901: Questioning the Millennium by Stephen Jay Gould

by Gerard

901: Gould, Stephen Jay. Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. New York: Harmony, 1997. 179 pp. ISBN 0-609-60076-1.

History is huge. Everything that has happened before now is history. That’s why history gets 90% of the 900s (geography and travel gets the 910s). And, as an added bonus, they’ve edited out the racism. Every continent (almost) gets its own division–Europe gets the 940s, Asia gets the 950s, Africa gets the 960s, North America gets the 970s, and South America gets the 980s. The 990s are reserved for other parts of the world (and outer space, just in case, which is 999). But, when we talk about history as a whole or as a science, it gets classed all the way up at 901.

Stephen Jay Gould is best known for this NOMA theory–the Non-Overlapping Magisteria theory, that treats religion and science as two separate, mutually exclusive areas of study that can neither be pitted against each other nor combined to form a perfect whole. He was a brilliant scientist and award-winning theoretician, but this particular book was sub-par.

The premise of Questioning the Millennium is that the idea of a millennium is meaningless for two reasons–there is no absolute time and apocalypticists are idiots. He breaks his own rule. He tries to use natural science to overrule a notion that the world will end at the end of a certain millennium when God will invoke the dreaded Judgment Day. If these two areas don’t mix, then don’t one against the other, Stephen.

There are bunch of interesting tidbits on how the modern calendar was created, although most of that is superficial. He devotes 30 pages to a lecture on when centuries start (1900 or 1901?) and basically says that the unwashed masses are responsible for convincing the elite members of society that the millennium actually starts “on the zeroes” instead of “on the ones.” And this is where you can tell Gould is writing to indulge his grandiosity. Here is an actual passage from the book:

The debate is already more intense than ever, though we still have a little time before our own forthcoming transition, and for two obvious reasons. First–O cursed spite–our disjointed times, and our burgeoning press, provide greatly enhanced opportunity for rehearsal of such narrishkeit ad nauseum; do we not feast upon trivialities to divert attention from the truly portentous issues that engulf us? Second, this time around does count as the ultimate blockbuster: for this is the millennium, the great and indubitable unicum of any living observer (though a few trees, and maybe a fungus or two, but not a single animal, were born before the year 1000 and have therefore been through it before).

Yikes…And this goes on for a while. It was cute in the beginning of the book, but it wears one down. Luckily, at the end, he recounts the tale of how his autistic child is able to perform day-date calculations perfectly for any date imaginable. But he spoils it a bit by guiding the reader through the math instead of leaving it as a fun and sweet conclusion.

This book, however , did provide me with a perfect segue to the next book on my list. You will just have to wait find out what it is.