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2012: The Dark Truth Finally Unveiled

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, or June 23, 156 CE; Maya calendar cartoon, Dan Piraro.

23 Responses to “2012: The Dark Truth Finally Unveiled”

  1. Neo says:

    We had a similar scare of doom in year 1996 (If I remember correctly) about year 2000, and in our state (a sourthern state in India), people were particularly scared by an article published in a popular magazine. The irony is, the same author was on a TV show recently, scaring us again, about 2012.

    As a matter of fact, I believe world may end anytime. We have built up so many weapons. And there always people with a finger on the button. Even if we consider “natural events”, we humans have very small “survival space”. By survival space I mean, the range of physical and other parameters within which we survive. (for example maximum force we can tolerate, the temperature range, intensity of radiation etc). Somehow we have managed to survive up to now. No one knows how tomorrow might be.

    But what makes me wonder is the frequency and ease with which people can come with such phony stories. One thing is sure, though.

    Usually, the usual things happen.


  2. Athena says:

    I agree, Neo. These end-of-days scenarios only enrich charlatans while distracting people from real problems.

  3. Walden2 says:

    I want to thank Athena once again for posting my work on her blog. I look forward to the intelligent commentary that her site generates on these topics, and 2012 needs all the intelligent commentary it can get.

    Plus I love the one-panel comic you put in at the end! Note how these Maya are using the Aztec sun god calendar for their own, plus they somehow know about the Christian dating system well before the events in that manger in Bethlehem! The Maya were prophets after all.

    Athena also linked to a 19-minute excerpt of the actual lecture that I wrote about embedded above in my article, which will give you a taste of the event itself and more detail about the Maya, the Long Count, and the astronomical nonsense regarding 2012 than I could fit in my original 1,000-word limit.

    The enthusiasm of both speakers was infectious. I know that Wendy Bacon could have gone on for the whole lecture just about that Mesoamerican culture without having to mention once otherwise that dreaded year, but that is not why most of the people were there in the first place, nor is much of the public who fear 2012.

    Wendy mentioned that some of the Maya descendants living today have been interviewed on their thoughts about 2012. The vast majority of replies have ranged from What? to Those gringos are crazy. I am surprised some of them haven’t tried to cash in on the phenomenon. Or am I thinking too Western again?

    Only one glyph has been found that mentions the Long Count equivalent of 2012 and a big deal was not made aboiut it. And no, it didn’t look anything like the Aztec sun god calendar. :^)

    My worry is that some fanatic or a group of them will try to bring about some kind of disaster in keeping with some warped version of cosmic harmony or destiny. In 2000 a group of Amercian Christian fundamentalists actually flew to Israel to stir up trouble and bring about Armageddon, I kid you not. Thankfully they were dealt with swiftly by Israeli security forces.

    And hey, if 2012 is a miss, we’ve got 2027 to look forward to when the Aztec calendar reaches the end of its latest cycle. Then we have 2039 when the space rock Apophis zips really near to Earth. And then we have Sir Isaac Newton’s prediction that the world will end in 2060 based on his interpretation of what is written in the Bible. So we have plenty of other world-shattering events to look forward to if the one for 2012 fails.

  4. Athena says:

    Always a pleasure, Larry! Yes, just about every site on the Internet that talks of the Maya calendar shows the Aztec Sun Wheel instead. Unnerving, to think that an incorrect fact has become “truth” by its omnipresence. I’m not surprised that the local descendants are amused or annoyed by this wingnuttery and I wouldn’t blame them if they tried to pull legs or wallets.

  5. Walden2 says:

    ‘End of the world’ delayed — by Mayan calendar

    Overhyped 2012 apocalypse could still be decades away, says critique

    By Stephanie Pappas


    updated 10/19/2010 5:15:20 PM ET 2010-10-19T21:15:20

    It’s a good news/bad news situation for believers in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. The good news is that the Mayan “Long Count” calendar may not end on Dec. 21, 2012 (and, by extension, the world may not end along with it). The bad news for prophecy believers? If the calendar doesn’t end in December 2012, no one knows when it actually will — or if it has already.

    A new critique, published as a chapter in the new textbook “Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World” (Oxbow Books, 2010), argues that the accepted conversions of dates from Mayan to the modern calendar may be off by as much as 50 or 100 years.

    That would throw the supposed and overhyped 2012 apocalypse off by decades and cast into doubt the dates of historical Mayan events. (The doomsday worries are based on the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, much as our year ends on Dec. 31.)

    Full article here:

  6. Athena says:

    Why am I not surprised? But those who want to believe will believe, no matter what the “data” are.

  7. Athena says:

    Hehehe! Succinct and to the point!

  8. Walden2 says:

    PhysOrg 1/7/11: “NASA’s silly sci-fi film list — 2012 the most flawed (w/ Video)”

    “At a conference held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California,NASA experts have voted 2012 the most scientifically flawed and absurd science fiction film ever made.

    The 2009 disaster film named 2012 was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser and grossed almost $800 million. The story is set on the date the Mayan calendar supposedly ends (21 December 2012), which is believed by some to be the day the world will end.

    The story revolves around a marital reconciliation, which takes place as the world begins to collapse as strange neutrino particles cause global devastation.”


  9. Athena says:

    I’d say Skyline would give 2012 a good run for its money.

  10. Walden2 says:

    And the stupidity continues.

    Now the so-called news media have suddenly discovered that the red giant star Betelguese might go supernova some day. Naturally they have tangled this into the whole Maya prophecy nonsense.

    CBS News at least is trying to slap it down:

  11. Athena says:

    If we see it in 2012, it went nova in 1400. Duh. Though I’ll be sad to see Orion lose his shoulder.

  12. Walden2 says:

    “11/11/11: Maya Scholar Debunks Doomsday Myths”

    “University of Kansas anthropologist and Maya scholar John Hoopes and
    his students are watching predicted doomsday dates such as 11/11/11
    and Dec. 21, 2012, with considerable skepticism.

    Hoopes is regarded as one of the major go-to guys to separate fact
    from fiction about the Maya calendar and a prediction that the world
    would end Dec. 21, 2012.”

    Full article here:

    I will be celebrating Nigel Tufnel Day:

    But I think we should also pay heed to Uri Geller – yes, of spoon-bending fame:

  13. Athena says:

    A little numerology, a little gobbledygook using physics terminology… and we have a nice package to sell to those who also buy bridges on Rigel IV.

  14. Walden2 says:

    UCSB scholar’s reading of hieroglyphic verb alters understanding of Mayan ritual texts

    November 21, 2011

    By presenting a new interpretation of a Maya hieroglyphic verb, Gerardo Aldana, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara, has revised the understanding of one of the longest-studied texts in Maya archaeology. Aldana’s research appears in his new book, “Tying Headbands or Venus Appearing: New Translations of k’al, the Dresden Codex Venus Pages and Classic Period Royal ‘Binding’ Rituals” (Archaeopress, 2011).

  15. Walden2 says:

    Just in time for next year: Mexico says they have found a second Maya reference to 12-21-2012:

    As I have said before, while there is no credibility to all the doom-and-gloom “predictions” made by certain elements regarding 2012, I am concerned that some fringe elements will attempt to make something happen to fulfill the “prophecy”.

    I just hope 2012 isn’t as crazy as some think it will be due to societal reaction. The last few years have had enough issues without the world coming to an end to boot.

  16. Walden2 says:

    You know this won’t dispel anything for the True Believers, but a little bit of factual knowledge never hurts.

    Mayan Calendar Find Dispels Doomsday Myth

    2:08pm UK, Friday May 11, 2012

    The earliest known Mayan calendar has been found in an ancient house in Guatemala and it does not give any indication that the world is about to end, researchers say.

    The findings were spotted in a small room in Mayan ruins in the rainforest at Xultun where royal scribes some 1,200 years ago apparently used walls as a blackboard to keep track of astronomical records and the society’s intricate calendar.

    Full article here:

    And one more:

    To quote:

    Shucks. Maybe we’ll have to keep paying the electric bill after all.

    Archaeologists, excavating the ninth-century Maya complex of Xultun in Guatemala, say they have found what may have been a workspace for the town’s scribe. Paintings on the walls, they report, appear to include calculations related to the Maya calendar.

    The researchers, writing in today’s edition of the journal Science, say the calculations project 7,000 years into the future. There’s no hint that the calendar ends on Dec. 21, 2012, despite popular belief.

    “Why would they go into those numbers if the world is going to come to an end this year?” said Anthony Aveni at Colgate University, a scholar of Maya astronomy and a co-author of the paper. “You could say a number that big at least suggests that time marches on.”

  17. Walden2 says:

    “Maya archaeologists unearth new 2012 monument”

    “Archaeologists working at the site of La Corona in Guatemala have
    discovered a 1,300 year-old year-old Maya text that provides only the
    second known reference to the so-called ‘end date’ for the Maya
    calendar on December 21, 2012. The discovery, one of the most
    significant hieroglyphic find in decades, was announced today at the
    National Palace in Guatemala.”


    “Why the reference to the year 2012? Does it provide a prophecy of
    what is to come? No, the reference to this important date has much
    more to do with events in the 7th rather than 21st century.

    The key to understanding the reference to 2012 is a unique title that
    [a] Calakmul king gives himself. In the text, he calls himself the ’13
    K’atun lord’-that is, the king who presided over and celebrated an
    important calendar ending, the 13th K’atun cycle ( This
    event had occurred just a few years before in AD 692. In order to
    vaunt himself even further and place his reign and accomplishments
    into an eternal setting, he connects himself forward in time to when
    the next higher period of the Maya calendar would reach the same 13
    number-that is, December 21, 2012 (

    Rather than prophesy, the 2012 reference served to place this king’s
    troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological

    Lots more:

  18. Walden2 says:

    Why the fears of doom in 2012 will not go away (and I am not even talking about Romney as President):

    My real fears about 2012 are the possibilities for some people and cults to bring about some kind of disaster on December 21. According to the article linked below, already there have been two documented cases of children committing suicide from this nonsense and other reporting that their families will all kill themselves to avoid the End Times.

    And don’t tell me that television series like The Walking Dead and the godawful Revolution aren’t cashing in on this growing panic and fueling the fire in the process – but who cares so long as some people get rich off of it all. It is not a joke that some teens are better prepared for a zombie apocalypse than college and other real aspects of their future lives.

    Reassuring the public that nothing will happen in two months using science may soothe a number of them intellectually, but since most people are not intellectuals, I expect at least some of the so-called “Maya prophecy:” to be fulfilled in certain ways and areas.

    As I said in my original article here, once 2012 is done, we can look forward to the end of the Aztec calendar in 2027 and the flyby of the space rock Apophis in 2036 for our next End of the World events.

  19. Walden2 says:

    Rutgers Univeristy via PhysOrg, 12/17/2012:

    “Rutgers expert says Mayans never forecast Dec 21st apocalypse”

    “December 21st may not be the end of the world as we know it, but if
    next week’s predicted apocalypse falls through, America’s many
    doomsday prophets will invariably choose a new date, says Stuart
    Charme, a Rutgers-Camden professor of religion. The basis for the
    latest End Times date is the Mayan calendar, which stops on
    12/21/2012. Although the Mayans themselves didn’t really forecast an
    apocalypse, explains Charme, some have interpreted the date to be a
    sign that life on Earth will be snuffed out next Friday.

    Scenarios of the world’s end have a strong tradition in United States.
    From the Book of Revelation to the present day explosion of zombie
    films and TV shows, apocalyptic thinking has always been with us.
    According to polls, at least 40 percent of Americans believe Jesus
    will return to Earth by 2050. Twelve percent believe the Mayan
    calendar is correct and the world will end on December 21, says
    Charme, who teaches a class called ‘End of the World.”’

    More and an interview:

  20. Walden2 says:

    This paper apparently says that the End of the World was supposed to happen on December 24, 2012, not December 21, 2012:

    It might also indicate that Maya experts were off by hundreds of years.

    What it really says is that people spend an awful lot of time worrying about and focusing on things that mean absolutely nothing to the rest of the Universe, such as our various calendric systems. Though I do want someone to explain to me the diagram of the angry rabbit and the scowling man who seem to be arguing with each other.

    Note how existence has carried on despite all the fuss the talking monkeys with car keys of Sol 3 went on about the Maya “doomsday prophecy”.

    Now it has presumably passed and I note that except for some lingering comments and jokes on Facebook, most people seem to want to pretend it never happened and that they certainly weren’t worried about it actually happening, no not them.

    Up next, the Aztec calendar changeover in 2027 – though I am sure some nut leader of a cult will come up with a new world-ending prophecy between now and then. Hey, we may have a really big comet appearing in our skies by this time next year. I am sure it will be good for at least one or two spaceships traveling in its wake to bring home even more cosmically special followers.

    Only one thing is for certain: Humans don’t need either cosmic or supernatural forces to be terrible and destructive to each other. Nor do they need special days or times of the year to act in such manners. I wonder if all intelligent species are like this?

    I now know enough about dolphins that they are often not very nice to each other either, plus they spend an awful lot of time duking out their social status. If they could make or have access to guns and bombs, would they be any less violent to each other? I bet those cetacean shows at Sea World would take on a whole new level of interesting at least if dolphins and orcas could purchase automatic weapons.

  21. Walden2 says:

    Oh yes, I note another type of response to the Maya doomsday prophecy: The folks who say that the world did change and that we now live in a place that will just get better and better. I have even see the Age of Aquarius being invoked. I remember that song from when I was a kid, I think at the Ice Capades.

    Remember the Harmonic Convergence of 1987? I seriously doubt anything cosmically good could have happened during the Reagan Administration, do you?

    This morning I was listening to Air America on the radio on my way to work. The host was debating with gun advocates how they and every other American have the right to own automatic weapons that could mow down dozens of people in seconds. For home defense, of course. And the right to kill animals.

    There are too many people on this finite planet. We still act like we did in prehistoric times, only our means of destruction have gotten better and deadlier. This is the recipe for doom.