Is this really the end?

According to The New York Times, many people in Russia are panicking. They really believe that the end of the world is at hand – so much so that the government is issuing official assurances (as if anyone there ever believed them anyway).

This may be the biggest Armageddon scare of the past half-century. More than 100 books, countless articles, pseudo-documentaries on the History Channel and of course that major motion picture all say that we’re doomed. Nostradamus is even being invoked.

Those who are frightened are not inclined to be reassured by scientists. Those who are skeptical do not need to hear logic. Thus, who even bothers reading articles like this one? What I say will be unnecessary to many and dismissed by others. What’s the point?

The doomsday tradition has a venerable history. In past articles I’ve recounted some of the most famous Armageddons of the past 150 years, and also those of the past 30 years. A pattern emerges: Until the 1930s, Armageddons were mostly bible-based, the exception being the hysteria that surrounded the upcoming visit of Halley’s Comet in 1910. For the past quarter-century, however, doomsday expectations mostly revolved around planet conjunctions and incoming comets, the one major exception being Y2K.

Now, any computer-checking of major worldly events – including wars, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions – shows no correlation with planetary configurations. And while comets have been associated with fear and dread for thousands of years, these also come and go with our own earthly stupidities unmolested. Science-oriented people have looked for links between worldly upheavals and the 11-year sunspot cycle: nothing there, either.

But some people want the world to end. Or at least they root for a major shakeup. For them, next Friday’s Solstice offers an exciting chance to escape from perhaps a tedious relationship or a dull job. Being no sociologist, I can only guess why this Mayan calendar business has such a widespread appeal.

As for the actual facts, they’re simple enough. The Mayas, who as a culture showed no aptitude for seeing the future, but who were excellent sky-observers and calendar-makers, created several short- and long-period methods of reckoning time. They had a lunar calendar, a solar calendar and a Venus calendar, and ticked off large periods of time they called Baktuns. It is this long-term calendar that switches over from the 13th to the 14th Baktun next Friday at the moment of the Winter Solstice.

Mesoamerican scholars tell us that the Mayas never suggested that any sort of cataclysm would accompany the turning of any of their calendar pages. Of course, “nothing’s happening” cannot sell advertising space on TV documentaries. So it was necessary to spice the whole thing up.

Here is where all the malarkey comes in: Depending on whom you listen to, a new undiscovered planet is hurtling toward Earth. Or the Sun is about to block the center of the galaxy. Or the Sun is about to erupt. Or the Sun will line up with the galaxy’s core to channel some kind of energy in our direction. Or (and this is the latest one) a major planet conjunction will happen that day.

None of these are true. Just this year, the planets have formed far more striking configurations on several earlier occasions. The Sun never stands in front of the galaxy’s center. Moreover, its positions in our sky perfectly repeat themselves each year. Nothing new happens in 2012. As to a new planet hurtling toward us, by this point it should be absolutely brilliant in the night sky. Where is it? This whole thing is fictitious.

Next Saturday morning, the first full day of winter, the uproar will cease – until the next Doomsday predictions, which arise with a regularity and certainty that would have probably caught the attention of the cycle-seeking Maya. If you’re looking for “circles closing,” how’s that one?

In other celestial news: Readers should look for Geminid meteors if it’s clear this Thursday night, December 13. Weather permitting, meteors could be visible to the naked eye all night long. It may be the best shower of the year, with as many as one a minute predicted.

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