I hesitate to write again about when the 20th Century ends, because I suspect that almost everyone who lives that long will be celebrating "the turn of the century" on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, even though the century will not end for another year.
The 21st Century will not begin until Jan. 1, 2001.
I have been surprised, though, by the number of letters I have received from readers who insist that the new century will begin (as most people seem to think) on Jan. 1, 2000.
Some of their letters are accompanied by ingenious but misleading graphs and tedious histories of our calendar's origin, including abstruse arguments about the date of Christ's birth and Western concepts of zero.
None of them seem to grasp the simple fact that 10 is 10, and after 10 comes 11.
It takes 10 years to make a decade. It takes 100 years to make a century. The first decade ended on Dec. 31, AD 10. The first century ended on Dec. 31, AD 100. The second decade began on Jan. 1, AD 11. The second century began on Jan. 1, AD 101. Centuries always end in 00. New centuries always begin in 01.
"I'm asking you a large favor," writes Fred A. Glienna of South Pasadena. "Could you please deal in your column one more time with the start of the 21st Century?"
He explained that he raised the question at a kaffeeklatsch of his model railroading club, and it was argued for more than an hour.
The next day he fired off several proofs of his position (the same as mine); one who had argued vociferously against him switched; another didn't; a third, who had agreed with him, switched back.
It is not stupidity that causes this misperception; it is some kind of rigid and unassailable mind-set. I have exchanged three letters with a former Caltech professor, H. Victor Neher, who seems irretrievably stuck in his conviction that the century will end on Dec. 31, 1999.
His arguments are supported by irrelevant historical asides and illustrated by graphs that he heroically misinterprets.
Like most of the heretics, he seems to be hung up on zero as a starting point. "The first year of the first century begins at 0 and ends at 1. The 99th year then begins at 98 and runs until the beginning of 99. The 100th year begins at 99 and runs until the end of 99 or the beginning of the 100th year. This makes 100 years. There are 101 years between zero and 101, not 100 years."
Weird. The first year doesn't end at 1; it ends at 2. The 99th year doesn't run until the beginning of 99; it begins at the end of 98 and runs to the end of 99. The 100th year does not run to the end of 99, it runs to the end of 100, up to 101. How could it run to its own beginning?
It's really very simple. A century is 100 complete years. So the first century ended on Dec. 31, AD 100. That took it to the first day of the second century, Jan. 1, AD 101. And so on to Jan. 1, 2001.
Don Ayers of Pacific Palisades argues reasonably that we think of the 20th Century as the 1900s.
"While 1999 is clearly a part of this group of years, the year 2000 is clearly within the period to be referred to as the 20 hundreds, or the 2000's, by future generations."
Of course. And that is the custom that will set off riotous celebrations on the night of Dec. 31, 1999. The next day we will be in the 2000s, even though, in fact, the 20th Century has a year to go. I wonder, will 20th Century Fox change its name to 21st Century Fox a year early?
Howard A. Wilcox of San Diego asks, sounding almost desperate, "Can you please forward to me an authoritative reference justifying your statement that the 20th Century began on Jan. 1, 1901?"
I quote the World Almanac and Book of Facts: "A century consists of 100 consecutive calendar years. The first century consisted of the years 1 through 100. The 20th Century consists of the years 1901 through 2000 and will end Dec. 31, 2000. The 21st Century will begin Jan. 1, 2001."
I have an idea that Prof. Neher won't switch.