In 1950 at age eight, prompted by an issue of Life magazine marking the century's midpoint, Stephen Jay Gould started thinking about the approaching turn of the millennium. In this beautiful inquiry into time and its milestones, he shares his interest and insights with his readers. Refreshingly reasoned, erudite, and absorbing, the book asks and answers the three major questions that define the approaching calendrical event. First, what exactly is this concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted? How did the name for a future thousand-year reign of Christ on earth get transferred to the passage of a secular period of a thousand years in current human history? When does the new millennium begin: January 1, 2000, or January 1, 2001? (Although seemingly trivial, the debate over this issue tells an intriguing story about the cultural history of the twentieth century.) Finally, why must our calendars be so complex, leading to our search for arbitrary regularity, including a fascination with millennia?
This long essay was originally published in 1997, well before the Millennium Madness really began, and no attention is paid to what subsequently became known as the Millennium Bug.
Although the millennium moment now lies more than a decade behind us, it is still worthwhile to read this essay, as the discussion is not only about time, calendars and the millennium, but explores themes of apocalypse, armageddon and the destruction of the world and the postponement thereof. The confusion about the millennium moment, and what exactly counts as the millennium, that is not just the end, but the also especially beginning of the millennium, make the book much less ephemeral than expected. Phenomena such as (American) preachers predicting the end of the world are put in a clear perspective, not forgetting the Mayan calendar.