Where on earth is millennium's first light?


OK, so here's my problem. I thought that by being in Beijing at year's end I would have the drop on all of you back home. At midnight on New Year's Eve, I would be able to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium while it was still only 4 o'clock in the afternoon of December 31st in Ireland.

Now I find that it's not quite so simple. Apparently the new millennium doesn't officially start until the stroke of midnight at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. I came across this devastating news in a newspaper interview given by Mr Robert Massey, an astronomer at Greenwich.

"The only international standard for time across the world is universal time," said Mr Massey. "So our argument has always been that the new millennium will begin on January 1st at the stroke of midnight along the Greenwich meridian. So the easiest way we measure who is first is to set your clocks to midnight GMT and find out where the sun is rising. That in a sense is the first sunrise."

Well the sun is rising in Beijing about 7 a.m. these midwinter days, so that when it appears on January 1st, it will still be only 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve in London and Dublin. So by Mr Massey's argument, even as I watch the sun's rays light up the curving roofs of the Forbidden City on January 1st 2000, I won't actually be in the new millennium. There's a conundrum for you.

So where do the first (official) rays of the millennium sun strike? According to the expert at Greenwich Observatory, the millennium sun will rise along half a great circle across eastern Russia and central China and the Bay of Bengal, where at midnight GMT it will just be rising over Katchall Island in the Indian-owned Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This has greatly excited officials in India, who have decided to make a big tourist promotion out of the unexpected welcome news. The problem is the island is so tiny it can accommodate only two persons and they are likely to be two high-ranking India government ministers. Nevertheless they have called on the world's media to come and watch the millennium sun rise on one of the seven ships lying off Katchall Island.

But what about all those people preparing to celebrate in New Zealand, which is throbbing with excitement at the idea that it will be the first populated landmass to witness the millennium sunrise. Do they know?

I logged on to New Zealand's Millennium Office website (www.millennium.govt.nz) and found that the GMT purists have cut no ice there. The website has an electronic countdown clock which is timed to show the 20th century ending at midnight local time, which is a full 13 hours before it officially expires under Greenwich Observatory rules.

Gisborne (pop 45,800), the New Zealand town closest to the International Date Line, is preparing for a dawn celebration party for 50,000 people which will be televised world wide.

"As the first rays of the new millennium sun touch down, more than a billion pairs of eyes will be firmly fixed on a beach in Gisborne," the website announces breathlessly. "The dawn ceremony will be one of the jewels in the millennium crown . . . an epiphany, an awe-inspiring moment."

Even if Gisborne people are right, a thousand enthusiasts plan to get the drop on them by climbing 400 metres to the top of Mata Peak nearby where the first rays of the sun will be visible over Hawkes Bay at 5.43.03 a.m., five seconds before they strike the beach at Gisborne.

New Zealand towns are planning all sorts of millennium celebrations, from concerts to bunjee jumping. Christchurch will stage what it hopes to be the first golf tournament of the 21st century, when golfers tee off at midnight local time on December 31st.

Several islands further east in the Pacific are competing to be the first inhabited spot to see the millennium sunrise. New Zealand's Pitt Island, which beats Gisborne by 40 minutes, is preparing to celebrate being first and will send televised greetings to billions across the world from the top of Hakepa Hill.

The most ferocious challenge comes from Fiji, where officials have moved the clocks forward to get into the new century a little earlier. They argue that it is not Greenwich Mean Time which decides when the millennium starts but the International Date Line, which passes through their archipelago.

Of course! That's it! Problem solved. By accepting the Fijian version of the truth, we in Beijing do get to see the dawning of the year 2000 before you all.

Now all we have to worry about is that Dionysius Exiguus got it right. He's the Christian theologian who established the calendar in the sixth century. And there are those who say he got it wrong. And there are those who say that as a millennium is a period of 1,000 years, and the calendar started from 1 AD, then 2000 is the end of the second millennium, not the beginning of the third. But that's another day's work.