December 21, 2012, revisited…

In case you’re wondering whether the end of the world is really happening tomorrow, here’s a little piece I wrote a while back about December 21, 2012, and all the hoopla surrounding it: 2012: The Next Doomsday.

2012: The Next Doomsday

National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City...

Image via Wikipedia

A recent re-watching of the movie 2012 left me wanting to delve more into this propitious date. Next year — specifically December 21, 2012 — has been named as the next date of the apocalypse, or perhaps a worldwide spiritual awakening. NASA and CERN have both stated that the world definitely won’t end in 2012, but what do they know?

The source of this particular apocalyptic prophecy is the ancient Mayans. On December 21, 2012, the 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mayan calendar known as the Long Count comes to a close. The Mayans used a cyclic calendar, like we do. When it comes to the end of a cycle, the calendar flips over and begins again. It doesn’t stop, and archaeologists can find no evidence suggesting that the Mayans believed the world would end on that date, or that anything at all momentous would happen.

But modern-day spiritualists, prophesiers and doomsayers have latched onto the end of the Mayan’s calendar cycle as significant, imbuing the Mayans with greater predictive and scientific powers than they possessed. The ancient Mayan civilization, which reached its height between 25AD and 900AD, was a highly advanced one, though. It had the only known written language of the pre-Columbian Americas and had made significant achievements in art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy.

The Mayan civilization eventually collapsed, although it did not disappear; there are Mayans living in Central America and Mexico today. However, the Maya had abandoned their great cities by the 10th century. There is no universally accepted theory for why this collapse happened, although the cause is likely environmental, such as a decades-long drought or other climate change. Other factors, such as foreign invasion or internal revolt, may have played a part. The last independent Mayan city-state was conquered by the Spanish in 1697. If only the Mayans had been able to predict their own collapse or the Spanish colonization, that would have been much more relevant to their world than what may happen centuries in the future.

We humans routinely assign doomsday to a specific date. The turning of the millennium always invites such predictions, and most of us can remember the hype that built up around Y2K. Similar dire predictions were made when the year 1000 was reached. Other dates have also taken on significance for one reason or another, but so far, doomsday hasn’t come.

This time, the predictions focus on several unlikely scenarios. The Earth may collide with a passing planet or black hole. The planets in the solar system may align, causing a shift in the Earth’s polar axis. Or unusual solar activity may cause worldwide havoc. Simple astronomical observation can (and has) refute all of these predictions.

In the 1970s-1990s, the end of the Mayan Long Count was actually predicted to be a positive event, a transition from one world age to another, and therefore a time for transformation and spiritual growth. I guess it all depends on whether your spiritual glass is half-empty or half-full. I predict that we’ll muddle on, much as we always have, and NASA backs me up on that.

Personally, I think the 2012 hoopla should have ended with Roland Emmerich’s highly improbable movie. No one else, not even a rogue planet or black hole, would destroy the Earth with such glee.

We have to keep in mind that calendars, as prophetic as they may seem, are merely human inventions. The universe is not obligated to live by them or provide an apocalypse on our timetable. Just as our calendar begins with a date that is culturally significant to us — the birth of Jesus Christ — so the Mayan calendar began with a significant date for them — the creation of the present world order. However, these dates are significant only to people, not to planets or the sun, for which 5,125 years is but a blip.

Here is a summary of the 2012 predictions and why they won’t come true from Sky & Telescope magazine (PDF).