Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalists' Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

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Overview

In this new edition of Questioning the Millennium, best-selling author Stephen Jay Gould applies his wit and erudition to one of today's most pressing subjects: the significance of the millennium.

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. ...

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Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

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Overview

In this new edition of Questioning the Millennium, best-selling author Stephen Jay Gould applies his wit and erudition to one of today's most pressing subjects: the significance of the millennium.

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 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 Jesus 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 really 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.) And why must our calendars be so complex, leading to our search for arbitrary regularity, including a fascination with millennia? This revised edition begins with a new and extensive preface on a key subject not treated in the original version.

As always, Gould brings into his essays a wide range of compelling historical and scientific fact, including a brief history of millennial fevers, calendrical traditions, and idiosyncrasies from around the world; the story of a sixth-century monk whose errors in chronology plague us even today; and the heroism of a young autistic man who has developed the extraordinary ability to calculate dates deep into the past and the future.

Ranging over a wide terrain of phenomena--from the arbitrary regularities of human calendars to the unpredictability of nature, from the vagaries of pop culture to the birth of Christ--Stephen Jay Gould holds up the mirror to our millennial passions to reveal our foibles, absurdities, and uniqueness--in other words, our humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gould poses three questions about the millennium in this delicious science-historical jeu d'esprit. . . . [This] may be the most enjoyable millennium book of the second millennium."                
-- Booklist

"With a humorous Everyman approach, Gould juggles a mind-boggling array of various calendrical concepts as he explains why creating a reliable calendar was one of man's greatest struggles. Whether nailing down the precise date of the birth of Christ or airing his suspicion that God is a New York Yankees fan, Gould teaches rather than preaches."                
-- Entertainment Weekly

"Gould eloquently charts . . . our stubborn, foolish, and occasionally glorious efforts, through science, religion, and philosophy, to continue to try to understand."        
-- New York Times

"In Questioning the Millennium, a collection of three witty and erudite essays . . . the noted paleontologist and science popularizer ponders the meaning of the upcoming calendar hoopla. As always, he is irreverent, idiosyncratic, and original."
-- San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle

"However out-of-left-field the subject, [Gould] still manages to charm with characteristically energetic, down-to-earth lucidity. Gently iconoclastic, always illuminating essays from the science writer whose prose can bring to life not only theories but even the fossils themselves."        
-- Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609605417
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 221
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 7.85 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Jay Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential evolutionary biologists and most acclaimed science essayists of the 20th century. He died in May 2002. He was the author of numerous books, including The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Questioning the Millennium.

Biography

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was arguably the leading science writer for the contemporary literate popular audience. His explications of evolutionary theory and the history of science are peppered with oddball cultural and historical references, from Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to Catherine the Great's middle name. But Gould insisted that his work wasn't dumbed-down for nonscientists.

"I sort of operate at one end of what's called popular science," he told a Salon interviewer. "Not because I don't appreciate the other end, I just wouldn't do it well, somehow. But the end I operate on really doesn't sacrifice any complexity -- except complexity of language, of course, complexity of jargon. But I like to think that my stuff is as conceptually complex as I would know how to write it for professional audiences."

In 1972, Gould and fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge shook up the field of evolutionary theory with their idea of "punctuated equilibrium," which suggests that the evolution of a species is not gradual and continual, but marked by long periods of stasis and brief bursts of change. Over the next several decades, Gould would continue to develop his critique of evolutionary theory, questioning assumptions about evolutionary progress and provoking debates with the likes of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

From early on in his career, Gould was interested in reviving the scientific essay, in the tradition of Galileo and Darwin. Gould began writing a series of monthly essays for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. Published as "This View of Life," the well-received essays addressed a broad range of topics in the biological and geological sciences. In his essays, Gould not only explained scientific facts for the lay reader, he critiqued the shortcomings of certain scientific viewpoints and the cultural biases of particular scientists.

Armed with a historical view of evolutionary theory, he tackled the problem of human intelligence testing in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The book won a National Book Critics' Circle Award, while a collection of essays, The Panda's Thumb (1980), won the American Book Award. Together the books established Gould's presence as one of the country's most prominent science writers.

Gould's popularity continued to widen with the publication of such unlikely bestsellers as Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), which challenged the notion that humans are the necessary endpoint of evolutionary history. "Not only does [Gould] always find something worth saying, he finds some of the most original ways of saying it," The New York Times said in its review of Bully for Brontosaurus (1993), another collection of essays.

In 1998, Gould was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his description of that office could apply to his whole life's work. He pledged to "make people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic, and distant, but as something that is important to their lives." Stephen Jay Gould died in May of 2002 of cancer.

Good To Know

In a Mother Jones interview, Gould mentioned that he was teased as a child for his fascination with paleontology. The other kids called him "fossil face." Gould added, "The only time I ever got beat up was when I admitted to being a Yankee fan in Brooklyn. That was kind of dumb."

Gould was diagnosed in 1982 with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. In one of his most famous essays, "The Median Isn't the Message," he explained how statistics are often misinterpreted by nonscientists, and why the grim statistics on his own disease -- with a median mortality of eight months, at that time -- didn't deter him from believing he would live for many more years. "[D]eath is the ultimate enemy -- and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light," he wrote. He died in May 2002 -- 20 years after his diagnosis.

Gould made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons in 1997, participating in a town debate over the authenticity of an "angel skeleton" found in Springfield.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Jay Gould
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 10, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      May 20, 2002
    2. Place of Death:
      Boston, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

I have always and dearly loved calendrical questions because they display all our foibles in revealing miniature. Where else can we note, so vividly revealed, such an intimate combination of all the tricks that recalcitrant nature plays upon us, linked with all the fallacies of reason, and all the impediments of habit and emotion, that make the fulfillment of our urge to understand even more difficult - in other words, of both the external pitfalls to knowledge. Yet we press on regardless - and we do manage to get somewhere.

I think that I love humanity all the more - the scholar's hang-up, I suppose - when our urge to know transcends mere practical advantage. Societies that both fish and farm need to reconcile the incommensurate cycles of years and lunations. Since nature permits no clean and crisp correlation, people had to devise the cumbersome, baroque Metonic Cycle. And this achievement by several independent societies can only be called heroic.
        
I recognize this functional need to know, and I surely honor it as a driving force in human history. But when Paleolithic Og looked out of his cave and up at the heavens - and asked why the moon had phases, not because he could use the information to boost his success in gathering shellfish at the nearby shore, but because he just wanted to resolve a mystery, and because he sensed, however dimly, that something we might call recurrent order, and regard as beautiful for this reason alone, must lie behind the overt pattern - well, then calendrical questions became sublime, and so did humanity as well.
        
If we regard millennial passion in particular, and calendrical fascination in general, as driven by the pleasure of ordering and the joy of understanding, then this strange little subject - so often regarded as the province of drones or eccentrics, but surely not of grand or expansive thinkers - becomes a wonderful microcosm for everything that makes human beings so distinctive, so potentially noble, and often so actually funny. Socrates and Charlie Chaplin reached equal heights of sublimity.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition: Predicting: The Biggest Millennial Fallacy 13
Preface to the Original Edition: Our Precisely Arbitrary Millennium 39
1 What? 51
Redefining the Millennium: From Sacred Showdowns to Current Countdowns 53
2 When? 125
Dousing Diminutive Dennis's Debate DDDD = 2000 127
3 Why? 155
Part One: Bloody-Minded Nature 157
Part Two: Five Weeks 189
Illustration Credits 207
Index 211
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    not Goulds best

    not Goulds best

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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