The year 2012 is acting like a badly behaved celebrity. Frightful rumors and gossip are spreading. Already more than a half dozen books are marketing, to eager fans, astronomical fears about 2012 End Times.
Despite claims that the Mayan calendar predicts our planetary demisenext year, astronomer Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., says we can “sleep well on Dec. 21 of next year.”
“What’s so special about Dec. 12 of next year?” Yeomans asked. “A lot of people think it’s the end of the Maya calendar.”
Yeomans goes down the list of proposed apocalypses for next December.
The ancient Maya measured time in longer periods, with a short-count and a long-count calendar, just as we measure time in decades, centuries and millennia.
“The short-count was 52 of our years, and the long-count was 5,125 years long. This long-count calendar is coming to an end on Dec. 21,” Yeomans said.
“Of course, a new calendar would start on Dec. 22. It would be like saying that our calendar ends Dec. 31, and that’s the end of time, the end of days, that’s it, no regard for how a new cycle would begin. The Maya never predicted the end of the world occurred at that time.”
Another fear is that a planet dubbed “Nibiru” or “Planet X” is supposedly headed toward Earth. Yes, a UFO aficionado who claims to be communicating with aliens says that this mystery planet will destroy Earth next year.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that Nibiru exists,” Yeomans said. Notions that it might be hiding behind the sun are unfounded, as “it can’t hide behind the sun forever, and we would’ve seen it years ago,” Yeomans said.
Some say that planets lining up next December will harm Earth grievously. “But there is no planetary alignment on Dec. 21, 2012,” Yeomans said.
Even if there were a planetary alignment then, it would not cause problems. The only bodies that have significant gravitational effects on Earth are the moon and the sun, effects we see as the tides. The tidal effects induced by the other bodies in our solar system are negligible, and we have experienced them for millions of years without troubles.
One more 2012 fear rests on solar storms. Solar storms — torrents of energetic particles from the sun — do occur. These usually come and go in cycles 11 years long.
When they slam into Earth, they create auroras and can cause damage to satellites and power lines, but it’s “nothing that causes lasting damage,” Yeomans said.
“There is no evidence that one will happen on Dec. 21 next year,” he added.
The Earth has two kinds of poles — its geographical poles, which mark the planet’s axis of rotation, and its magnetic poles, which are associated with the planet’s magnetic field that makes our compasses point toward north.
Some fear that either or both of these poles will flip in 2012.
The magnetic poles do flip sometimes, but on time scales of about 500,000 years. These shifts are not sudden, but take place very gradually over thousands of years, “and there’s no evidence of a flip on Dec. 21, 2012,” Yeomans said.
“Even if it did flip, it would not cause any real problems, other than us having to change our compasses from north to south.”
Yeoman notes that smart people can believe weird things for any number of reasons. For instance, real data is often confused with junk science, while anecdotal evidence and passionate arguments on the Internet and on television shows purporting to be fact are often mistaken for the real thing.
“Scientists really have their work cut out for them,” Yeomans said. “We really have to do a better job educating people about science.” [via Space]