The strength in numbers

As the millennium approaches, we worry about the end of time. We'd do better, suggests Ziauddin Sard

Round figures play havoc with our minds. And 2000 is such a nice, round number. So, far from seeing it simply as a number, we seem to have a psychological need to invest it with some significance. Combine this number, with its three enigmatic zeroes, with time, and what do you get? A craving for meaning, a pathological desire to unearth some earth-shattering explanation behind the millennium and some patently daft speculation about the end of time.

It is easy to dismiss all the millennium angst as so much mumbo-jumbo. But to do so is to miss a fundamental point about science. It is the dominant practice of science, more than anything else, that has taught us that numbers have significance. Most physical scientists are mathematical realists: like Plato, they believe that numbers are a reflection of some kind of reality. That is, mathematics really exists, pi is in the sky and numbers have hidden significance. We have grown up believing that the laws of nature are laid down in heaven in mathematical formulae, and mathematics simply discovers them. In other words, we have given mathematics in general, and numbers in particular, a significance that is pretty close to God in traditional theology.

So why should it be rational for scientists and mathematicians to look behind the significance of a number, say Planck's constant or pi, and irrational for a non-scientist to seek out the significance of the year 2000? In both science and conventional theology, numbers are not just part of the world, but transcend it. They exist before and after the universe. What is different between the two explanations is that one can be objectively tested, independently of culture, and the other is a matter of argument within culturally conditioned structures of belief.

That distinction loses its sharpness at the Big Moment when the clock passes midnight on 31 December 1999. Here, the apocalyptic brigade may have a case, particularly in relation to the Y2K bug - which itself is a product of our lack of understanding of time. Either the engineers who designed the software were aware of what they were doing and were forced to use two digits for reasons of economy and profit, or they were not. Either way, time was not important for them. As a result, all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, have to confront a number of anxieties. Can we be sure that all the world's nuclear reactors will be in fail-safe mode? Should we ground ourselves, abstaining from air travel, for days on either side of the Big Moment? Will the oil pipes continue to pump oil, or should we prepare for a big shortage in the first few months of the new year? The list of questions is endless, and none has a definite answer. It may not be the end of time but it could be the end of something.

I think millennium angst does teach us a few important lessons. For one thing, we can't take time for granted. We assume that it is just one of those dimensions where things happen. It is rather different from space, certainly, but it is linear, moves in one direction and is measured to amazing precision by science. Above all, it is neutral and independent of human agency.

But perhaps it's now opportune to re-examine the conceptual furniture in which we have framed time. For time is in fact largely a human construction, and to appreciate why we first need to leave Plato partially behind and move forward to Aristotle. Aristotle saw mathematics - and, by inference, time - as a purely human invention. Much like music or literature, he argued, it is a product of the human mind. We invent it, we use it, but we do not discover it.

I can see the strength in both views. In some respects, mathematical objects are simply an artificial construction of our own making; and in others they do describe an underlying physical reality. We need to keep both views in perspective, rather than rely exclusively on realism such as Plato's at the expense of inventionism such as Aristotle's.

Seeing numbers as a human invention would also help us to see time as a human construction. We can then appreciate how its neutrality is in part only apparent and realise how time expresses social relations of culture and power as much as any other aspect of our existence.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples. First, the relation of the year 0 to the birth of Christ is far from exact. It seems very likely that the event happened within five years either way. For the Romans started their dates afresh with each emperor, and it was centuries later that people tried to hook a perpetual calendar on to the Roman one. Naturally there were confusions and gaps in the record, making the correspondence imprecise. In the renaissance many experts believed that the birth was in 4 BC for, according to calculations, there was a Grand Conjunction of all the planets in one "house" just then.

As to our living in time defined by the birth of Christ, if Charles Martel had lost at the battle of Tours in 732, then (as Gibbon pointed out) the schoolmen of Paris and Oxford would have discoursed in Arabic, and we might now be living under an Hijri rather than a Gregorian calendar. In which case, the millennium would still be a long way off.

Closer to home, there is the perennial debate in Britain about daylight saving time. Why don't we keep it all year round? In practical terms, wouldn't it be more efficient if we had sunrise and sunset occurring later in the working day throughout the year? The big objection is that winter mornings would then come later. Particularly in the west of Scotland, children would be starting school while it was still dark. Well, why not have two time zones in the UK, or leave Scotland on the Greenwich Mean while England went Continental? We can't, because the political unit called the United Kingdom demands uniformity. End of argument - except that in other countries with a large longitudinal spread, time zones are there quite naturally. In the US, for example, the boundary of time zones gets quite jagged, as adjacent states (or even counties) opt for one zone or another.

Then there are funny problems in our expression of larger measures of time, which we call dates. Scientifically the problem is trivial; we could just count up the smallest units from some beginning point, as do Mac computers. But then our dates would appear as incomprehensible multi-digit numbers; we would need special skills and manuals to translate them into usable form. So we express dates in terms of days, months and years. Or is it months, days and years, as in the American system? The most logical system is what I call the "Japanese camera" notation, since it is widely used in Japan: years, months, days, time. Here, the units are decreasing in size, and a reading such as 1999/10/9/14:22.01 is coherent throughout, from the millennium on the left to the second on the right. But the only way this system will be adopted worldwide is for Japan to become the dominant global political, or at least cultural, power.

Thus while time may flow uniformly and of itself, as Sir Isaac Newton said, our measurement of time is bound up with conventions and with inherited power relations and expectations. And the way the dominant civilisation has structured time will soon run into a few serious problems. For example, up until now, the abbreviated year has been relatively unambiguous. But fairly soon the abbreviation will produce mind-boggling complexities with dates such as 01-07-02. In the American "Mommy-DaddY" system it is January 7 2002; in the British "Daddy-MummY" system it is 1 July 2002; and in the Japanese "YuM-Dum" (apologies to The Mikado) system it is 2001 July 2. If the date is one of expiry, say of dangerous substances, then this variety of meanings would be no joke.

So forget about the end of time. It will come soon enough. Let's worry about the social and cultural structures we have embedded in our management of time. We also have a more immediate problem to think about. The first decade of every century, by convention, has no name. We have the teens, the twenties, the thirties and so on. So what are we going to call the first decade of the 21st century? The noughties? Or should that be "naughties"?

Ziauddin Sardar is the author, with Jerry Ravetz, of "Introducing Mathematics", published by Icon at £8.99

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children