We've talked about it before, but since we're closing in on the winter solstice -- and with the recent box office success of the disaster porn that is 2012 -- it bears repeating: Although the Mayan calendar comes to an end on Dec. 21, 2012, it does NOT mean the end of the world.
Our friend, archaeologist Dr. Kenny Feder, wonderfully cuts through the hype in this article he recently wrote for the Chicago Tribune:
The Maya people of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras produced a remarkable native American civilization that peaked around 700 A.D., replete with great cities, imposing pyramids and a sophisticated series of calendars.
Like ours, the Maya calendar had days, months (of 20 days each) and years (made up of 18 Maya months of 20 days and one of five, adding up to 365 days). And, just as we recognize longer time periods (10 years for a decade, 100 years for a century, and 1000 years for a millennium) the Maya did, too.
With their base-20 number system, the Maya had periods of 20 years (they called them katuns) and periods of about 400 years (a Maya baktun). Now, here's where the confusion comes into play. While our calendar is linear, with the year numbers getting ever bigger as time proceeds, the Maya measured time as cyclical. For them, after 13 baktuns, (the Maya believed the current cycle began about 5,125 years ago) the calendar simply goes back to zero and — this is the important part — it starts all over again. Just as a year ends on Dec. 31 and a new year starts again at the beginning, Jan. 1, the Maya believed the same was true for periods of time longer than a year.
No muss, no fuss, and no apocalyptic conflagrations.
The Maya never said that all of time or the Earth or life on the planet will end after the 13th baktun.
That day will arrive Dec. 21, 2012, on our calendar. The only thing that is supposed to happen that day is that time's odometer rolls over, back to zero. So much for Hollywood endings.
Good ol' Dr. Kenny! A bastion of healthy skepticism, clear logic and common sense if there ever was one. As he points out, just like a calendar on your wall or desktop, Dec. 21, 2012 is just the end of one particular cycle of the Mayan calendar. After that, a fresh one begins.
Misinterpreting ancient prognostications has long been fodder for great conspiracy theories, and one of the most popular themes continues to be "the end of the world." A great site to check out for numerous "End of World" scenarios is Exit Mundi -- from global warming and asteroid strikes to super volcanoes and cat apocalypses, there's a Doomsday scenario for everyone. And pretty much every conceivable date has been suggested.
As a matter of fact, quite a few predicted expiration dates for Earth have passed without incident. Most recently, it was Y2K -- remember all the hype and hysteria about how all the world's electronics and computers were going to simultaneously come to a halt and the world was going to be plunged into darkness and chaos? It was going to be a global cataclysm of biblical proportions!
I recently saw a great episode of "Naked Science" on National Geographic entitled "How To Kill a Planet" with the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait, basically debunking with actual hard science (as opposed to empty hysterical theories) all the ways the Earth might be destroyed, including man-made black holes (hello Large Hadron Collider!) and anti-matter bombs. Basically, the Earth is a pretty tough place, and it will probably last until the eventual degradation of the Sun a few billion years from now before it is wiped from the solar system. So, plan accordingly.
Of course, not all scientists are as rational. Back in the early 1980s when I was in high school, there was a bit of hype around March 10, 1982, a day when all the known planets of our solar system would be aligned in a straight line on one side of the Sun. A book written earlier, The Jupiter Effect, heralded this event, suggesting that the subsequent gravitational forces would cause catastrophic earthquakes and floods, tearing the planet asunder.
Not surprisingly, there were some people who truly thought the world was going to end that day. Surprisingly, one of them was a science teacher at my high school, who actually took that day off to be cowering at home with her family and loved ones. Obviously, March 10, 1982 came, the planets aligned and ... nothing happened.
I always felt bad for the poor deluded woman, who had to come back and face her peers as well as entire school full of students who pretty much just mocked her for years. Although, I guess if she had been right and the world had ended, it would've been bittersweet for her. It'd been tricky for her to tell everyone, "I told you so!" while we were all being ripped to shreds by gravity and the vacuum of space.
Oh well, maybe next apocalypse.