2012: End of the World? (Part 1)

You may have heard rumors of disaster in 2012. The word disaster comes from some ancient language. The prefix dis means bad, and the word aster means star. So, we have bad star. And in the days of superstition, astronomy and astrology were the same thing.

We have superstition yet. And we have the Internet. The Internet allows the dissemination of unchecked disinformation faster than was ever possible in the past. Even faster than Hollywood. Pretty much as fast as anyone can think of it. Or at least type. Yes, it’s more than a little ironic that this anti-superstition essay is posted on the Internet. But as fast as as the Internet is for dissemination of unchecked disinformation, it’s also pretty quick for fact checking. I’ll award no-prize to the first person to find a mistake in this essay. And, unlike the conspiracy theorists, I promise to correct it. If it exists. In the mean time, and to steal a line from a movie advertisement, let’s find out the truth.

So, the latest disinformation (that’s bad information) says that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Let’s explore some of the claims, and how well they hold up, after the break.

First, the date. A calendar used by native peoples of Mexico, the Mayans, is said to end on that date. (By the way, it is widely stated that the Mayans are all dead. While the great Mayan civilization collapsed, there are Mayan descendants still.) What the Mayan calendar actually does is roll over then. That’s pretty much what the Gregorian calendar did at the end of 1999. And at the end of 2000. At the end of 1999, the calendar flipped 9’s into 0’s. The year 2000 was the last year of the 2nd millennium. 2001 started the third millennium, more or less. Arthur’s book got it right. Except that the date for the birth of Jesus isn’t known for sure. For example, some evidence points to Labor Day, 3 BC.

SDO first light - a solar flareBut what was the big deal? The world didn’t end in 2000 or 2001, despite claims to the contrary. None of the predicted floods, famine, pollution, or shift of the Earth’s magnetic poles happened. The May 5th, 2000 planetary alignment did not bring solar flares, significant earthquakes, “land changes” or “seismic explosions”. Even the famous Y2K bug didn’t seem to cause much disruption. I know something of this, as I personally tracked down and exterminated many of the little buggers in my career as a computer professional. We have a history of mispredictions for the end of the world.

The Mayan calendar rolls over, but it’s not much of a threat. December 21, 2012 ends the cycle called Baktun 13. A baktun is 144,000 days: a little more than 394 years. However, the evidence suggests that the Mayans did not attribute much significance to this event. Certainly not a disaster. Some surviving Mayan texts refer to dates well past Baktun 13. For more detail on the Mayan calendar, look up the November 2009 Sky & Telescope magazine article, The Great 2012 Scare.

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