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What's in a Year?


Millenium Debugged

In the letters section of the September issue, Richard B. Priest perpetuates the myth that 1999 is not the last year of the century, and of the millennium. Truth is, it is or it isn't. Depends on your point of view, purely subjective, though I prefer a zero-based calendar since one subtracted from one leaves zero on my planet. Now, since he was in the Class of 1950 and the fellow he was correcting was also in the Class of 1950, maybe he's just pulling a classmate's leg. But I feel compelled to respond anyway.

Most people will tell you that this is the last year of the century. But somebody with some extra time on his hands developed a theory to explain why we're all wrong, claiming that the millennium ends on the final day of the year 2000...

But the theory is flawed. It relies on the use of a one-based counting system, and this choice is arbitrary. Having worked with computers for many years, I use zero-based counting systems whenever appropriate, and if you can see that 1900 was the zeroth year of this century, then you will see that 1999 is the 99th and final year, making 31 December 1999 the final day of the century, and therefore, of the millennium.

Priest wonders how one could not have learned enough history to know that there was no year Zero. Well, there was also no year Five or One Hundred or One Thousand Three Hundred
Twenty-Two either. Why, you ask? Because the Gregorian calendar we use today was created in 1582. It did not exist before 1582. No-body ever claimed, in the year we call Gregorian year 1581, that "This is the Gregorian year 1581";
and this can be said of any year prior to 1582. And the Gregorian calendar arose from the Julian calendar, created in 45 BC by Julius Caesar, who for obvious reasons did not call that year 45 BC.



During the 18th century, an astronomer by the name of Jacques Cassini introduced a new numbering system in order to make a calculation of the difference between years AD and years BC logical. 1AD became +1, and was preceded by the year 0, which was preceded by the year -1.

So if we want a year Zero, we can have a year Zero. It is logical, and there is a historical precedent. So there!

William W. Patterson '79 Deerfield, Ohio

182 Steps?

After reading "The Right Approach" in September, I couldn't resist writing. I spent a rather abbreviated time at RPI as a Curtiss-Wright Cadette so I don't have any "Frosh" stories. However, I remember The Approach vividly. Many of my group lived downtown in an old fraternity house across from Sage College. Each day in the early morning we trudged up those 182 (is my memory correct?) steps to the campus and back down again about 4:30

p.m. We suffered the onslaught of pelting rain, hail, snow, and ice. Sometimes the steps were one huge slide! I wish I could visit RPI now. I have wonderful memories of excellent teachers, classic buildings, and so much fun. Without that terrific education at RPI, I never would have worked as an aero engineer and later teaching mathematics and graphics.

Carolyn Worcester Van Decar '44 Royal Oak, Mich.

Saratoga-Style Graduation

The June 1999 "From the Archives" article, titled "A Brief History of Commencement," contains the following inaccurate statement: "Since 1950, Commencements have been held at the Houston Field House." As my classmates will attest, the Class of 1983 had the distinction of participating in Commencement exercises that



Cover of Rensselaer Mag Sep99 Issue

were held at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Commencement ceremony had to be held there because the Houston Field House was undergoing renovation. The speaker at our Commencement was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York state and the ceremony was quite festive, in spite of the overcast weather conditions. An ironic aspect of this Commencement was the text on the diplomas handed out that day which read, "Given in the City of Troy (emphasis added) in the State of New York on this Twentieth Day of May, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty-Three."

Lew D. French III '83 Fairfield, Conn.

It's Greek to Me!

Enrolled at RPI in September 1948 and was as-signed to 13 Peoples Drive, East (as I recall). My roomie was Larry Korb, and my remembrance of Tin Town (other than those trips down and up the hill ... rain, snow, sleet, gloom) was that Larry would NOT let me go to sleep one night until I had memorized the Greek alphabet-backward!

I hated him, that night, but since have appreciated him be-cause of how I can still recite it backward and impress my grandchildren!

Tom Gillard '52 Tullahoma, Tenn.

To provide space for as many letters as possible, we often edit them for length. Address letters to: Rensselaer Magazine, Office of Marketing & Media Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180, or e-mail to, or call (518) 276-6531.

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