- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

The country is polarized once again over an issue, and it looks as if neither side is willing to budge: Will Jan. 1, 2001, begin the second year of the new millennium or mark the start of its first year?

Geoff Chester, public affairs officer with the U.S. Naval Observatory, has accumulated enough e-mails since the brouhaha began last year to see that both sides of the debate remain impassioned in their beliefs.

Observatory staffers believe they have the facts on their side and will ring in the new year, and the new millennium, with an open house next month.

The gala may pack 'em in, but Mr. Chester admits the people who believe this New Year's Eve marks the dawn of the new millennium are in the minority.

"We're kind of a lone voice in the wilderness right now," Mr. Chester says.

"Everybody is so exhausted by the events last year," he continues. "We, however, have orders from the secretary of the Navy [Richard Danzig]" to commemorate the event. "The boss is telling us to do this, and we're happy to carry out the order."

The observatory will host a New Year's Eve celebration Dec. 31 complete with music, telescopic viewing of the stars and the release of a time ball from a mast on the roof of the main building. The ball's descent also will trigger a cannon shot. The observatory, which maintains the country's master clock, first dropped its time ball in 1845.

"We're observing the beginning and ending of the year; that's the transition from second to third millennium," Mr. Chester says.

The current calendar was developed during the sixth century by scholar Dionysius Exiguus, "when Western mathematicians didn't understand the concept of zero," Mr. Chester says.

"The first year began with year one. If there was a year zero in the calendar, it would be a moot point."

That won't persuade the bulk of New Year's Eve revelers to repeat last year's millennium hysteria, he is sure.

Nor will the musings of author Arthur C. Clarke, whose novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" was so named for the turning of the millennium.

"It was called "2001, not 2000. It's a very telling point," Mr. Chester says.

"There was and still are people who don't want to listen to that," he says.

Mr. Chester can understand why that is.

"It's like the great odometer rollover," he says, referring to the transition from 1999 to 2000. "That doesn't happen very often."

Plus, last year's mania over year-2000 computer compliance fed the public's and marketers' appetites for the start of something new, says Jessica Bailey, assistant professor of international business at American University.

"Last year, a lot had to to do with the Y2K alert," Ms. Bailey says. "There was so much Y2K publicity, it was turned into a consumer event."

Not only did the threat of computer Armageddon evaporate, but so too did various marketing possibilities, she says. Sales for millennium-related merchandise fell from the sky like so many false prophecies.

"It all kind of fizzled," she says. "Gearing up for 2001 would be a similar disappointment."

Even if 2000 hadn't been an issue, she doubts savvy marketers would have been able to resist the lure of 2000, rather than the less sleek 2001 demarcation.

"They would have jumped on it nonetheless, the symbolism of 2000 more than anything else," she says.

The sheer power of the number 2000 may have pushed the public's emotional buttons, but intellectual purists envision next month as the 20th century's final stand.

James Lange, local secretary of Mensa's Washington branch, says the facts are on the side of those gearing up to celebrate the true millennium's debut Dec. 31.

"Most Mensans look at this and are rather disgusted," he says of his group, a nationwide gathering of intellectuals. "Everybody who can read a calendar or count" should know the score.

"It's not a cause celebre with us," however, he adds. Nor does the group take official stands on politics or other controversial topics.

Mr. Lange agrees with Ms. Bailey that the year-2000 scenario played a critical role in why people assumed 2000 meant so much to calendar watchers.

He points to another reason, too, for why so many were swayed to view 2000 as a crucial turning point.

"We live in an age of PR," Mr. Lange says, alluding to market pressures. "The PR war has been won."

More basic factors also were at work, he says.

"We've gotten used to the idea that centuries start at double-zero years," says Mr. Lange, whose local chapter includes 1,600 to 1,700 members. "The argument to the opposite effect is the magic of the number."

Numbers, Mr. Lange insists, carry significant weight. For example, 7 is lucky, while 13 is unlucky.

"Zero numbers are much more popular and easy to deal with. People love even numbers," he says.

Mr. Lange plans to usher in the new year with his fellow Mensa members, but he won't hold back his opinions should he encounter someone who thinks the new millennium is about to turn one year old.

"I will be pushing the idea that this is the new millennium," he says between verses of "Auld Lang Syne," of course.

Mr. Chester realizes the efforts of the observatory, not to mention Mr. Lange and company, won't have a major impact on how many view the upcoming New Year's festivities.

"The people that believe 2000 is the new millennium are not going to be swayed," he says. "And vice versa."

WHAT: Open House and Time Ball Drop

WHERE: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 3450 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Enter at Gilliss Avenue gate, corner of Observatory Circle and Massachusetts Avenue, near the British Embassy.

WHEN: 10 p.m. Dec. 31

TICKETS: Admission is free, but tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis for the first 3,000 people. 202/762-1467, www.usno.navy.mil.

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