Dec 17, 2012

Planning for the end of the world

image of earth on fire

Do you have it all planned out?  Will you do something fun? Do you have time to finish your bucket list? Will you count down the hours? You don't have much time until Dec. 21 (unless you are reading this after that date, in which case I guess they were wrong).

If you haven't heard, the world is going to end on Dec. 21. It says so on the Internet.

Shanil Virani, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU, is doing what superstar football players do after winning the Super Bowl. He's going to Disney World. After all, he says, what better place to spend the last hours of planet Earth than at its happiest spot.

So how do you think it will happen? Do you think Planet Nibiru will collide with the big blue marble and obliterate it? Or is there something to that prediction of a rapid reversal of the earth's magnetic field, where the north and south poles will instantly swap places. Or how about when the planets all align with a massive black hole at the center of the galaxy. That sounds pretty scary. Or maybe, since the Mayan calendar doesn’t go beyond Dec. 21, 2012, there just won't be any more days.

What bothers me, and makes planning for the end a little difficult, is that no one has predicted the exact hour the world will end on Dec. 21. The Earth is a relatively large object with about 40 time zones. Some places are going to be Dec. 21 long before other places. And some places should be Dec. 22 while other places are still Dec. 21. So what time will it be in Harrisonburg when the world comes to an end?

"I have no idea. That's a great question," Virani said. And when you ask that question of the people who are predicting the end, that’s when they get a bit non-committal, he said.

Andy Perrine, associate vice president of communications and marketing and a member of the Madison Future Commission, said the group plans to continue working on the university's next strategic plan, for 2014-2020, despite the predictions. "The Madison Future Commission discussed the looming cataclysm at length. In fact, the commission asked faculty who teach in JMU's Latin American and Caribbean studies program to help it gain a better understanding of the Mayan calendar and it's implications," he said. "According to our experts on pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Mayans were not predicting the end of the world, just the end of a calendar cycle. So we plan to continue our work."

Virani suggests people who are concerned about the dire predictions heed the Future Commission's example and get all the facts. In many instances, the predictions come from people who are trying to make an easy buck — "modern day snake oil salesmen," he said.

"They're just trying to find a way to sell you something, to separate you from your money. And they find a kernel of scientific truth to embed their nonsense around, to come across as scientifically legitimate, but at the end of the day, it's to separate money from you and give it to them."

Virani says his favorite myth is one stating the world will end Dec. 21 because that is when the sun and the earth will align with a super massive black hole the center of the galaxy. "What they don't tell you, when you read these prophecies online, is that this alignment happens every year," Virani said. "There's nothing special about Dec. 21 of this year."

Most of the attention about the end coming on Dec. 21 this year is due to the Mayan calendar, Virani said. "It's true, their calendar is turning over to a new cycle, but so what. Our calendar does the same thing every year. It's called Dec. 31. We don't portend that the world is going to end. We take the calendar and throw it in the garbage and begin a new one. I'm sure if they were around, they would do exactly the same thing."

Members of the Madison Future Commission are looking forward to some time to prepare for the holidays. "It's been such a busy semester that many commission members have had zero time to shop," Perrine said.

Still a little unsure about what Dec. 21 will bring? Virani asks those who are truly concerned about the end to think about bequeathing a donation to the John C. Wells Planetarium, just in case.

You may feel a little more reassured by reading Virani's article, "Debunking 2012 Doomsday Prophecies."

And if you are looking for something to do beyond Dec. 21, here are some JMU events to put on your calendar.