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December 21, 2012

Did the Maya predict the end of the world?
Photo: Espace pour la vie (Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan)
Space and planets

Will the world end on December 21, 2012?

In the past few years, a great deal of rather disturbing speculation has been circulating on the Web, to the effect that the world will end on December 21, 2012. People are talking about the Mayan calendar, about a Sumerian prediction of a planet headed straight for Earth, about the poles reversing themselves, a planetary alignment, the conjunction between the Sun and the centre of the Milky Way – what’s it really all about?

This kind of pseudo-scientific scaremongering clearly upsets a large number of people who lack the knowledge necessary to separate fact from fiction when they read such misleading, exaggerated or frankly ridiculous warnings. And with the release of yet another Hollywood disaster film, inspired by the so-called Mayan prophecy, it’s time to set the record straight.

First of all, it is true that the Mayan calendar will soon be reaching a symbolic point. In this calendar’s peculiar notation, all the numbers in the counter will start over, just like a car’s odometer when it switches from 999999 to 000000. This remarkable transition will occur on about December 21, 2012: the exact date is approximate, since experts on the Mayan civilization can’t agree on how the Mayan calendar corresponds to our Gregorian calendar.

And this is where the science stops, since regardless of what some writers claim, there is no indication that the ancient Maya saw any sign of the end of time in this very special date in their calendar. Archaeologists are clear about this: No Mayan text or inscription resembles an end-of-the-world prophecy, and the Mayan calendar does not stop on this special date. This switch may have been seen as a time of rejoicing, but it will be of no more consequence than when an odometer rolls over to zero after reaching its maximum – or, for that matter, when 11:59:59 p.m. on December 31 is followed by 00:00:00 a.m. on January 1.

A series of catastrophic predictions

Once the prophets of doom had their date, they had to explain just how the world would end. So in recent years, a series of events supposedly pointing to global catastrophe have been foretold for December 21, 2012. But none of these predictions actually stands up to scrutiny:

For instance, all the stories about a supposed planet named “Nibiru” are pure fantasy and have no scientific basis. If the planet really did exist and were about to strike the Earth in 2012, it would already have been visible to the naked eye for many years now. But there has been no sign of it.

The “reversal” of the Earth’s poles is also impossible from a scientific point of view. Those who warn of this catastrophe are simply playing with words, as they are actually referring to the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic polarity, a phenomenon that happens irregularly and last occurred 780,000 years ago. This kind of magnetic reversal has happened dozens of times in our planet’s history, and does not appear to have any harmful consequences for its ecosystems. In any case, this phenomenon has nothing to do with a reversal in the Earth’s rotation.

Nor is there anything to fear from the claims of planetary alignments. Even if all the planets in the Solar System were lined up, it would not have any impact on us. And on December 21, 2012, the planets will certainly not be arranged in this way around the Sun. In fact, given the planets’ different periods of revolution around the Sun, it is impossible for them all to line up as predicted, even in the lifetime of our Solar System.

As for the Sun passing through the centre of the Milky Way, or galactic plane, there are no scientific data suggesting any negative repercussions for the Earth. In any case, the Sun has been passing through essentially the same spot every winter solstice for many years, and this point is in fact a few degrees north of the actual centre of our galaxy.

In light of all the above, and despite the recent popularity of doomsday scenarios, we can assure you that December 21, 2012 will be nothing more significant than another winter solstice! And the film? Pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less.

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