My sister, the lawyer who can’t decide what she wants to do with her life, recently called me with a question. She had been watching the Australian Open tennis tournament on Friday when the commentator announced that it was nearly two in the afternoon on Saturday. This apparent contradiction had thrown her into a state of confusion. It was still Friday in Cleveland, and when you count time zones westward, you subtract hours, not add them. How could Australia, which is to our west, be ahead of us in time?
Being a helpful big brother, I explained to her, with the help of a globe, the nature of the international date line. On Nov. 1, 1884, the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C., attended by 41 delegates from 25 countries, established the approximate boundaries of the 24 time zones, each an hour earlier than the one to its east. (Except in Indiana during daylight savings time because they just don’t go for that. What else would you expect from a state that has legislated that Pi=22/7, no more, no less.)
Unfortunately, we live on a globe and if you kept counting back an hour for each time zone, you would eventually come back to yourself a full day earlier. To resolve this problem, an international date line was placed in the Pacific Ocean directly opposite the Prime Meridian that passes through Greenwich, England. If you were in a boat just to the west of the date line, it might be 4 p.m. on Sunday. Sail a few yards to the east, crossing the date line, and suddenly it’s 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Once my sister understood the concept of a date line, she was a bit more forgiving of the Australian tennis commentators, if still a bit confused by the nature of time itself. As for me, I started thinking about the whole time thing and the big upcoming event, the Millennium. The mystic Nostradamus predicted the rise of a Middle Eastern madman who would start World War III. The Hopi Indians foretold a similar world war sparing only the Hopi lands as an oasis. Christians expect the Apocalypse and second coming of Christ described in Revelations. Jews look forward to the arrival of the Messiah. UFO freaks wait for aliens to come and lead mankind into a new age. Technology analysts forecast plane crashes and the crumbling of international economic systems when the year 2000 problem wreaks havoc on the world’s computers.
Dec. 31, 1999 is shaping up to be a pretty exciting night.
The odd thing is that despite all the hoopla, the year 2000 is not really the start of a new millennium. Since the transition from B.C. to A.D. went from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D., leaving out the year 0, the last year of the millennium, the 2000th year will be 2000, and the new millennium will begin Jan. 1, 2001. (If you are a politically correct extremist who prefers B.C.E. and C.E., being offended by “before Christ” and “anno Domini,” get over it already.)
This is good news. We will have an extra year to prepare for the end.
2000 is a nice round number, cause in itself for debauchery, but we do not have to get it all out of our system in preparation for the end of the world. On New Year’s Eve when we are all partying like it’s 1999, there will be no doubt about the arrival of the next morning, though many of us will wish the world had ended when we wake up. Paranoia should be postponed one year, a fact that many millennialists will explain to anyone in the media that will listen when nothing out of the ordinary happens at midnight, Jan. 1, 2000.
The bigger question is at what precise moment the new millennium starts. After all, the first place to meet the year 2001 will be out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Does this mean that here in Minneapolis we will not get to greet the new millennium before the aliens land since it will only be 6 a.m.? Maybe they will wait until the entire world has begun 2001 before they land.
Then again, you might want to get ready for them to show up on Dec. 22. During the 16th century it was determined that the Julian calendar had become offset by 10 days relative to the Vernal Equinox. As a result, Pope Gregory XIII instituted a change in the calendar, removing those 10 days. Oct. 4, 1582 was followed by Oct. 15 in the new Gregorian calendar. We may not even make it to 2001.
I won’t even worry you with the leap seconds (there have been 22) that may throw everything off just a little more.
To be on the safe side, you may want to hang out on the edge of the international dateline for a couple of weeks and be ready to greet the first sunrise of the new millennium. Since the time zone to which a country belongs is decided by its governing body and not international standards, the Republic of Kiribati has declared that all of its islands will now be located west of the international date line. In hopes of generating new tourism, they have strategically placed themselves as the first, for now, inhabited location to enter the new millennium. However, if you want to see the real first sunrise, you had better get your winter coat out and head down to Antarctica. The penguins on Balleny Island will see the sun rise for the first time in 2001.
Myself, I plan on doing quite a bit of traveling to greet the new millennium not once, but twice. In this age of supersonic jets, I can travel back in time. After spending a few weeks touring Europe, Dec. 31, 2000 will find me at Trafalgar Square in London, partying with everyone else as the new millennium arrives. A quick trip to Heathrow Airport, and at 12:45 I’m on a British Airways Concorde, flying across the Atlantic to land in New York at 11:35, the day before I left. Another quick cab and I’m at Times Square, celebrating again. If you would like to join in the fun, tickets will go on sale January 1, 2000 — a mere $8,802 for first class, $1,398 for coach. I imagine the phone lines will be very busy, so get ready to hit the redial.
The millennium is only 1,061 days away (2000 will be a leap year since it is a century divisible by four hundred). That’s only 25,464 hours, or 1,527,840 minutes, or 91,670,400 seconds. It may seem like a long time, but it will be here before you know it. Even if World War III doesn’t begin, and the world doesn’t end, and the aliens don’t land, we will still have cause to celebrate. It will be another thousand years before we have to hear so much new age, apocalyptic garbage all at once.
Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]