Apocalypse When? Sooner or Later….

A good read about the End of the World in December 2012 and The Mayan Calendar

Apocalypse sooner or later

January 22, 2011

Relying on the calendar of the ancient – and extinct – Mayans, end-of-the-world movements are sweating on 2012, writes Linda Morris.

FIRST the bad news: come December 21, 2012, the world as we know it will end. On this ill-starred date, the solar system will swing into alignment with the midpoint of the Milky Way, precipitating tsunamis, the cracking of continental shelves, the shifting of the magnetic poles, solar flares and other cosmic mayhem not recorded since the planetary upheavals that rendered the dinosaur extinct.

This is a bumper period for end-of-the-world buffs. Based on their reading of ancient prophesies and celestial alignments, many groups are expecting the apocalypse.

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The good news: the world’s leading astrophysicists, whose job it is to map the vaults of heaven, to search the galaxy for stray cosmic missiles, don’t believe a word of it.

Of course, official denial has never previously tripped up far-fetched claims and doomsday scenarios because they are impossible to prove or disprove – and hasn’t life proved stranger than fiction? In fact, puzzling mysteries and forbidden secrets are oxygen for conspiracy theories – all the better if there is some link to some ancient cult with a concealed understanding of the final destiny of mankind.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a rather conventional fictional murder mystery, got its drive from the clandestine Opus Dei movement. For the 2012 movement, the ancient Mayans – the pre-Columbian civilisation that occupied Central America – unlocked the secret to the end of life on earth.

The theory goes that the Mayans, known for advanced writing, mathematics and astronomy, predicted the end of the world via their Long Count calendar system, which Spanish conquest and colonialism ended. The Mayans broke the world’s time into 5126-year periods – the calendar cycle, or b’ak’tun, ends in December 2012.

Scholars believe the Mayans attributed no more significance to the resetting of the clock than an anniversary date, much as the Gregorian calendar marked the new millennium. However, on the internet the so-called Mayan prophecies have converged with theories about crop circles, alien abduction and the lost continent of Atlantis.

Among the more bizarre reports is that UFO watchers and New Agers are heading for a village in southwestern France, believing either that aliens are hibernating in a rising peak there awaiting Armageddon or that this mountain will be one of the few places in the world to shelter from the coming cataclysm. One website hypothesises that the Mayan calendar spells the exact co-ordinates of mystery UFO sightings at the abandoned Roswell airfield, ground zero for UFO exponents.

Another theory has it that a planet, Nibiru, has been tracked by infrared observatories at the edge of the solar system and is speeding towards Earth. Due to enter the solar system in 2012, it will create gravitational havoc. NASA’s impatient denials have served only to fuel the scare. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Even Hollywood has got in on the act with a series of disaster movies climaxing about 2012. The original hysteria seems to trace back to an esoteric American author, Frank Waters, who studied the Maya tradition and proclaimed the Long Count calendar an oracle to end times in his little-known 1989 text, Mexico Mystique, the source reference for all 2012 doomsayers.

In a spin-off theory, John Major Jenkins fused the Mayan calendar with cosmology and New Age teachings. Jenkins drew a link between the end of the Mayan calendar, the northern hemisphere winter solstice (which falls on December 21) and the so-called alignment of the sun to the midline or the ”dark rift” of the Milky Way due at that time.

The Mayans’ astronomical and mathematical abilities were superior to those of Caesar’s Rome and were considered the most accurate until the Renaissance. Their calendar calculations were infused with religious importance, each day devoted to a saint.

Jenkins encourages a spiritual rather than an apocalyptic reading of this conjunction. The importance of 2012 is not as an end date in itself but heralds a new era of spiritual transformation and renewal.

The feared Y2K bug failed to stymie global communications, making fools of the prophets of doom. Now pop culture has embraced the 2012 movement, leaving the academics to bat away predictions of an impending cosmic implosion.

The astrophysicist Dr Charley Lineweaver views the wonders of the universe daily but searching in the firmament does not incline him to a belief that the ”Big Crunch” is imminent. Lineweaver knows the universe is ultimately doomed but the point at which our sun will run out of fuel is probably 5 billion years away, not in our lifetime, and the point by which no life will exist in the universe is ”many, many billions of years from now”.

”The planets are always aligned in a disc called the ecliptic and the sun and stars of the Milky Way are also in the disc of our galaxy. These two discs are not aligned in any meaningful way,” he says.

”The planets go around the sun in the ecliptic disc with different orbital periods. Sometimes there are more planets in one direction than in another and this has been going on for about 4.5 billion years. Try as hard as I might, I am not able to believe that the world will end in 2012 because of some ‘alignment’ that happens every 200 years or 2000 years or even every 200 million years.”

Solar activity is expected to intensify, as it does every 11 or so years. As for a renegade planet out there threatening our very existence, the lack of evidence and the denials of NASA have not stopped the theory going viral on the internet. At the very least this hypothetical planet risks collision with sound judgment.

So why are we so willing to disbelieve the denials of our eminent scientists? Why is conspiracy trumping reason?

”Why do we go to horror movies?” counters Lineweaver. ”Maybe we’re giving the fear centres of our brains a workout.”

Predicting the world is going to end is likely to put you on a book bestseller list. However, there is more at play in the 2012 movement than entertainment and easy profit.

Beliefs in the end of time – or at least an end to life as we know it, a dawning of a new reality or consciousness or creation of a utopian world, usually by way of a deity’s intervention – are deeply grounded in ancient religious doctrine. Christian eschatologies, dealing with final destinies, are preoccupied with the fulfilment of biblical prophecy of the second coming of Christ, Judgment Day, a new vision of heaven and hell.

Even after the Enlightenment, reason and rationality have not satisfied mankind’s thirst for answers to the riddle of existence and the world’s ultimate fate. In common with advocates of medical miracles, doomsayers lurk in the gaps in scientific knowledge, in the spats between experts and in the confused complexity of scientific knowledge.

As humankind has come to understand its minuscule place in an infinite universe, the wrath of an angry God has given way to Cold War nuclear weaponry as the method of choice of our own destruction, which in turn has been usurped by stray asteroids, solar flares and sudden reversals of the magnetic poles.

Professor Catharine Lumby, the director of the journalism and media research centre at the University of NSW, suggests the 2012 movement and others that are sure to follow are symptomatic of the same shifting paradigm that has propelled Julian Assange to the world stage.

Conspiracy theories abounded in mediaeval times when dissent peaked against the oppressive authority of the Catholic Church. This was when the French seer Nostradamus supposedly predicted World War III. The same could be true today – except elected government has supplanted the Pope and the internet is the printing press for today’s disenfranchised and disempowered.

At the core of public support for WikiLeaks, Lumby says, are distrust of mainstream authority and public exasperation with spin-doctoring. These also drive the quest to expose cover-ups – Roswell, JFK’s assassination, September 11 – or to delve down to source material unedited and unmediated by a scientific elite or a government coterie.

”There have always been conspiracy theories. The Virgin Birth is one,” she says, ”but the internet has allowed people with unusual ideas about actual events to connect and multiply their theories and this is why it is critical that we counter irrational ideas with no evidence with far better and transparent information.”

Like it or not, doomsaying, in one form or another, is as deeply ingrained in human nature as pessimism and fatalism. A man of science and the Bible, Sir Isaac Newton predicted in 1704 that the world would end no earlier than 2060 to discredit ”fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail”.

If plain speaking matters, it may be timely to remind those heading for refuge in the world’s highest peaks that the Mayans failed to predict their own demise, 1100 years ago.

Printed today in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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