Today, a young boy plans to see the Third Millennium.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
January 1, 1996: This is a
special New Year's day. When I was a boy, I decided
I'd live to see the Third Millennium. My
grandparents had all made it to ages which, if I
could match them, would get me past the year AD
2000. Still, life is uncertain, and WW-II was
making it clear just how uncertain it could be.
By the time I was 17, I'd found an American
Experience Table of Mortalities. According to it, I
had only a fifty percent chance of making it even
to 1996. Now, having come that far, my chances of
reaching the year AD 2000 are better than 80
But there's an odd catch to all this. It has to do
with calendars. Calendars are complex. My
encyclopaedia devotes 17 double-column pages to
them. The problem starts with the moon.
It takes sophisticated astronomy to mark the
repetition of the year. Meanwhile, the moon
exhibits a very clear 28-day cycle. That lunar
period is slightly out of synch with the year, but
it's a powerful cycle. The Latin word for months,
menses, signals how strongly the moon
is tied to the human body.
The ancient Romans based their year on 12 lunar
cycles. They further muddied that with politics --
stretching or compressing the year to fit
magistrates' terms of office.
Julius Caesar finally mandated calendar reform in
48 BC. In his Julian calendar, three 365-day years
are followed by a 366-day leap year. But that
calendar was still 11 minutes off. It gained three
days every 400 years. In 1582 Pope Gregory mandated
a new calendar that omitted leap years every
century or so.
Gregory also had to correct the error that'd
accumulated over the centuries. So he moved the
Feast of St. Francis on October 5th to October
15th. He simply erased ten days from 1582. That
adjustment has confused Renaissance historians ever
We live by the Gregorian calendar today, but we
have to insert seconds to make up for its minor
inaccuracies, and to make up for the fact that
earth's rotation is slowing very slightly.
Now, back to the matter of the Third Millennium.
With all the confusion of the old Roman calendar,
it's hard to date the birth of Christ. When
was zero BC*? We know Christ was born
during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BC.
We also know the Roman census that called Mary and
Joseph to Bethlehem was announced in 6 BC (by the
inaccurate Roman calendar). Our best bet is that
Christ was born in 4 BC or shortly before.
So this new year cleanly places me in the Third
Millennium -- beyond the actual 2000th year AD. I
got here ahead of schedule! 1996 has to be a good
year, by my reckoning. I've lived as long as I'd
set out to. And the rest? Well, now it's pure
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds