Where does Time begin?

Place your feet astride the Greenwich Meridian, the start and end point of time and space measurements of the planet, and you can claim to be standing in both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. Stay awake until one second after midnight and you will see in the new millennium. Remember to stock up with food and money and make sure your home electrical goods are millennium bug-proof, and you will be ahead of the game. None of these actions are very complicated or controversial, but none of them answer the more intriguing question of the starting point of the new millennium.

Who are the contenders? The South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga is a leading claimant, with the International Dateline ‘bent’ around its territory to keep it in the same day as Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and others on the western side, making it officially thirteen hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. The government radio station used to announce itself as "The Call of the Friendly Islands, where Time Begins". Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), Samoa, and Tuvalu, East Cape in New Zealand’s North Island, and Pitt Island in the nearly inaccessible, bleak and windswept Chatham Islands (400 miles west of New Zealand) are equally determined rivals who hope to profit from the accident of geography and the human desire to do things few others will do. Is it important?

The residents of these faraway islands (how many of them had you heard of?) seem to think so. Certainly television companies such as CNN, numerous entrepreneurs and tour operators are counting on being in the right place for the first dawns of the twenty first century, the second millennium, and a small élite of tourists will pay ridiculous prices (up to £75,000) for the privilege of watching the sunrise at first hand. They assume, of course, that the weather will be fine, but it’s possible that rain or fog might descend, especially in the Chatham Islands, which lie directly in the path of the Roaring Forties weather system.

The question "Where does Time Begin?" could be answered in other terms, of course - theological accounts of the creation, the birth of Christ from which the modern era is counted, physical theories of the Big Bang, the ever expanding universe and so on. It’s one of those catch-all questions which we may muse on as we put the clocks forward in the spring; during long, warm summer evenings (optimist!); or when we put them back in autumn and prepare for another winter. It doesn’t have a definitive answer, which makes it even more intriguing. What will I be doing on the eve of the new millennium? Sitting at home, I suspect, though in my mind I’ll be on the shores of Kiribati, of Tonga, or even with the sheep of Pitt Island, waiting for the dawn... or rain?

Roger Cowell

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 4th July 1999