore have a calendar with no zero year. Because the “first millennium” began in year 1, not 0, the millennium ran from 1 to 1000 and not 0 to 999. The “third millennium,” then, begins in 2001, not the more psychologically pleasing 2000.

Last December’s global celebration of mathematical inaccuracy was off by even more then a year, because of Dionysius’ other error. Jesus’ birth is now estimated at 7 BC, and was probably before 4 BC. So it would actually be appropriate to call the present year 2007 -- or 2006, if we add a zero year -- and we could have been through with this millennium business years ago!

Presumably, people will start listening to the no-year-zero argument this year, giving them an excuse to throw turn-of-the-millennium parties twice in a row. The idea of adjusting the whole numbering system will probably be less popular.

Even if we can agree on what year (2000), century (the 20th), and millennium (the second) we are in, there are still some unsolved questions about what to call them. One issue is the era name. The old “Before Christ (BC)” and “Anno Domini (AD)” names, which make little sense for non-Christians to use, are now facing competition from the modern “Before Common Era (BCE)” and “Common Era (CE).” Some radicals have even proposed basing the calendar on modern math, making 1 BCE into 0, 2 BCE into -1, and so on. And then, what should we call the next decade? “The Zeros” seems like the best choice (although it does not include the year 2000), but we could also use “nulls,” “noughts,” “oh’s,” or (most entertainingly) “nothings.”

However severe (or not) the computer problems turn out to be, and whatever terminology we use, the next decade, century, and millennium are certainly going to be interesting.