Why the World will not end this week?

According to hundreds of internet sites and thousands of misinformed citizens, the world will come to and end next week. That’s because, as the story goes, the Mayan calendar predicts an alignment of the earth, the planets of our solar system, and the center of the Milky Way. This alignment will cause all sorts of catastrophe, from a sudden change in the direction of the Earth’s rotation to the collision and destruction of our world by a rogue planet called Nibiru. And it’s all supposed to happen this Friday, December 21, 2012. Presumably on Mayan standard time.

Analysing the facts, The Maya were astute astronomers and timekeepers, and there is a major event coming up next week in the ancient Mayan calendar. Scholars have studied the calendar and determined their year “zero” dates to August 11, 3114 B.C. on our calendar.  The Mayans count their days forward from this date in various units, one of which is a “baktun”, or a long cycle of 144,000 days (roughly 394 years). As it happens, scholars have dated the end of the 13th baktun to December 21, 2012.  To the Maya, a new baktun was somewhat like a new millenium for us. Something noteworthy to be sure, but nothing of galactic significance.

According to scholars, the Maya themselves made no prediction of the end of the world at the end of the 13th baktun. Indeed, they have a unit of time called a pictun, which consists of 20baktuns, so they clearly expected their calendar to march on. What’s more, in our 7th century A.D., the Mayan king Palenque predicted an anniversary of his succession on October 15, 4772 A.D.

The current fascination and confusion surrounding December 21, 2012 comes from a series of speculative and pseudo-scientific books in the 1970′s and 1980′s. Author John Major Jenkins packaged these mystical and possibly hallucinogen-fueled speculations into his book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, which among other things stated the winter solstice will eclipse the center of the galaxy on December 21, 2012 and the Sun will align with the galactic equator. These alignments, along with the alignment of the planets of our solar system, will cause the dawn of a new age of hope and positive transformation for humanity. Others viewed this so-called alignment as a sign of the apocalypse and the cause of earthquakes, blackouts, and all manner of mayhem and destruction.

But it turns out there are no significant celestial alignments on December 21, 2012.Yes, the winter solstice lies close to the direction of of the center of the galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius.  But the two never overlap. The two points will make a close approach, but not for another 200 years. And the solar system will in no way align with the galactic equator, which itself is a somewhat arbitrary plane in the night sky.

Nor are there any planetary alignments on December 21, 2012. The image below, shows the position of the planets on this date. As you can see, there’s nothing special going on here…

[caption id="attachment_1669" align="aligncenter" width="296"] Position of the planets on December 21, 2012. There is no remarkable alignment of the planets on this date.[/caption]

But how about the dreaded planet Nibiru, which is supposed to emerge from beyond Pluto to crash into the Earth on December 21? This was first predicted by hoax-mongers to happen in 2003. But when Nibiru didn’t appear, they moved the date to coincide with the “end” of the Mayan calendar.

Of course Nibiru does not exist. If a rogue planet was going to collide with Earth on December 21, it would be vividly apparent in the sky today, shining bright and large and easily visible even in daytime. But there’s nothing unusual in the sky right now. And as it careened through the solar system, Nibiru’s gravity would have long ago tugged on Mars and Jupiter and set them slightly off their predicted orbit. Astronomers have seen no such effect. Some have confused Nibiru with the dwarf planet Eris. Eris, while real, lies in a stable orbit in the outer solar system and shows no signs of making a mad dash for Earth anytime soon.

So you see, as a wise man once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. There are no alignments, no rogue planets, and no prediction by the Maya or by professional scientists that the world will end on December 21, 2012. So finish your term exams, X'mas shopping, go travel and continue your plans for the new year.

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