Mayan temple.

Even if there were some apocalyptic event coming up, the Mayans would have no way of knowing. (istockphoto.com)


By Marcelo Gleiser

Everywhere you look it's a deluge of horrendous predictions, a cataclysmic apotheosis marking the end of the world: all happening on December 21st, 2012. (Or is it the 23rd?) Across the world, people are blogging, writing, praying, believing that these predictions are actually true, that this is for real, not like the Y2K bug or countless other failed apocalyptic predictions that people have an amazing ability to forget. I'd like to counter this absurd wave of apocalyptic fear with, yes, the light of reason and science. Even though many of the "predictions" are supposedly based on science, the fact is they are all bogus, as are all non-scientific apocalyptic predictions. (The Sun will explode in some 5 billon years.) Perhaps the best way to proceed, given the relatively short space of a blog post, is to list the most popular disasters, and discuss them one by one. Here it goes:

1. The Mayan Calendar ends. Where does this come from? For the sake of argument, let's leave aside that the Mayans would have no way of predicting the end of the world. A quick examination of the "evidence" shows that the correlation between the end of their calendar and the end of the world is an invention. Mayan scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel have found references of events dated after the doomsday event. Others scholars claim that the notion of "apocalypse," so common in Jewish-Christian biblical texts, is foreign to Mayan culture. The source often quoted for the "prophecy" comes from a site in Mexico called the Tortuguero Site. The world's foremost experts can hardly make sense of the fragmentary inscription:
The Thirteenth [b'ak'tun] will end (on) 4 Ajaw, the 3rd of Uniiw [3 K'ank'in]. Black ... will occur. (It will be) the descent(?) of Bolon Yookte' K'uh to the great (or red?)...

From this to the end of the world "prediction" based on the Mayan deep understanding of the cosmos is an enormous and shameless jump. There are four possible apocalyptic events that are often associated with the Mayan prophecy, all astronomical in nature:

2. Galactic alignment: Some claim that the Mayan knew of the periodic alignment of the Earth, Sun and the galactic center. The same people claim that this alignment will bring the end of time. Well, it turns out that this approximate alignment happens every year each December. And Earth has been doing just fine for about 4 billion years. Even if all the planets were to align--a striking astronomical phenomenon (it won't happen in 2012 or for decades)--the effects on Earth are negligible. Remember that the strength of the gravitational force drops with the square of the distance. Also, if you sum the masses of all the planets, it comes to about 440 Earth masses. In contrast, the mass of the Sun alone is about 332,000 Earth masses! That is, the kind of perturbation created by all planets pulling together on the Earth is absolutely negligible. Also, the galactic center is so far away that the same reasoning applies.

3. Planet Nibiru (or Planet X): Supposedly, the Sumerians knew of a planet that is going to collide with the Earth in 2012, planet Nibiru. There is no such planet! If there were, astronomers would have tracked it long ago. Also, to hit Earth by 2012, the object would be visible with the naked eye by now. Any object this large would cause perturbations in other planetary orbits and asteroids, causing small effects that would be easily detectable.

4. Giant solar storm: It is true that the Sun is expected to reach a maximum of activity in 2012-2014. This happens every eleven years, when many dark spots appear on the solar surface, due to erupting blobs of plasma that carry with them magnetic fields. Sometimes, debris from these solar storms do hit the Earth, causing beautiful auroras. More violent ones can disrupt satellites and even cause blackouts. However, there is nothing unusual predicted about the next solar max. If the Sun does misbehave it could indeed impact the Earth. But we don't expect anything significant happening for hundreds of millions of years. Even if there were something coming up, certainly the Mayans would have no way of knowing.

5. Asteroid collision: No question that asteroids can hit the Earth and have done it in the past. In my book The Prophet and the Astronomer I analyzed the interesting history of apocalyptic doom and fear of the celestial phenomena: asteroids and comets figure prominently. Fortunately, the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago marks the last huge impact. It is possible to monitor the skies for the big, doomsday-causing rocks and there is nothing on the radar screen. Sure, smaller ones can fall at short notice, as the one that fell in 1908 in Siberia. But these smaller rocks (10-30 meters across) will not end the world as we know it, although they could cause horrible devastation on a heavily populated area.

There are other doomsday scenarios out there, but the story is always the same. A lot of media hype, catalyzed by people's irrational fear of the unknown. The notion of celestial apocalypse is very old indeed, and will probably stay with us for a while. We see a transposition of language, from the skies falling on our heads to more precise, science-inspired scenarios. Those who believe this kind of apocalyptic hype are simply refusing to learn from 400 years of modern science, preferring to live their lives with their eyes wide shut.

But I don't want to end on a bad note. There is some good to this movement, in particular when it asks for a new "global spiritual awakening," a move toward the betterment of humanity. How could anyone not want this? What saddens me is that it seems that only fear can mobilize people to make a change, be it for the worse or for the better.

categories: Science and Religion

2:41 - March 17, 2010