2012: Internet Doom Classes

This post is an opinion, with which you may disagree.  Please feel free to comment below and say so!

From all over the Internet:

“As foretold by the Mayan calendar, the Universe is one year away from its final destination, where this reality will terminate.

Please prepare to vacate the universe. Return all matter to its pre-atomic state, and place any left over dark matter into the black holes provided. If you require any of your checkout procedure to be recorded as string theory equations, then please collect and retain any dimensions you have beyond the third.

Any remaining Time can be claimed back as Space, if you correctly fill in your Time Return Forms. If you have not yet been issued with a Time Return Form, then this is an illusion caused by your limited dimensionality. Relax, and an authorized Time Collection Agent will have been visiting you.

On behalf of our parent company, The Gods, and our Earth Ground Crew, The Mayans, we hope you enjoyed your stay in this reality, and would choose to participate in an inexplicable and random expression of spontaneously generated space-time in what, for want of a better term, we shall call ‘The Future’.”

Well, this is it. The last year of humanity. Happy New Year (belated, I know). Come December, it’s curtains. Goodnight, Vienna. And Paris, and Rome, and London, and New York, and everywhere else. The End Of The World is Nigh.

And I know this For A Fact™, for I have read it on the Internet. And as we all know, they wouldn’t be allowed to say it if it wasn’t true.

21 December 2012: the fateful Day of Doom, as heralded by a plethora of books, websites and TV shows. The Apocalypse. Armageddon. The final plunge into eternal darkness; or at the most optimistic, a comprehensive rolling-up and restarting of the world which we’ll be lucky indeed to survive.

Oh, woe!

Or possibly – depending on your perspective – hallelujah!

I don’t know: I suppose it depends what you think awaits us all on the Other Side.

Still, I thought it might be an interesting idea to have a closer look at some of these prophecies – to gird our loins; face the music; dree our collective wyrd – to find out exactly what awaits us during these End Times.

Why 21/12/12?

Firstly, what tells us that the End is set for 21 December? Why that date, rather than any other?

The pre-Columbian Mayan people were pretty sophisticated timekeepers. They had a number of detailed, overlapping calendars for various purposes, including a very long-scale one called – fittingly enough – the ‘Long Count’. (They were good at naming things, too.)

The Long Count measures time periods most people would find it difficult to imagine. The smallest division the Long Count measures is a day; the longest division – called the b’ak’tun – consists of a period of 144,000 days, or 394.3 complete orbits of Earth around the Sun. Years, to you and me – but proper, astronomical years, rather than the variously strangely tweaked ones that our Old World calendars have traditionally used.

Every calendar has a reference point. For our Gregorian calendar, it’s the accepted year of the birth of Christ 2,012 years ago. The Islamic calendar, currently reading 1433, is based on the date of the Hijrah – the relocation of the Prophet Muhammed to Medina. The Jewish calendar, now on 5772, begins one year before the Creation.  And so on. The Long Count calendar is generally agreed to be pinned to the traditional date of Creation in Maya mythology – which by our reckoning would have been 11 August, 3114 BC. A cycle of 13 b’ak’tun will, it’s thought, bring us to the end of the Creation period and usher in a new Creation – necessarily requiring the deletion of the old one. So that’s us.

(In actual fact, there are several Long Count calendars know to still exist, and they don’t all correspond with each other.  This is another hitch for those prophesying doom: which Long Count calendar is the ‘right’ one?  For the sake of book-publishing and running scary websites, the one that happens to land on a significant date for us – a winter solstice – seems to be the definitive, but it’s all pretty arbitrary.)

What’s Going To Happen?

This depends largely on who you ask, and what their agenda is.

If you’ve paid attention to your Internet doom classes, you may have heard talk of a rogue planet, Nibiru, which will pass close to Earth in December and tear us up through its gravitational influence. You may have heard that Earth will undergo a dramatic and sudden pole shift, either geological – wherein the entire crust of the planet flips 180° – or magnetic, which will reverse our compasses and bring navigational befuddlement and disaster. Or both, if you’ve got a real enthusiast on your hands.

You may have heard that a ‘galactic alignment’ – between the Earth, the Sun, and our Galaxy’s central black hole – will create gravitational forces that will disrupt our tides, play havoc with our weather and climate, and generally bring ruinous hardship upon us.

We might be hit by a comet; incinerated in a massive solar flare; irradiated by a gamma ray burst; or – and this is one of my particular favourites – the Large Hadron Collider, still the focus of quite a bit of doomsaying, will finally create that mini black hole we’ve been waiting for since they switched this terrible Promethean chaos engine on in the first place. Such a hole would, obviously, drop into the centre of the Earth and eat the planet from within. Nom.

Now, put aside all thoughts of particle accelerators (You get those thoughts, right? I know I do.) and imagine for a moment you’re a European living in the year AD 999. In the years leading up to the year 1000, it was widely believed within Christendom that the Second Coming was nigh; that having been gone for approaching a thousand years, Jesus would shortly return, bringing vengeful justice and laying the glorious, heavenly smackdown on the arrayed hosts of villainy and corruption. This would not be a good time for those who liked to associate with the aforementioned hosts, so a massive evangelistic push was undertaken: missionaries moved into deeply pagan territories to try to bring the Word of God to as many of the heathen as they could [Especially in northern Europe. Pants. – Amalasuntha]. And at the time, there were so many retrospectively interpreted signs and omens that it seemed mad – mad, I tell you! – to doubt that the End would shortly be Here. The idea that we would be having much the same hysterical panic come 1999 would have seemed impossible to Christian believers back then; because surely, in a few years we’d all either be living in crystal palaces and singing hymns or burning in lakes of sulphurous fire. One or the other, take your pick.

But they were wrong in 999. And the AD 2000 doomsayers were wrong. And so, as it turns out, are most of the predictions I’ve mentioned here.

But Tiro! I hear you cry, You can’t say they’re wrong before the event! You can’t know what is in store, unless you can see the future – you’re not claiming to be able to see the future, are you?

And why not, asks I? If the Mayans could do it – and the reason we’re talking about this is because it’s taken as read that they could – there’s no good reason I shouldn’t be able to.

But no, I jest – sort of. By definition, I accept that time is a complicated thing, and I’m inclined to suppose that we are, on occasion, given glimpses of possible futures. I hang around with too many diviners to claim otherwise. But I also believe – somewhat contrarily – that science knows a fair bit of stuff about things like astronomy and geology and such, and for this reason, I think we can reasonably dismiss most of the scarier predictions:

Nibiru doesn’t exist. Quite aside from the fact that no ancient text anywhere refers to the existence of any planet we haven’t already discovered (and we’ve discovered far more planets – hundreds of the damn things – than are mentioned in any pre-modern text), the simple truth is that if Nibiru as it’s usually described actually existed, we’d have been able to see it a long time ago. And I’m talking decades. Consider the dwarf planet** Makemake. Makemake is a little world orbiting the Sun at an average distance of 45 astronomical units. That’s 4.185 billion miles – at least a third again the distance of Neptune (the most distant object we’re still allowed to call a planet**). Makemake is only 750km in diameter, and we’ve seen that – but Nibiru proponents suggest we wouldn’t notice Earth’s evil twin bearing down on us close enough to pass by in just twelve months? If Nibiru existed, and if it was as close as the enthusiasts claim, then we wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing it – not to mention the enormous gravitational influence it would already be exerting on us. Planets aren’t noted for their ninja stealth skills. Death-by-Nibiru wouldn’t be a thing suddenly visited upon us at the precise moment of the winter solstice: that campaign would already be well underway.

An image of Venus

A planet, creeping.

What about a solar storm? You might have heard that we’re living at a time of unprecedented solar activity. Storms do occur, and frequently. Earth has weathered countless solar storms over its five-billion-year history, and several during the course of human history. Solar storms tend to affect technology more than they affect us, and it’s true we’re more dependent on delicate electronics than ever before. But while our technology is ever more sensitive to electromagnetic (EM) disruption, it should be remembered that, at the same time, the EM shielding used in that technology is constantly being improved as well. So solar storms, even quite ferocious ones, are relatively unlikely to do our civilisation much damage: they certainly won’t end it.

The Sun could certainly produce enough energy quickly enough to destroy us outright: sometimes a star will go ‘nova’, meaning that it explosively ejects its outer layers of nuclear material – but there are clear warning signs, occurring over decades, if not centuries, that this is about to happen, and the Sun has exhibited none of them. As for a ‘supernova’ – the complete explosive destruction of a star, resulting in a pretty nebula, like this one visible in the belt of Orion:

Image of the M42 nebula in Orion

The Orion Nebula: once a star, now nursery for new stars.

The Sun is not of a type that would be capable of this. It would need to be considerably more massive than it is, and while we all put an inch or two on over Christmas, the Sun’s not likely to become massive enough for a supernova by December.

What about the galactic alignment? The simple truth there is that the fearsomely powerful black hole at the centre of our Galaxy is already having as much effect on us as it’s ever going to. And what’s it doing? It’s keeping the solar system, Sun, planets, moons and all, in a nice, steady orbit around itself, as it has done for the last five billion years. An alignment between Sun, Earth and galactic centre would have precisely this much effect (this bit, between these two arrows): –> <–

An artist's rendering of a black hole.

Big, powerful... and 28,000 light-years away.

What about a gamma-ray burst (GRB)? For those who haven’t heard of these, they’re an admittedly terrifying astronomical phenomenon that we don’t fully understand yet. They’re a sort of explosion, to say the least: an emission of energy so powerful that the flash will quite cheerfully wash out the light from the galaxy it occurred in.

The mushroom cloud associated with a nuclear explosion

Nature laughs at our paltry firecrackers.

It’s thought that GRBs are the result of exploding stars, where for reasons of mass and gravity the energy is collimated into a beam which in most cases doesn’t point at us. These we don’t see.  Imagine the gods’ own almighty laser cannon: we only detect the ones that are pointed at us, but they’re so far away that astronomers can just go ‘ooooo’ at the pretty light show. One pointed at us from within our own galaxy would be a colossal problem, it’s true – so if there’s a 2012 doomsday scenario I can’t rule out, this would be it. Conversely, the likelihood of us getting a terminal GRB tan on 21 December 2012 is precisely the same as the likelihood of it happening on any other day since the dawn of our history. My argument here, then, isn’t that a GRB catastrophe couldn’t happen, but that there’s no reason at all to imagine it’s more likely this winter than at any other time.

Oh, and the Large Hadron Collider? Not a problem: the LHC creates collisions using enormous amounts of energy – at the quantum scale. When they talk about “the highest-energy machine known to mankind”, it does not mean that it’s capable of creating a black hole big enough to destroy a world. If it can create a black hole at all – and it’s possible, I guess – then the hole in question would be so extraordinarily small that it would evaporate within minuscule fractions of a second. It certainly wouldn’t be massive enough to do any damage or cause any injury. Science as a rule can’t work out any way in which the LHC could be used to bring about the End of the World: and if it could, don’t you think some evil genius would have come up with a cunning plan to steal the damn thing by now?

The Large Hadron Collider site at CERN, Geneva.

Required for Evil Plan: coat with quite big pockets.

A group of minions from the movie 'Despicable Me'

And a few extra pairs of hands...

But the biggest problem with predicting doom based on the Mayan calendar is that the very same Mayan calendar that gives us our end date also gives us our start date: as mentioned above, it’s 11 August, 3114 BC. The Neolithic sites on Orkney, including Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar complex, were in use way back in 3500 BC; in Jericho, there’s evidence of civilised human occupation back to 9000 BC. This means, in short, that Creation didn’t happen when Mayan tradition says it did – so why should the End?  At the very least, this could imply that the ‘Creation’ referred to must have been of a form that allowed a continuity of history across that boundary line. Some have suggested that the apocalypse predicted for December will be an entirely spiritual event.  If the Creation was spiritual, that would make sense – but in that case there seems little reason to suppose a purely spiritual beginning will lead to a brutally physical end.

So. Enjoy 2012, and don’t panic too much about the End of the World.

** If anybody feels like having their ears bored off, please feel free to ask me about my views on the term ‘dwarf planet’, and I’ll be more than happy to rant about it for half an hour.


2 thoughts on “2012: Internet Doom Classes

  1. Hi Tiro, entertaining as ever, but you failed to mention all the volcanic activity now over due, for example Vesuvius and the super volcano under Jellystone (sorry) Yellowstone Park. If we are to have a near extinction event, surely these need to be considered, but again, nature is fickle and does not have a timepiece that is accurate, so give or take a millenium or so, yogi Bear and friends could be in for a surprise when they fail to wake up after the winter slumber this year.
    Being serious for a moment, there does seem to be an increase in terrestrial movement over the last few decades, as forseen by some clever people back at the begining of the 20th century, and if the earthquakes continue and/or increase in the near future, there could be enough movement to trigger one of the huge cataclysmic events overdue in about 10 areas of the globe. I doubt it would be the end of all life on Earth, but knowing what happened to the dinosaurs 85 million years ago (or was it 65?) when a chunk of rock bumped into us, it could be literally a dark time for civilization.
    Like most Pagans, I have a store of candles for use when the lights go out and when these have been used up, I will have to follow Baden-Powell’s advice and be prepared to stick to rubbing two boyscouts together to make fire in the traditional way. Or was that rubbing two sticks by boyscouts?

    Dwarf planets? Prof. Brian Cox intruiged me by mentioning black dwarfs (not seen yet by the boffins).I thought these might be the source of dark matter and dark energy left over from a previous universe, as nobody seems to have worked out what they are either, even though they are sure there is more unseen matter than visible matter up there.

    Final thought, should I buy any early Yuletide prezzies this year?

  2. beam me up Tiro(scotty). Live long and prosper or as much as you can. Make hay while the sun still shines for who knows what Yule will bring. Live every day as if it will be your last. The universe is a vast expance and like our earth is very beautiful, up and atom all you peeps.Get ready!!!

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