Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mayan Shmayan; Go Ahead and Plan for 2013

Are we doomed in a mere three years?

On December 21, 2012, the earth and all its inhabitants will cease to exist. Well, that’s if you believe the hype surrounding one interpretation of an ancient calendar constructed by the Mayan civilization. That calendar follows a very precise cyclical pattern. And the cycles end on the first day of winter in the year 2012. That’s December 21.

The Mayans had a number of calendars. They are mostly based on their religion and deity. And when each of those calendars ended, they would begin again, even though in the Mayan culture, the end of a calendar often signified some kind of religious miracle or rebirth. The longest calendar is what we call the Long Count. It lasts 5,126 years.

The Long Count Calendar will run through its entire cycle and end on December 21, 2012. So there is no shortage of modern-day soothsayers who predict something dire will happen on that date, perhaps even the end of civilization. And with the Internet and all, the word gets around fast.

But I have a calendar hanging on my kitchen wall that will end on December 31 of this year. Should I be afraid? Of course not. I’ll just get another calendar to start off the new year.

But unlike our annual calendars, at 5,126 years long, the Mayan calendar has never ended before, at least not since it was conceived. So the Winter Solstice of 2012 will mark the first time the Mayan calendar will end. But why should anything special happen just because it’s an unusually long calendar?

Some claim that the end of the Mayan calendar happens to coincide with a cosmic event that only takes place once every 26,000 years – the Galactic Alignment. That is where the Winter Solstice aligns with the sun and the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Maya may have been predicting just such an alignment with their Long Count Calendar.

But we are already in the alignment for the current 26,000-year cycle. The alignment takes about 32 years to complete. It started around 1980 and will continue through 2016 (assuming we will actually make it past 2012!). The most direct alignment with the Winter Solstice took place in 1998. So there is not much special happening on a galactic scale in 2012.

While it’s fun to speculate about such things, a few people seem to be obsessed with it. There are plenty of millennialists out there who long for their “Second Coming” to usher in a new age. But the fact is, there is nothing extraordinary predicted to happen in 2012 that would end civilization as we know it.

That’s not to say it can’t happen. There could be an undiscovered asteroid on target for Earth. There could be an eruption of a supervolcano. So, although it is possible that something could happen that would threaten or even end society in 2012, the probability is infinitesimal.

A lot of things could kill off our civilization, such as religious fundamentalism. But the Mayan calendar isn’t one of them. You can breathe easier.

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