The End of the World: Fact or Fiction?

A look at Mayan Calendar Cycles and Prophecies

Tulum with Month wheel

The Temple of the Sun at Tulum, Mexico with a Uinal (month) Wheel.

Many websites and even a few popular movies have sprouted up recently to predict the end of the world (or at least a major catastrophe) on December 21, 2012. They base their predictions on the Long Count cycles of the Mayan calendar system; Dec. 21, 2012 is supposedly the day when the Mayan calendar cycles end. They say the Mayan astronomers did not calculate further because there would be no world left to worry about. I’ve been doing some research so that I can put together a lesson plan on this topic for my astronomy class in two weeks and the whole subject is fascinating.

Mayan numbers

Mayan numerals 0-19.

A good scientist must keep two attitudes in constant balance: an open mind, and skepticism. We need to be willing to listen to new ideas because the truth often comes from unexpected sources, but we also have to know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs; anything that claims a basis in scientific fact should be provable empirically. Since claims of Mayan predictions of doom are based on provable evidence (ancient Maya writings and their calendar system), we can examine them scientifically.

Mayan number conversion

Converting numbers between Mayan and Arabic numerals.

Mayan Beliefs

Much of Mayan culture and folklore has been lost to us, as the original writings, drawn on folded wooden tablets called codices, were destroyed by early Christian missionaries. Only a few of the codices survived, such as the Dresden Codex. Other sources include inscriptions on monuments, stella, or temples. One surviving book, called the Popol Vuh, has some references that may apply to future events.

The Popol Vuh, or Book of the People, was translated from oral traditions around 1700 by Francisco Ximénez. These traditions may have been based on older, written sources from the 1550s. It tells the creation myths of the K’iche’ Maya of the Guatemalan highlands, the great world cycles, and the origin of the popular Mayan ball game as the hero twins (Hunahpu’ and Xbalanque’) defeat of the Lords of Xibalbá, the underworld. It tells how the K’iche’ migrated to the mountains and obtained dominance over other tribes with the help of the Serpent Lord Q’uq’umatz. It tells the genealogies of the kings and the building of the cities of the classical period (790 – 1000 CE).

In recording the creation myth, the Popol Vuh relates that our current time is the Fourth World, and that the Third World ended after 13 Long Count cycles (baktun). The current world began on August 12, 3114 BCE, and the end of the 13th baktun will occur on Dec. 21, 2012. It is implied, though not explicitly stated in the Popol Vuh, that the end of the 13th baktun will bring a new cycle of creation and an end to the current Fourth World, just as it ended the Third World. Experts disagree as to whether the Maya felt this would cause catastrophes and destruction or would merely be a change in human consciousness, a beginning of a new age of enlightenment (the Age of Aquarius).

Collision

Could Earth be destroyed by a cosmic collision?

Doomsday Scenarios

Some “experts” go further to try to find astronomical events that might cause some catastrophe or cosmic occurrence. One group explains that our sun will align with the exact center of our galaxy on that date, which is the Winter Solstice. Exactly what effect this is supposed to have on the Earth is uncertain; certainly there will not be enough additional gravity to make any difference. One problem with this explanation is that the sun is about ½ of a degree wide, and precession of the equinoxes will cause the sun to take about 36 years to cross the galactic plane and the center of the galaxy, beginning around 1998. So technically the sun’s center will pass the exact center of the Milky Way in 2016, not 2012.

A bigger problem is that the Maya couldn’t have known what a galaxy was or been able to predict the sun’s motion that far in advance with the observational tools they had. Our galaxy varies in width from 5 to 10 degrees, is irregularly shaped due to the spiral arms and dark nebula, and the exact center of the galaxy could only be determined using modern telescopes and infrared sensors. There is no evidence that the Maya knew about precession of the equinoxes (caused by Earth being pulled on by the unequal gravitational forces of the sun and the moon). This alignment of sun with galaxy is only as seen from Earth on a particular day; from the perspective of the Milky Way, our sun well above the galactic plane right now.

Saturn and Mars align

An alignment of Saturn, Mars, and the Moon in Virgo on August 21, 2012. This must mean bad luck for all Virgos!

Accidental alignments between planets and with astronomic objects are common; even as I write this (Aug. 22\1, 2012), Saturn, the Moon, and Mars are aligned with the star Spica in Virgo. Astrologers might make something of this, but not astronomers. Astronomers see planetary alignments as opportunities to send space probes to other planets using gravity assist maneuvers. They are not harbingers of the end of the world.

Another candidate for a physical phenomenon that might cause the end of the world this December is a collision between an asteroid or a comet and Earth. That is certainly a possibility, although a minor one. Asteroids have been spotted over the last several years as they skim close to Earth (some even between the moon and Earth). This doesn’t mean there are suddenly more close calls, it merely means we’re getting better at spotting them. Such near misses happen all the time. It’s true that an asteroid one kilometer wide would be big enough to do some damage, so that’s why we’re looking more closely. Comets come by all the time, and we frequently pass through their orbits (that’s what causes a meteor shower, as dust and ices left by comets burn up in our atmosphere). I’ve seen some spectacular meteor storms, such as the Leonids in 2001 and 2002, but nothing big enough to even make it to the ground. As of this writing there are no known objects that could collide with Earth this December.

The movie 2012, which came out in 2009, proposed that an excess of solar neutrinos would cause the Earth’s core to heat up and suddenly shift all the tectonic plates around. This is intriguing but preposterous and shows a woeful lack of understanding of both nuclear physics and geology on the part of the writers. Neutrinos are generated by many nuclear reactions, including the fusing of hydrogen to helium that occurs in the sun. Trillions of them pass through us every moment, and only rarely does a neutrino interact with a particle of regular matter, such as a proton or neutron. They are very hard to even detect. If the sun were to suddenly increase its neutrino output, the neutrinos would be the least of our worries because an increase in neutrinos would mean an increase in solar fusion in the core. But this increase in activity would take thousands of years to radiate to the sun’s surface, and then we’d be burnt to a crisp by the increase in solar flares and UV radiation, not by the neutrinos.

As for the tectonic plates suddenly breaking loose all at once and moving around the planet in days – well, let’s put it this way: the Atlantic Ocean gets wider by about an inch per year. About 100 million years ago this sped up to about two inches per year and it was enough to cause the Rocky Mountains to form. But it still took about 40 million years to happen. When India broke off of the African plate and moved north until it hit Asia (which formed the Himalayas), it moved about as fast as a plate can possibly go and it still took hundreds of millions of years. So no – tectonic plates don’t move around in days. Anything that could do that would destroy the entire Earth.

Run away

“Run away! Run away!”

The only part of that movie that was scientifically plausible was the explosion of the Yellowstone supervolcano, which has happened before and will happen again. It was shown quite accurately, including the huge blanket of ash covering the entire eastern United States like gray snow. I have a friend who was a police officer in Tacoma, Washington the day Mt. St. Helens blew up, and he says it was very much like the movie. The only ridiculous part was our hero, played by John Cusak, trying to outrun a pyroclastic flow (the huge wall of ash blowing out of the eruption). Those flows move at about the speed of sound. I don’t think he can run 340 meters per second. For that matter, the propeller-driven airplane couldn’t have outran it, either.

LA sinks into ocean

Say Goodbye to Hollywood!

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the spectacle of Los Angeles breaking away from North America and sliding into the ocean. It was a cool special effect. Los Angeles isn’t really part of North America, anyway.

Another theory is that the sun will cause widespread destruction as it reaches a maximum in its sunspot cycle in December. Actually, the solar max will occur in 2013 and is predicted to be milder than usual. We’ve heard more about solar storms lately, again because we are better at monitoring them. Their effects are more serious now that we rely so much on communication satellites. Down here on Earth, we can at best hope for some nice auroras, a little more static, and maybe a power outage or two.

Some websites have claims so incredulous that I almost feel obliged to look up the writer’s high school science teachers and have a long talk with them. Some sites even claim that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will cause the disaster, or make assertions that scientists have “proven” that the world will end soon without giving any references on just who these “scientists” are. Whoever they are, they don’t seem to be publishing in any peer reviewed scientific journals.

As science teachers we get asked a lot of interesting questions. I think it is important to respect people’s beliefs, but I won’t tolerate pseudoscience masquerading as real science and making scientific claims. I also draw the line at con artists putting fear into the hearts of gullible people because fearful people are easier to control. We have enough real problems to solve without making up new ones to worry people.

Where possible, we should put these claims to the test using verifiable, empirical observations. And we should teach our students the habits of thought (skepticism and open-mindedness) that are the hallmark of true scientists. I would recommend to all science teachers that they read Carl Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books; New York, NY: 1996). It goes into pseudoscience vs. true science, looks at many of the New Age mysticisms, and shows how we can develop habits of scientific inquiry.

If you’d like to teach a lesson on the Mayan calendars, then here is my lesson plan. Have some fun with it!

Mayan_Calendar_Lesson

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About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science at American Academy of Innovation in South Jordan, Utah. Previously, I taught similar courses at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah and Media Design Technology courses at Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) in Orem, Utah. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and will be traveling to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador and global educator. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. My Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements in the form of audio, video, and written podcasts that all can share and learn from.
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