Why the world won’t end on Dec. 21, 2012ASTRO BOB: I know it sounds like a “how does he know it won’t?” headline, but my crystal ball shows nothing unusual happening on that date outside of the winter solstice at 5:12 a.m.
By: Bob King, Duluth News Tribune
I know it sounds like a “how does he know it won’t?” headline, but my crystal ball shows nothing unusual happening on that date outside of the winter solstice at 5:12 a.m.
I like the solstice; it’s cause for optimism for lovers of daylight. My wife surely sees it that way. From Dec. 21 forward, darkness is cast away a minute at a time as the sun ambles back north.
But what about all these dark thoughts people are having about world’s end? By now we’ve all heard it originates with the ancient Mayan calendar rumored to come to an end — and bring the world along with it — on Dec. 21. While a “Great Cycle” of the calendar does conclude on that date, a new cycle begins, much like the transition on our Western calendar from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000. Granted, a lot of people got freaked out and made crazy predictions during that transition, but did the world change overnight? No.
Each Great Cycle of the Mayan calendar lasts 7,885 years, at the conclusion of which the Mayans believed the universe would be destroyed and recreated. While I like to clean house like anybody else, the last time I checked, the universe was still around in 6000 B.C., the approximate date of the conclusion of the previous cycle. This belief was undoubtedly important to Mayan spiritual life, but it’s not connected to the real world as we know it. No matter what calendar you consult, ancient or new, they’re all manmade devices with no sway whatsoever over the powers of nature.
Then there’s all the chatter of a planetary alignment and how the combined gravity of the planets will rock the Earth or split the Earth or send a beam of supercharged particles at Earth or — fill in the blank.
First, there are no planetary alignments on or around Dec. 21, 2012. Matter of fact, the first week of December has been filled with great alignments of Venus, Mercury, Saturn and the moon, and we’re none the worse for it.
Even if all the planets queued up in a perfectly straight line with the Earth and sun, the amount of additional tug on Earth would be negligible. Certainly not enough to raise tides like the much-closer moon and much-weightier sun do.
Next we bump into the made-up planet Nibiru that’s supposed to be on a collision course with Earth. Nobody, not NASA, not a single professional observatory anywhere, no spacecraft and no amateur astronomer has ever detected or photographed any sign of this fictional world. If it were headed toward our planet and big enough to crush us like so many bugs, it would be so close by now we’d see it with the naked eye.
You may also have heard how the sun will line up directly over the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, triggering beams of radiation that will turn the Earth into over-grilled hamburger. Fact-checking shows that the sun will not line up with the central black hole because its path across the sky lies well to the north of this location. Even if it did, the two are separated by 27,000 light years, a distance so vast they’re completely unrelated to one another. Lineups do little to enhance gravity’s attraction despite the human mind’s obvious attraction to linearity.
Gravity is the weakest of the four forces that include electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. While it acts over great distances, lining things up in a row only affects another planet when the objects you’re lining up are relatively large and very close — like the moon — or extremely massive and relatively close, like the sun. The strength of gravity or any other interaction between the sun and the black hole in the center of the galaxy is virtually nil; likewise for small objects like nearby comets and asteroids.
Speaking of the sun, some are predicting a massive solar flare on the first day of winter. That’s always possible, but no one, not even top solar scientists, can forecast the date of a solar storm, only a probability. Since we’re approaching the high or active end of the current sunspot cycle when storms are more common, a flare is more likely now than when the solar activity bottoms out at minimum.
The sun’s up-and-down cycle has been happening for hundreds of years; a normal to below-normal amount of activity is expected when the current cycle peaks in May 2013.
We can’t end without addressing the pole switchover, which isn’t about Earth’s axis flipping about — that’s nicely stabilized by the moon — but the north and south magnetic poles changing places. Some are predicting a flip-flop on Dec. 21. While this really does happen, it rarely occurs — about once every 200,000 to 300,000 years (or longer). The one occurred about 800,000 years ago. Since then the magnetic poles have wandered this way and that, but compasses’ needles still point north and will continue to do so for thousands more years.
Even when switchovers happen, they’re gradual and take up to a few thousand years to complete. Since Earth and its bevy of life, including humans during the most recent flip, have survived, we’ll undoubtedly make it through the next one.
I’ve heard of some really nutty stuff like the particle accelerator at CERN sending protons into the Earth, creating a chain reaction that blows giant holes in the ground, releasing firestorms of methane gas. The minute amounts of matter involved in these experiments are self-contained, not to mention it’s difficult to imagine exactly how a chain reaction could be started. Earth rock isn’t made of highly processed nuclear materials just waiting for a fuse.
I think I understand why we’re obsessed with end-of-world scenarios. It was built-in by evolution as a way for us to anticipate the worst and act to ensure our survival. Fair enough. But when it’s co-opted by people who either don’t understand the fundamentals of nature and science or who do, but prey on the fears and ignorance of others to enhance their status or make money, it’s wrong. That’s why the more observant you are of the world, the less heed you’ll pay to those who distort the truth.
That includes accepting the fact that volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts and meteor hits are part of the price we pay for living on an active, evolving planet. No magical alignments or minuscule comets are necessary to explain these behaviors. While there are many things we still don’t know, based on what we do know, there’s no reason to fear Dec. 21, 2012.
Whenever you hear someone say the world will end on this or that date, remember that thousands of people before them predicted the same and yet we’re all still here paying the bills and shopping for Christmas. Even if the worst were to happen, say a 5-mile-diameter asteroid crashing into Earth, life would sustain some serious damage, but the remaining plants, animals and humans would go on to populate the future. We live in one tough neighborhood but have what it takes to survive.
And if I’m wrong and the world does end on Friday, I’ll be very embarrassed. I promise.
Read Bob King’s Areavoices blog Astro Bob at astrobob.areavoices.com.