Cerebral Fodder

March 2003

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B.C. to 2000 A.D.

Millennial Meditations

first appeared in the December 1999 issue of CITADEL magazine

by Jayant Deshpande

When Christmas and New Year’s Eve roll around every year, our hopes are keyed up. There’s the usual festive buzz. But 1999 is no ordinary year. It is the eve of the Third Millennium, which will be ushered in with great pomp and pageantry the world over. A millennial anniversary bash which no one living will experience again.

So everything matters: the time before Christ, the time after, and now the Y2K bug, which has put the fear of zeros in people’s hearts! But what matters most is man’s place within his own idea of time.

Another ‘End of the World’ prophecy has been laid to rest. Do we dare make a New Millennium’s Resolution?

We in A.D. can talk of B.C.—after the fact, that is. But how did those before Christ mark the date? They certainly measured time, based on celestial motion, but how did they record the time? What point of reference did they use? As we all know, this is arbitrary. We happened to choose B.C., and so marked, or recorded, the two millennia since.

The measurement of time, however, is not arbitrary, based as it is on the movements of celestial bodies: the earth rotating on its axis to mark the days, revolving around the sun to mark the years, and the moon’s phases as it revolves around the earth to mark the weeks and months. This is the familiar Gregorian calendar*. Astrology reveals a system of divisions of years based on the constellations, or extra-solar celestial motion.

What is arbitrary is the division of years into decades, centuries and millennia, based as it is on the decimal system, with the zero occupying its prominent position. The zero facilitates the arithmetic we all perform daily, and the decimal point moves effortlessly across the digits to mark powers of ten.

On a cosmic scale each day is like any other. January 1, 2000 is hardly going to be dramatically different from December 31, 1999. Any difference will seem dramatic only in our imagination. A symbolic act in which we secretly expect great things to happen merely on account of a dramatic change in typography: the figure ‘2000’ has a nice rounded look to it, a grandiose look of finality. But it is just another beginning. And a continuation, not the end of, history.

We renew our hopes also because of the unresolved anxieties acquired during the past millennium. The word ‘Future’ carries a whiff of optimism, hinting as it does that progress and prosperity may be just around the corner. But it can also look bleak to doomsayers and lovers of the apocalyptic. Still, the year 2000 can give us all a nice, rounded feeling. Make us wholesome, so to speak. Never mind that the first millennium really began with the year 1 AD*, and then, counting exactly two thousand, the third millennium will begin only when the calendar turns to the year 2001. As Arthur C. Clarke of 2001:A Space Odyssey fame insists. He adds that 2000 should be called the centennial year and 2001 the millennial year.

Interestingly, in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, December 1999, the eve of the Third Millennium, is an occasion for celebration: mankind first ventures out towards the nearest star, Vega, in a machine designed specially for that purpose, based on the speculative physics of wormholes.

Not long ago an online gathering of scientists nominated the most important inventions of the past 2000 years: the printing press, clocks, plumbing, the stirrup, reading glasses, numbers, erasers and delete keys, the birth control pill, classical music, the atomic bomb, and the computer. In the words of William Calvin "Only computers may allow us to understand the earth’s fickle climate" and thus "prevent a collapse of civilization." If computers can save us from ourselves, they will also "govern everything we do in the next 20 centuries," says another scientist, Lawrence Krauss.

The Y2K bug also seems to make the figure 2000 AD less arbitrary ! It is a problem which requires urgent attention, well before 2000 is upon us. The year 2000 gains significance by virtue of the fact that it may not be reflected intelligibly in our computer systems when it arrives. If that happens we’ll be faced not just with widespread chaos, but a ‘virtual’ disaster. So the Apocalypse, if any, is tied up more with the Y2K bug than with the dire predictions of Nostradamus for 1999. ‘Apocalypse Now’ would acquire prophetic dimensions if we get smitten by the Y2K bug. A Digital Apocalypse might be a better way of putting it since it’s the Y2K bug which will create all the havoc. Bits and Bytes losing their way in the maze of the ubiquitous binary code.

January 1, 2000 gives us a convenient, though voluntary, benchmark, a milestone to set goals and targets we’ve ignored all along, and which must urgently be met. It draws a lid over our habit of procrastination. It allows us to look back with a sense of history, while at the same time turning our gaze inward. The date 2000 is important for all of civilization: it is an occasion to reflect on the past and envision a future.

As the daily newspapers will record: Yesterday we dwelled in the 20th century, today we inhabit the 21st. That is all. The celebration is over, even though the 9s have now turned to zeros. Let’s get on with it; let’s sort out our problems and engage the future as the millennial euphoria subsides. The way Mahatma Gandhi, instead of celebrating the momentous occasion of India’s freedom, brooded over its future at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, 1947 when in Nehru's words we made our "tryst with destiny".

*In the 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus centres the Western Christian calendar on 1 AD, supposedly the year of Christ's birth, dividing time into AD and BC. Dionysius Exiguus was the celebrated 6th-century canonist who is considered the inventor of the Christian calendar.