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Questioning the Millennium. A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary
Countdown. By Stephen Jay Gould, 1997, Harmony Books, New York, (Also
available as an audiotape from Audio Editions, 800-231-4261.)

Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV are reminding us, with ever
greater frequency and intensity, that a new millennium is coming. The
Internet lists over 600,000 pages that contain this word. Expectations and
anxieties are building. These range from plans for simple calendric
celebrations, to predictions of massive computer problems or, more
extremely, of apocalyptic Armageddon. This interest in the millennium has
several causes. Indeed the word, millennium, has taken on a variety of
meanings in western culture. Originally, the word described, in the
earliest days of Christianity, the 1000 years that would follow the return
of Jesus to the earth. Gould's book describes how the word has
transmogrified into its present meaning of January 1, 2000 as the beginning
of the next 1000 years of human history.

For a factual and rational account of the complex history of the
millennium, I recommend this little 190 page book. Although Gould has
departed from his us-ual clear and concise writing style and indulged in
somewhat more flowery language than in some of his previous writings, the
text with its accompanying illustrations will reward even a casual perusal.
Careful reading will shed considerable light on apocalyptic thinking in
western Christian traditions and, as a result of the stubborn failure of
the apocalypse to come as predicted by prophets and seers, on the gradual
transformation by popular culture of the millennium into a secular
celebration of the passage of an certain number of years of human history.
Indeed, we in the west need to remember that January 1, 2000 is an ar-
bitrary date that bears no relationship to the astronomical environment of
our planet Earth but is, as Gould clarifies, the result of calendric
calculations by a long succession of Christian scholars. The Jewish,
Islamic and Mayan calenders, for example, assign no particular significance
to this day.

One of the most amusing debates about the coming millennium
concerns its actual date: January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001. Gould
masterfully summarizes the reasons for this confusion, and suggests a
simple and elegant solution. Since the whole calender is arbitrary, just
declare January 1, 2000 as the beginning of the new millennium (as popular
western culture already has) and save our time and energy for more
important debates such as population control and the exploration of Mars.

I recommend this book highly.
 
 

Barbara B. Hemmingsen, Professor of Biology, SDSU.