by Larry Klaes, space enthusiast and science journalist
A slightly different version of this article appeared on The Tompkins Weekly on May 10, 2010.
Not since 2000 has an impending year so intrigued and concerned the general public like 2012. Many people have a vague idea that the world is heading towards some kind of doom because of a calendar created by an ancient and mysterious race. They see every new natural and artificial disaster as one more bit of proof that everything will come to a crashing end – on December 21, 2012 to be exact.
What are the real facts behind all the stories, hype, and concern about 2012? Ithaca’s Science Cabaret devoted its last program of the spring to this very year and topic. Titled “2012: Truths and Fictions”, the subject was tackled from two key angles by Ann Martin, a Ph.D astronomy candidate at Cornell and Wendy Bacon, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Bacon began with a very brief background on the Maya, the Mesoamerican culture which supposedly started all this fuss. Settled primarily in what is now southern Mexico and the bordering nations of Belize and Honduras, the Maya society (the letter n is added to the end of their name only when speaking about their language) existed from roughly 1500 BCE to 1500 CE when the Spanish conquistadors began settling their region. The Maya did not die out, however: Today between 4 and 9 million descendants of this once great society still live in the area, speaking twelve diverse languages and nestled among the rainforests and the remnants of the magnificent temples built by their ancestors.
Martin then took the stage to explain that a Cornell Web site titled “Ask an Astronomer” which started in 1997 and currently has over 800 answers to commonly asked questions about the heavens, began showing a noticeable increase in questions pertaining to 2012.
Martin examined some of the recent 2012 documentaries from The History Channel and the recent film with the year as its title. She noted that for the cable programs, sensationalism was prevalent. “Our days are numbered! Prepare for doomsday!” were some of the themes from the programs on The History Channel. As for what exactly is supposed to happen in December of 2012, Martin explained that we have been given three choices: A New Age style time of renewal, the actual end of the worlds, and a major astronomical event.
Bacon took the microphone from Martin to describe the Long Count calendar of the Maya which started our society’s focus on 2012. The Long Count began on August 11, 3114 BCE, a date chosen more out of numerical symmetry than anything else. The calendar’s choice of 2012 as its time to recycle is due to matching the number of days from its ancient origin. When Maya society began to collapse from the top down in our tenth century CE, the Long Count of measuring days went with it. “2012 is based on something that hasn’t been used in a very long time,” stated Bacon.
Responding to the question of why our modern society has focused on a calendar system that has not been used by the people who originated it in centuries, Martin suggested that one reason is that 2012 will come about sooner than, say, the calendar of the Maya’s neighbors – the Aztecs – which will not see the end of its current cycle until 2027.
The Cornell astronomer then addressed the various celestial fictions that have arisen regarding 2012. As one example, some claim that Earth will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy on December 21 of two years hence and this will somehow bring about a terrible disaster. Using a simple diagram, Martin showed that our world aligns with the center of our galaxy twice a year as Earth orbits the Sun, and has done so for roughly the last five billion years.
Martin dismissed claims that our globe will be destroyed when it plunges into the galactic core, which is over 26,000 light years away. She also explained that Earth and humanity will not be affected by plunging through the plane of the Milky Way or if the planets in our Solar System line up (which they will not do on any day in 2012). She noted further that Earth will not be struck by the mythical planet Nibiru, or be fried by the Sun if Earth’s magnetic field should suddenly reverse itself.
“The public should be excited about the Maya and astronomy,” said Martin. “But instead, people are freaking out about 2012 for false reasons. This is a real shame.” Martin and Bacon both expressed concern about how uncertain and frightened many people (in North America at least) are about the year 2012 due to these unsubstantiated rumors. The scientists foresee a backlash against science from these events, which Martin calls a “loss of cosmophiles” or people who might otherwise love learning about the Cosmos.
Images: Chichén Itzá temple/Maya glyph composite, Aaron Logan; glyphs from La Mojarra Stela 1, Veracruz, Mexico — the left column gives a Long Count date of 18.104.22.168.7, or June 23, 156 CE; Maya calendar cartoon, Dan Piraro.