Reprinted with permission from the Daily News-Record
Posted Saturday, January 7, 2012
By Joshua Brown
HARRISONBURG — It's 2012. And that means you have roughly 11 1/2 months to prepare for the end of the world — if you believe that the Mayan calendar predicts the Earth's demise, that is.
The culture's "Long Count" calendar is set to end on Dec. 21. And while it may make a good backdrop for special-effects movies, experts say the calendar's end just represents a transition from one era to another, similar to the ending of the Gregorian calendar year every Dec. 31.
Still, a calendar that ends thousands of years after the mysterious demise of an ancient culture is ripe for a host of apocalyptic narratives.
The Mayan Calendar
According to Matt Chamberlin, though, a professor at James Madison University who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, the Dec. 21 date definitely does not predict the end of the world.
Mayans' understanding of time, he said, was based on "multiple interlinking cycles." The date in question represents the end of a 5,125-year cycle, and the end of the 13th "baktun," or period of 144,000 days.
"The idea of cyclical time for the Classic Maya was rooted in agricultural, mythical, religious, seasonal and astronomical cycles marked by the major solar and lunar periods, as well as synodic periods of planets like Venus," Chamberlin said in an email.
These transitional dates were often manipulated by rulers to "[legitimize] changes in political rule."
"A recent study of Mayan art showed that the artistic and mythic associations of particular calendric dates were highly variable — religious meanings and ideas were routinely altered for political purposes," he said.
"Basically, individual rulers might have themselves juxtaposed in artwork with supernatural personages or deities who were associated with particular calendric dates, as it suited them."
The Mayan calendar is hardly the only source of apocalyptic lore, though.
Norse mythology predicted the occurrence of Ragnarok, a time when many of the prominent gods, such as Odin and Thor, would be killed and the planet would be covered by water.
Many mainstream religions also address the destruction of the world. A popular belief among Christians is that Jesus will return to rapture the faithful, reign for 1,000 years and consume the Earth with fire before creating a new planet for people to live on.
But end-of-the-world scenarios don't just come from religious sources or historical cultures — some have their root in science. Experts have warned that the Yellowstone caldera is overdue for a massive eruption, which could leave several feet of ash hundreds of miles away.
Still other theories hold that the Earth might be done in by cosmic collisions or solar storms.
But according to Shanil Virani, director of JMU's John C. Wells Planetarium, while rooted in science, theories pointing to demolition from stellar agents any time soon are "bogus."
One theory alleges that a mysterious planet will collide with Earth on Dec. 21, 2012. But that's not true, Virani said, because scientists have been monitoring space for large asteroids that could wipe out the planet. But they've found none.
"We face much greater threats in our daily lives from auto accidents, disease and other natural disasters than the threat of an asteroid impact," he said in an email.
Another theory alleges that massive solar storms could irradiate life on Earth, killing everything on it. And while 2012 is predicted to have more solar storms than normal, "the problem with this doomsday scenario is that even a massive solar system would have little impact to life on the surface of the planet," Virani said.
While the Earth will eventually be destroyed after the sun turns into a red giant, that will be billions of years in the future, he said. In other words, there's nothing to worry about any time soon.
Where's the evidence?
People have been looking forward to the end of the world for just about as long as mankind has been around. Throughout the years, the harbinger of destruction has taken many different forms, according to Clinical Psychologist Audie Gaddis, of Commonwealth Psychological Services.
"People thought the turn of the century, from 1800 to 1900, would bring about the end of the world," Gaddis said. "They thought World War I was the mark of the end of the world.
They thought the Great Depression was the end of the world. They thought World War II was the end of the world."
So why is the world's demise of so much interest to humans? Gaddis suggested that it's because we naturally become more aware of our own mortality as we age — part of the "neurodevelopmental process."
"So it then becomes a question of how," said Gaddis. "When? Will it be an illness? Will it be an accident? Will it be a global catastrophe?"
As a psychologist, he often gets clients who suffer from anxiety over various world's-end predictions. When faced with such patients, he said, he always asks them for specific, objective evidence that the world will end on any given date or for any particular reason.
Often, the answers aren't very provable.
"People telling us the world is going to end, I've had many clients say that, I simply say that `With respect, I've heard that for ...' and then I mention all the different dates," Gaddis said. "And then I ask them for the specific evidence, and they'll quote Harold Camping or the Mayan calendar."
No reason to worry
When it comes down to it, end-of-the-world theories make for great entertainment, Gaddis said. And while humans are prone to contemplate their own end and how it might come about, there's no reason to obsess over it.
And when he encounters people who worry about the end of the world, he has a simple question for them.
"Why were they unable to predict their own demise?" he asked. "They certainly did a lousy job predicting the end of their world as a cultural group of people."
Contact Joshua Brown at 574-6218 or firstname.lastname@example.org