December 21: The End of the World as We Know It?

December 21, 2012

By Calvin L. Chrisman

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the following announcement: Contrary to rumors flying on the Internet, the world will not end on 12.21.2012. In case you missed it, this seems to have started with some apocalyptic books and a 2009 movie – 2012 End of Times which somehow tied together (a) the end of a cycle of the ancient Mayan calendar; (b) the Earth supposedly eclipsing the Galactic Center; (c) a mystery planet called Nibiru which will collide with Earth and (d) a planetary alignment thus causing the end of the world. This pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo seems to be taken seriously in some places as evidenced by a recent New York Times article reporting prison riots and extensive hording in Russia which required reassurances from the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. (It’s no wonder they lost the Cold War!) So much misinformation – where to begin?

Mayan Calendar
Mayan Calendar

The Mayan Calendar: The ancient Mayan calendar is divided into something called baktuns, which are long periods of 144,000 days. On December 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar will finish Baktun 13 which, apparently, is the equivalent of the odometer on your car turning over all zeros when you get enough miles on it. Although this has led to erroneous conclusions that this is the “end” of the Mayan calendar, in fact, anyone who observes this calendar will just pull off the last day of their 13th Baktun wall calendar and go on to Baktun 14 much as we will do on December 31, 2012 by moving on to January 1, 2013. Mayan scholars confirm that there is no end to the Mayan calendar and that there are even pictuns, which are made up of twenty baktuns. You are going to appreciate this knowledge the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.

Earth eclipsing the Galactic Center: There actually is an astronomical phenomenon that will occur on 12.21.2012. It is the annual winter solstice when the Sun reaches its southernmost position for the year and northern hemisphere winter begins. The claim is that this solstice will occur as the Earth passes through the galactic equator thus causing something bad to happen. If the ancient Mayans had telescopes (doubtful) they were more powerful and accurate than ours since present day astronomers cannot accurately chart the exact position of the galactic equator. The best thinking today is that, if Earth ever actually passes through this imaginary plane, it will be 200 years from now; more importantly, if it does happen, so what? We cross the Earth’s equator regularly; our spacecraft cross the ecliptic (the equivalent of the Solar System’s equator) regularly and nothing happens.

The Planet Nibiru: Doesn’t exist. It is supposed to be four times the size of Earth. Mars is one-half the size or Earth and averages 140 million miles away and we see it clearly. We wouldn’t even need binoculars to see Nibiru from a long way off. The conspiracy theorists claim that NASA is keeping this secret to avoid panic. There are thousands of amateur astronomers who watch the sky every night. They are not good at keeping secrets, particularly the discovery of a new planet complete with naming rights.

Planetary Alignments: These do happen but there won’t be one on 12.21.2012. The last time Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter were (roughly) aligned was May 5, 2000, resulting in many dire predictions at the time. Please note that you are still here. The claim is that, somehow, the gravitational pull “created” by these alignments will wreak havoc. The truth is that all bodies (planets and otherwise) are always pulling on one another. Ninety-eight percent of the mass in our solar system is located in the Sun itself so the effect of the rest is comparatively small. Additionally, the strength of gravity diminishes with the square of the distance between bodies: twice the distance = one-fourth the force; three times the distance=one-ninth the force, etc. So, planets that are hundreds of millions of miles away exert low forces on Earth.

On balance, you can rest easy as to what may happen on Friday the 21st of December. Finish your Christmas shopping because the world will continue right into the New Year (Mayan or otherwise!).

Clear Skies!