2012 Doomsday and Other Signs of the End Times
Dec. 14, 2011 --
With 2012 around the corner, doomsday alarmists will no doubt be looking for signs of the end of the world. According to the 2012 doomsday hype, the Maya predicted that the world will come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012 based on the premise that that particular date is when their Long Count calendar, which runs about 5,125 years, ends. How this incarnation of the end of days manifests itself is the subject of debate among doomsayers. But giving them the benefit of the doubt (no, really), we'll check in to see how their version of future events jives with reality. And while we're on the subject, since the 2012-ers are not the only ones proclaiming imminent doom and we'd like to give other apocalyptic visions equal time, we'll also check for traces of reality in other end-times scenarios. In this slide show, explore the small coincidences that encourage a diverse group of apocalypse enthusiasts to point to their pet idea and announce: "This time is for real."
In what's possibly the most cinematic of all the 2012 doomsday scenarios, a massive asteroid will collide with Earth, creating a cataclysmic event greater than the disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs. The only problem with this scenario is finding a suitable asteroid with the right size and trajectory to pose a real threat. Earlier this year, a large-ish asteroid came within 8,000 miles of Earth, a close call by cosmic standards. Of course, had this asteroid actually had us in its sights, it would have broken up harmlessly in our atmosphere, creating an interesting fireworks show for anyone watching down below. The closest asteroid we've got right now that might fit the profile of a global killer is 99942 Apophis, a 270-meter-wide object that has a 1-in-250,000 chance of striking Earth in 2036. Of course, if it's not an asteroid, 2012-ers allege that a rogue planet known as Nibiru, a non-existent entity that was supposed to strike Earth eight years ago, will finish the job.
In one version of events promoted by 2012-ers, a massive solar flare unlike anything the sun has thrown at us in the past will irradiate the Earth and wipe out all life on our planet. The only evidence to support this theory is that the solar maximum, the peak in the sun's 11-year cycle of sunspot activity, happens to roughly correspond to the 2012 timeline (though it's probably closer to late 2013/early 2014). A moderate solar flare erupted in June, launching a huge coronal mass ejection into space. Thankfully, the blast missed Earth. Had the particle burst actually had Earth in its sights, there would have indeed been implications for our planet, in that it would have created some dazzling aurorae and may have caused some damage to satellites and power grids. Not exactly the end of the world.
Pole Shift and Geomagnetic Reversal
If we can't expect any help from other cosmic entities to destroy the planet for us, then surely there must be some way for Earth itself to destroy the life it hosts? In this version of the 2012 apocalypse, the Earth has two entirely dissimilar and highly unlikely means of eradicating all of the life it hosts. According to some 2012-ers, the Earth will essentially capsize for some unexplained reason, reversing its north and south poles. Unless some large planet-sized object (not Nibiru) comes along and hits the Earth with enough force to turn the planet upside down, this scenario just isn't possible without the laws of physics taking a holiday. A geomagnetic reversal, 2012-ers allege, could also spell doom for our planet. Unfortunately for doomsayers, the planet's magnetic field has reversed several thousand times in Earth's history and has never been implicated as the cause of a mass extinction. Furthermore, there's no evidence that a reversal is imminent.
Let's now turn our attention to another extinct culture that devised its own doomsday vision. Unlike the Maya, who created a calendar that left modern-day humans to fill in the blanks as to how the universe would end, the Norse vision of the end of days, known as Ragnarök, lays out a rough outline of how the world will end. Marked by a series of catastrophic disasters, Ragnarök ends with the death of the Norse gods and all land completely submerged underwater. In this story, we find a trace of truth based on predictions of an increasingly warming world as a result of man-made climate change. However, even though climate scientists are keen to assert that global warming will produce sweeping changes to our planet's ecosystems and result in the extinctions of thousands of species, few would be so bold as to suggest it would wipe out all life on Earth. Thankfully, with the exception of author and comedian John Hodgman, no one seems to be taking this Norse doomsday seriously.
Credit: Getty Images
Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus, is well known for his series of prophecies based on his own interpretation of astrology. Collected in his book "The Prophecies," published in 1555, Nostradamus presents a vaguely-worded historic-ish roadmap that leads to the end of days. Those who buy into these "prophecies" allege the fulfillment of predictions made within Nostradamus' writings indicate his approach to history is correct. The Great Fire of London in 1666, the scientific undertakings of Louis Pasteur, and the rise of Napoleon and Hitler were all predicted by Nostradamus, according to those who adhere to and interpret his writings. There are three major pitfalls of relying on Nostradamus to predict the future. For starters, those who most carefully adhere to his interpretations tend to predict the end of the world every decade or so. If there's one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to doomsday, it's that the apocalypse is final. Second, his texts are mainly used to contort historical events to fit his texts. And finally, all anyone needs to do to realize how much Nostradamus' own words have been twisted to prove him correct is to read his work. This passage, for example, predicts the atomic bomb: Near the gates and within the cities, there will be two scourges the like of which was never seen. Famine within plague, people put out by steel, crying to the great immortal God for relief. Given that outbreaks of plague were sporadic and widely feared during Nostradamus' era, this text likely refers to the spread of disease. How this relates to nuclear weapon takes a serious stretch of the imagination.
The Biblical book of Revelations contains what is arguably the most famous apocalyptic vision out of any doomsday scenario -- and possibly the most widely misinterpreted. Although the Gospels themselves clearly state that knowledge of the end of the world is firmly and exclusively the province of the divine, that hasn't stopped a number of false prophets from filling in for God, the most famous of which was Harold Camping, who twice predicted doom this year. Frequent proponents of this pseudo-Christian perspective cite everything from the establishment of the state of Israel in the 20th century, to the European Union (a successor for the Roman Empire), to the war on terror as precursors to Armageddon. Although there's admittedly no way to categorically disprove doomsday beliefs rooted in theology, the easiest means of pushing back against these doomsayers is to simply let them choose a date and allow time to run its course (as is the case with any doomsday prediction). Just ask Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, Ronald Weinland, Harold Camping (of course) and many, many others.
Credit: Getty Images
Sir Isaac Newton
Not all doomsday prophecies come from the usual suspects of superstitious crackpots or religious zealots. Even one of the most revered minds in scientific history had his own doomsday prediction. Sir Isaac Newton, father of calculus and a physics pioneer, also dabbled in alchemy, mysticism and the occult. His own predictions led him to believe that the world was going to end in 2060. Newton's calculation was based on his own Biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, Newton didn't provide much in terms of how he envisioned this doomsday playing out. So the only triggers we have to go by are the approach of the year itself. And in that sense, we're right on track.
MORE ARTICLES BY TALAL AL-KHATIB
My Take: Conspiracy theorists are convinced that a rogue planet is bound to doom Earth in 2012. NASA astronomer David Morrison gives his take.
The scoop: Conspiracy theorists are convinced a rogue planet will destroy the Earth in 2012, and just as we are about to see the release of a Hollywood movie on the topic, the hype is set to increase. David Morrison, a NASA astrobiologist and expert scientist for NASA's Ask an Astrobiologist website, calls for a reality check and in 2008 he contributed this article to Discovery News.
Unbeknownst to most of us, a small but vocal group of conspiracy theorists is convinced that a rogue planet is about to enter the inner solar system and doom the Earth.
They say that this threatening planet on a 3600-year orbit was discovered by the ancient Mesopotamians, who named it Nibiru, and it was known also to the Mayans, who associated it with the end of their calendar "long count" in December 2012. In Web sites, blogs, and radio talk shows, they insist that NASA is tracking Nibiru — but that this information is being kept from the public as part of a worldwide conspiracy.
They say the official silence can't be maintained for much longer, however, because by 2009 Nibiru will be visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere. They also say Earth's axis is already tilting and the length of the day is changing under its influence. As one believer recently wrote to me, "Why are you lying. It's coming, and everyone knows it."
I began to receive questions about this bizarre story in December 2007 through NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" site. Normally I receive up to a dozen questions per week from the public, dealing mostly with life in the universe — but in the past 6 months the Nibiru traffic alone has grown to 20-25 messages a week, ranging from the anguished "I can't sleep," "I am really scared" or "I don't want to die" to the abusive "you are putting my family at risk" and "if NASA denies it then it must be true."
As a scientist, I'm both fascinated and astonished by the deluge of questions from people who are genuinely frightened and, apparently, unable to distinguish astronomical fact from fiction. They're watching YouTube videos and visiting slick Web sites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit, or to quote Carl Sagan no "baloney detector." Now a blockbuster disaster film called "2012" is set for release in the summer of 2009, and the commercial enterprise is clearly trying to cash in on people's concern (perhaps contributing to their fear as well).
Nibiru - Armageddon Planet or Astronomical Baloney? -- Page 2
The ancient Mesopotamians predicted Nibiru? Don't bet on it.DCL
My guess is that only a tiny fraction of people truly believes that Armageddon is coming in December 2012. But their uncritical acceptance of this story worries me as a warning of the dangers of our current scientific illiteracy.
We're facing monumental problems with global warming and loss of habitat, yet a substantial minority of Americans thinks the world was formed less than 10,000 years ago and deny that evolution is possible. Many Americans seem to prefer coal-fired generators to nuclear power plants without realizing the toll in public health that coal imposes. Billions are spent, including tax-payer dollars, for so-called alternative medicine with no scientific evidence for its efficacy. And legislators often resist efforts to collect the data that could actually demonstrate which government programs are effective and which ones don't work as intended.
In spite of my frustrations, I can always hope that Nibiru will turn into a teaching moment. Its proponents are convinced that it will be visible to the unaided eye this coming spring, and its effects on the rotation and orbit of the Earth will be obvious by summer (just in time for the release of the film "2012"). When none of this happens, I hope they'll realize that they need better tools to distinguish fact from fiction.