Mayan Apocalypse, 2012
by: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Julius Sumner Miller Fellow at Sydney University
physicist, tutor, film-maker, car mechanic, labourer, and medical doctor
The driver was taking me from Melbourne airport into the city. As we chatted, it came out that he was deeply worried. He had a wife and child, and a new baby on the way - but what was the use of living, he cried, if the world would end in 2012 as predicted by the Mayan prophecies, when his new baby would be just four years old.
Prophecies about the end of the world (or at the very least, civilisation as we know it) have been around forever. There was a flurry of them around 2000 AD, and another bunch for 5 May 2005, when all the planets were supposed to line up. (By the way, they didn't line up and yep, we're still here.)
The Mayan civilisation covered the skinny bit of the Americas between North and South America, reaching from the southern states of Mexico down to western Honduras. Its Classic Period was from 250 to 900 AD, so their best years were behind them by the time of the Spanish invasion.
At their peak, the Mayans had the only mature written language ever found in the Americas, spectacular and densely populated cities, and very sophisticated systems of mathematics, astronomy and calendars.
They were marvelous astronomers, showing what could be done with the naked eye. Their measurements of the lunar month, the period of Venus and the year were more accurate than those of the Ancient Greeks.
Which brings us to the calendar that predicts the end of the world in 2012.
The Mayans had many calendars, because they saw 'time' as a meshing of sacred or spiritual cycles. So while our Gregorian calendar organises days for social, administrative and commercial purposes, the Mayan calendars added a religious element. For example, each day had a patron spirit, and so could be good for travel, but bad for business.
One of their several calendars was called the Long Count. It was set up around 355 BCE, and had as its chosen starting date 0.0.0.0.0, which corresponds to 11 August 3114 BCE. And on 21 December 2012, the Mayan Long Count calendar will read 22.214.171.124.0.
Now here's how it works. Our numbering system is based on 10. But the Mayans had a counting system based on 20, so most of the 'slots' in their calendar had 20 potential numbers (0 to 19). The calendar read a little like the odometer in your car's speedo (which run from 0 to 9). The extreme right slot (of five slots) would count through the days, and when it got to 19 days (0.0.0.0.19) would reset to zero, and the next slot across to the left would increase by one (to 0.0.0.1.0).
So 0.0.0.0.1 was one day, and 0.0.0.1.0 was 20 days. Then 0.0.1.0.0 was about one year, 0.1.0.0.0 was about 20 years and with 126.96.36.199.0, you've clocked up about 400 years. And on 21 December 2012, the Mayan Long Count calendar will read 188.8.131.52.0.
By the way, the time between 0.0.0.0.0 and 184.108.40.206.0 is about 5126 years. Now some Mayan archaeo-astronomers reckon that the calendar should reset back to zero and start again. But others disagree and say it should continue to 20, and then reset again.
We don't have enough information to know who is correct - but if it does go up to 20, then this completely destroys the End of Days Conspiracy Theory, as far as the year 2012 is concerned. But let's stick to the 13 Conspiracy for the time being.
The claims for 21 December 2012 cover a lot of ground. They range from 'nuclear holocaust' to 'Harmonic Convergence of cosmic energy flowing through the earth, cleansing it and raising it to a higher level of vibration', and along the way they include 'the death of two-thirds of humanity' and 'the north and south poles will split' - you get the picture.
But there are two problems with this.
First, when a calendar comes to the end of a cycle, it just rolls over into the next cycle. In our Western society, every year 31 December is followed, not by the End of the World, but by 1 January. So 220.127.116.11.0 in the Mayan calendar will be followed by 0.0.0.0.1 - or good-ol' 22 December 2012, with only a few shopping days left to Christmas.
And the second problem is that it is always remarkably difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, and things that haven't happened yet.
To contact Dr Karl...
Dr Karl S. Kruszelnicki,
Julius Sumner Miller Fellow,
The Science Foundation for Physics,
School of Physics, Building A-28,
The University of Sydney, NSW 2006
Tel ++ 61-2-9909-0033
Published 15 April 2008