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By Stephen Jay Gould
190 pages, $17.95

The only sane response to the vexing and seemingly endless debate over when the next millennium starts -- 2000 or 2001 -- is to party both times, and the devil with it.

That said, Stephen Jay Gould joins the growing chorus with a pleasant little book that turns this debate inside out, holds it up to a whole hall of mirrors and winds up considering the question itself as a reflection on the state of our civilization.

Gould fans will delight in the easy style and the touching ending. Everyone at all interested in questions millennial (or millenarian, with Gould even providing an explanation of the differing etymology that gives that version only one "n") will enjoy these learned musings on questions that surface at least once a century.

The Harvard scientist discusses how "millennium" shifted from its original concept as Christ's thousand-year reign after the Apocalypse to a turning point before that event, all the calendrical contortions that make the solar year and its lunar-based or arbitrary subcycles fit properly into the progression of seasons, and why we care.

There are side trips into apocalyptic beliefs, the ironic fact that Christ historically had to be born by at least 4 B.C. (making this year the 2000th since his birth), the complex calculation of the right date for Easter, the phenomenon of autistic persons who can instantly calculate the day of the week for a given date anywhere in time, and other timely topics.

Gould's book, subtitled "A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown," also reaches an intriguing conclusion for the debate over when the next century, and millennium, begins.

What evidence exists for the existence of a worldwide panic at the last millennial moment, he points out, points to the end of the year 1000, not 999. More recently, the 19th century was recognized as dawning in 1801 and the 20th -- a generally ignored and lonely proclamation by Kaiser Wilhelm notwithstanding -- in 1901, Buffalo's Pan-American year.

Gould sees that as evidence of the primacy of "high culture," which argues from mathematics that the absence of a year "zero" means 100 was the end of the first century, not the beginning of the second (whose years all number in the 100s, except the year 200).

That's represented this time around by the Greenwich Observatory, which is plaintively noting that the next millennium begins on Jan. 1, 2001. Travel agents and tourism spots throughout the world will tell you, though, that the parties are planned for the odometer-like turnover from 1999 to 2000 -- a triumph at last, Gould notes, for pop culture over its highbrow cousin.

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