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Zeroing out zero

June 1, 2000
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You’ve rented your tux, mailed your check for your millennial New Year’s Eve party, and even brushed up on your cha-cha steps (one, two, ONE TWO THREE).

But wait — weeks away from the big bash, you discover a slight glitch. There are some contrarians among us who contend that the big turn into the next century and next millennium doesn’t come until a year later, at the end of 2000.

Call them the “01ers.” These humorless pedants have even invaded the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

They argue that when it comes to measuring the flow of time, we in the western world seem to have misplaced something called a zero. The first A.D. year, they tell us, was 1, not 0, meaning that we couldn’t begin the second century with 100 A.D., since that would leave only 99 years in the first century; and this would cascade through the subsequent centuries.

This seems counter-intuitive. Man (at least this one living in Oakland County, MI) has a natural tendency toward an odometer-like logic of beginning centuries with the 00 year.

If there is no zero in temporal measurements, be thankful there is a zero in scientific yardsticks. If our mathematics hadn’t progressed beyond the Romans (great engineers, but zero-less), we’d still be doing long division in Roman numerals. Try doing that on your slide rule. (Those under 30 may ignore the previous sentence.)

Thanks again for the zero in thermodynamics. Otherwise, we’d go from 1ÞF to -1ÞF without a zero separating them. That would require recalibration of thermostats, thermometers, psychrometric charts, and other tools of the trade.

Even without a zero, heat, oblivious to our efforts to define it, and obeying the laws of physics, would still travel downhill. Consider the havoc wreaked on ASHRAE if you removed the zero buffer between positive and negative temperatures.

Since each side of the 00-01 debate has a plausible argument, we propose a compromise: Celebrate the turn of the century half way — say, the night of June 30, 2000. The summer weather is more salubrious, and each side gets to save face. Call it a zero(less) sum game. And delay the date on the tux rental.

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