AP Photo/Gero Breloer
John Cusack, gestures, during a photo call for the movie "2012" in Berlin, Monday, Sept. 28, 2009.
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.
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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.
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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.
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Contrary to what you may read on the Internet, the world is not going to end in 2012. A rogue planet named Nibiru is not on a collision course with Earth. And a solar flare won't toast the planet.
It's all fiction, though the makers of the film "2012" may lead you to think otherwise.
"I don't have anything against the movie. It's the way it's been marketed and the way it exploits people's fears," NASA scientist David Morrison at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told Discovery News.
Morrison has launched a counter-attack through his "Ask An Astrobiologist" online column, which he says has gotten more than 1,000 questions about the end of the world.
Scientific misinformation about 2012 has been ramping up for a few years, with more than 200 books and 1,000 Web sites purporting to explain various doomsday scenarios. Sony Pictures is behind a particularly viral campaign to build publicity for its upcoming apocalyptic movie "2012," which debuts on Nov. 13.
The company has set up an interlinked family of Web sites and Facebook pages to infuse a sense of reality to its fictional work.
The lead character in the film, played by actor John Cusack, for example, is the faux author of a faux book about a murder, conspiracy and disaster aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which, coincidentally, is poised for launch on a space station construction mission the weekend the movie debuts.
The fictional fiction, named "Farewell, Atlantis," has a Web site, a Facebook page to follow "author appearances," fans and friends, a faux publisher with a faux Web site, a faux press release and endorsements from the very real son of the late Carl Sagan.
There's also a fake institute that presumably dispenses "real" science supporting the movie's claims, as well as a fake news website that distributes fake press releases about a fake aerospace company winning government contracts.
Warren Betts, owner of a California-based publicity firm that peddles real science stories tied to movies, says the type of marketing campaign Sony is executing for "2012" is nothing new.
"It's been done before," said Betts, citing the 1999 horror movie "The Blair Witch Project," a story about a group of amateur documentary film-makers who have a really bad couple of days in the woods.
"Some people went to that movie and they thought it was reality, that it was an actual documentary," Betts said.
Morrison says Sony has crossed a line with promoting "2012."
"I think people are really, really worried about the world coming to an end. Kids are contemplating suicide. Adults tell me they can't sleep and can't stop crying. There are people who are really, really scared," he said.
"People are very gullible," he added. "It a sad testimonial that you need NASA to tell you the world's not going to end."