Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Waiting for the End of the World

I was in Borders the other day, and there now seems to be a cottage industry of books on the so-called "end of the world," which is said to be coming in 2012. Specifically, December 21, 2012. Whilst I am happy that it would mean I can avoid Christmas shopping, alas, we will all still be here in January (although I think I'll schedule any dentist's appointments for January 2013, so at least there will be an upside if the world does in fact end).

So where did this idea come from? Well, first of all, throughout history, there has never been any shortage of doomsday predictions, whether they be divinely inspired or technologically derives (the so-called Y2K disaster that also, if memory serves, spawned a cottage industry of books).

Interestingly, the current "2012" doomsday has actually been rescheduled from 2003. It's basically if Amtrak ran doomsday.

NASA's David Morrison, who writes the "Ask an Astrobiologist" blog, has 20 questions about the looming disaster. Some of his commentary has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, and as 2012 looms closer, I expect will be appearing more places.

Why is NASA getting involved in this?

I refer you to Question 1:
1. What is the origin of the prediction that the world will end in December 2012?
The story started with claims that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, is headed toward Earth. Zecharia Sitchin, who writes fiction about the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, claimed in several books (e.g., The Twelfth Planet, published in 1976) that he has found and translated Sumerian documents that identify the planet Nibiru, orbiting the Sun every 3600 years. These Sumerian fables include stories of “ancient astronauts” visiting Earth from a civilization of aliens called the Anunnaki. Then Nancy Lieder, a self-declared psychic who claims she is channeling aliens, wrote on her website Zetatalk that the inhabitants of a fictional planet around the star Zeta Reticuli warned her that the Earth was in danger from Planet X or Nibiru. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012. Only recently have these two fables been linked to the end of the Mayan long-count at the winter solstice in 2012 – hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012.
It bears mentioning that doomsdayophiles conflate so-called Nibiru with "Planet X" and/or Eris. "Planet X" is a generic name assigned to any newly discovered object that might turn out to be a planet at the far edge of the Solar System. When the dwarf planet we now call Eris was first identified, it was referred to as "Planet X," then code-named "Xena" (those astronomers are lawless), and then officially named "Eris." Indeed, back in the early 20th century, when astronomers suspected that what we now call Pluto existed, it was also called "Planet X." None of these are Nibiru, and none of them are coming anywhere near the Earth, not in 2012 or...well, ever.

Doomsayers also, for reasons passing understanding, cite as evidence the fact that December 21, 2012, is the last date on the Mayan calendar. I don't know. December 31, 2009, is the last date on both my American Museum of Natural History wall calendar and my Anguished English page-a-day desk caldendar. I should be doubly worried--and a lot sooner!

Or it could mean that the end of the year is when the calendar resets, and I just have to buy a new one (or get one for Christmas, hint hint).

Likewise, there is evidence that the Mayan calendar is cyclical, albeit on a much larger scale than a single year, and that when it ends it simply means that you start again from the beginning. Like any calendar.

If you are concerned about the looming end of the world in 2012--and everyone seems to have their favorite method of destruction--I encourage you go read Dr. Morrison's Q&A.

Personally, I think the real worry is not the year 2012, but 2112. But at least I know if I find an ancient guitar in a cave, to not play it for the priests of the Temple of Syrinx.

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