If you believe some doomsayers, the end of the world is coming in less than a month – on December 21, 2012, to be exact. Why do they think that? Because, they claim, the Mayans predicted it. According to what is called the Mayan Long Count Calendar, December 21 will mark the end of the 13th ba’k’tun (a ba’k’tun is 144,000 days, or a little over 394 years), which represents the end of the Mayan calendar (the workings of the Mayan calendar are rather complicated; a good explanation can be found here).

According to the Mayans, the world was created at the beginning of the first ba’k’tun, or August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar (as calculated by British anthropologist Sir Eric Thompson). Since 12 ba’k’tuns are 1,872,000 days in length, the Mayan Long Count Calendar will end on December 21, 2012. So what does that mean? Some people believe that the ancient Mayans had some mystical insights, and that they planned the end of their calendar to coincide with the end of the world. There are a variety of ideas about how the world would end, ranging from the collision of Earth with another planet to the impact of an asteroid, from an invasion by aliens to a legion of zombies rising from the ground to eat our brains, from a sudden reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field to some other catastrophe.

This isn’t the first time that the end of the world has been predicted. For instance, in the days before New Years’ Day, 2000, many people were worried that the dawn of the new millennium (which actually didn’t occur until January 1, 2001) would bring about global catastrophe. Sales of canned food, bottled water, guns, and portable electrical generators skyrocketed during the late 1990s, but the world didn’t end then. It also didn’t end in 1658 (Christopher Columbus believed that the world was created in 5343 BCE and would last 7,000 years), in July 1999 (when the famous seer Nostradamus is alleged to have predicted the world’s end), on August 18, 1999 (as predicted by the Amazing Criswell, who you can see at the beginning of the film Plan Nine From Outer Space), or many other dates that have been predicted by a variety of religious leaders, psychics, and mystics over the years.

Is there any science behind the so-called Mayan prediction that the world would end on December 21, 2012? The short answer is: none at all. For a longer answer, you can visit NASA’s FAQ page about December 21, 2012 or watch this video that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory put together:

There are no serious scientific reasons why the world will be in any particular danger on December 21, 2012. But many scientists are concerned that people who are worried about the end of the world might make foolish decisions based on their belief or even commit suicide to avoid the catastrophe they think is coming.

While no scientists are concerned about the world ending on December 21, 2012, there is a growing concern in the scientific community about threats to human life on Earth. Cambridge University in the United Kingdom recently announced the formation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, an interdisciplinary research centre that will study threats to human survival. At least at first, the CSER will concentrate on human-made threats to survival, from the possibility of nuclear war and climate change to human-made superviruses and a network of computers taking over the world.

So let’s be clear – the Mayans didn’t think that the world would end on December 21, 2012 (the end of the 13th ba’k’tun) any more than we think that the world will end on December 31, 2012. All the end of the 13th ba’k’tun means is that, if you’re a Mayan, it’s time to get a new calendar. So if you choose not to buy holiday gifts because you’re counting on the world ending, then what’s most likely to happen is that you will have some disappointed friends and relatives.

But how are you preparing for December 21, 2012? Are you expecting the end of the world? Comment or participate in our poll to let us know!

The End of the World in Popular Culture

Tales of the end of the world have featured prominently in popular culture for just about as long as people have been writing. While many predictions of the apocalypse are based on religious writings, there have been many more written and filmed for our entertainment. Here are a few noteworthy tales predicting different ways the world could end – at least for humans (spoiler alerts!):

In 2012 (2009), a variety of factors (predicted by the Mayans, of course!), including the Earth’s core overheating and massive solar storms, lead to earthquakes, tsunamis, and all sorts of other natural disasters that threaten to destroy life on Earth. In The World’s End (2013), a group of middle-aged friends trying to recreate a pub crawl from their youth uncover a plot by robots to take over the world, destroying humanity in the process. 12 Monkeys (1995) features Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in a tale of a man time-travelling from a virus-devastated future to stop the disease before it’s unleashed. The 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a classic dark comedy set in the Cold War about an accidental nuclear war that could bring about the end of life on Earth. H.G. Wells’ classic tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds, has been filmed several times, notably Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation with Tom Cruise and the classic 1953 version. World War Z (a great book turned into a terrible film in 2013) is one of many, many tales that see the end of the world coming in the form of zombies.

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor is Acting Program Manager for CurioCity at Let’s Talk Science. He grew up watching bug-eyed monsters in sci-fi B-movies and dreaming of our future in space, and remembers being a young child watching the first astronauts walk on the Moon. Passionate about the importance of science education and understanding how science and technology impacts our society, he is still a sci-fi geek.    

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Avatar  cjsumner

I just love the last paragraph in this article.
I am going to share this with my students, as some have mentioned this topic currently as we are now in December.
I am trying to encourage my students to 'surf' this website occasionally and this will be a great article to enrich their scientific thinking!
Thank you.
Doc Sumner