Monday, November 06, 2006

Millennial Fever in Retrospect?

by Fred Vaughan

Some time ago while on a business trip I asked a very sharp traveling companion a question regarding his religious standing, I found to my dismay that although he does not attend the church of his upbringing with his disgruntled wife, he does nonetheless believe its precepts because of its "accurate predictions"of latter day phenomena. When pressed concerning which phenomena, he explained what was so convincing to him although certainly not to me. Since the Soviet Union had typically been read into Revelations by my father-in-law in much the same way, I asked my colleague jovially whether "bears" had played into the final formula of the church of his apostasy as well. He knew instantly who the "bears"were and said with good humor, "Oh, yes. They were one of the opposing teams!"

"Go bears!"I cheered, not being able to resist a mild blasphemy.

We laughed somewhat awkwardly but suffice it to say that neither he nor I (for different reasons) have returned to our religious underpinnings based on his convictions. But he is one very clever individual. In addition there are others I know who give some credence to the end of the world being nigh at hand including a relative who just the other day attested that what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East was foretold in the bible. Evidently it is a quite natural frame of mind to interpret current events in light of traditional Christian scriptures - such concepts as Armageddon, the Apocalypse, Rapture, Christ's "return," resurrection of the dead, the "Millennium,"etc. were introduced there. Some would deny the association but it seems natural enough to me for anyone who entertains such possibilities which is, after all, the truly absurd aspect! My traveling companion considered it likely, however, that God would wait "thirty years or so after the year 2000 AD just so people can sneer at millennial fever and then, Bam!"He gestured with a closed fist. My God!


Maybe, on the other hand, a millennium is like "K"years, popularly 1,000 but in actuality 1,024, (except as erroneously used in Y2K) such that 2048 AD would be the next significant eschatological date. There was, of course, the possibility that the operative phenomenon would be the transpiration of integral numbers of "the number of man and his number is six hundred threescore and six,"[Rev. 13:18] in which case 1998 AD would have been ominous! Man has, after all, demonstrated extreme folly at approximately such intervals: The origin of Christianity (or Christ's crucifixion, depending on how one looks at it), the emergence of Islam, European famine and Black Death, the Mother of All Battles or …

But if you think this article is going to be about that kind of "millennial fever," you're wrong! I think of all such reasoning as a "crock!" When people use terms like millennia, they invariably presume much more than is warranted. That the happenstance of our civilization adopting the decimal number system and that the value of the right-most three "digits" in the representation of the number of times the earth has revolved about the sun since some arbitrary point in time in that system happens to be zero seems to me to have no more significance than someone I know having been 38 when she had, in fact, been born in nineteen hundred and 38 which excited her no end at one point. (Guess when!) That is one thing.

Another thing is that civilization has survived less than nine such intervals - certainly insufficient for statistical significance even if there had been nine unambiguously validated extraordinarily prophetic events at such intervals.

However, there are phenomena for which millennia are reasonable units of time - the natural (uninterrupted) life expectancy of conifers in temperate rain forests, for example. And there are subatomic phenomena, the half-life of which make them easier to understand when they are averaged over such time scales. And the atmospheric temperature at the surface of the earth is such a phenomenon. Climatic variations caused by the elongation of the earth's orbit, volcanic activities, sunspots, giant meteors, etc. create spikes in the data which obscure trends when averages are made over appreciably smaller time scales. In the figure below this temperature data has been plotted with the area colored in below the curve. The abscissa is number of millennia prior to the year 2000 AD. (The curves below have been brought up to the minute by including data since the year 2000 in the circles continuation toward disaster.) In one sense the data seem harmless enough on this scale. Even the great ice ages, although apparent at the left of the plot and 15 or 20 millennia ago, seem fairly minor dips in the temperature when averaged over the whole earth for whole millennia.

Figure 1

But what is truly scary with regard to fever is the juxtaposition of data on atmospheric concentrations of CO2 over the same time interval as the temperature data. It would be difficult to argue that the underlying phenomena were not directly related. See the line plot in the figure. A second figure is provided to show the data with finer precisions since the industrial revolution. The data for CO2 are taken from the concentration in bubbles in ice cores from as much as two miles deep in glacial ice near the poles. The temperature data are derived from tree rings and other fossil growth indicators.

An advanced degree in eschatology from Oral Roberts University is hardly a prerequisite for interpreting this data. A hair raising prediction leaps from the page like "an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, 'Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth.'" [Rev. 8:13] All that remains to be revealed in these latter days is exactly how much the inflection in the temperature curve will lag the one in the CO2 concentration curve - maybe "thirty years or so after the year 2000 AD just so people can sneer at millennial fever and then, Bam!" (If Einstein had been a fundamentalist Christian he might have said, "God would have done it that way.") We now know that 1998 was not the year of revelation - the year of man. I guess we'll have to wait and see - the science of global warming is after all, like Christian eschatology, rather imprecise. But don't ignore it!

S/he who hath ears to hear, let her/im hear!

Problems worsen even as the US administration and congress vehemently ignore them!

* The circled data are update the plots to the current year.

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