Is the world really gonna end in 2012?

Rob Thacker
23 January 2012

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This is a small section of the glyphs carved into La Mojarra Stela 1. The left column shows the Long Count date of 8.5.16.9.7, or 156 AD (June 23, 156 AD by one calculation). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to a number of sensationalized movies and documentaries, you might be wondering whether there’s any truth to the claims that the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012. The reality is that all these stories — like the end of the world being brought about by the Sun and Earth lining up with centre of the Milky Way galaxy — are just plain wrong!

The root of all these doomsday myths stem from a “Long Count” calendar used by the Mayans, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed in and around southern Mexico from 1500 BCE (Before the Common Era) to 1500 CE. Fast Fact: There are at least five doomsday myths for the year 2012!

The Mayan Long Count calendar doesn’t actually predict the world will end on December 21, 2012. Instead, it signals the end of the longest period in the Long Count calendar – a period of roughly 5,125 years. Each Mayan calendar period of 144,000 days is called a “b'ak'tun” and there are 13 b'ak'tuns in a complete long count.

Fast Fact: Some Mayan inscriptions suggest dates beyond the end of the Long Count, including one reference to the year AD 4772.

According to Wendy Bacon, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the starting date of the Long Count calendar — August 11, 3114 BCE — was chosen for its numerical symmetry and the calendar recycle date of 2012 due to matching the number of days from the origin date.

When the Mayan civilization began to deteriorate in the 10th century CE, the Long Count calendar was no longer relevant.

“2012 is based on something that hasn’t been used in a very long time,” said Bacon during a Science Cabaret talk in Ithaca, New York in May 2010.

The idea that disaster will strike on December 21, 2012 due to the Sun, Earth and the centre of the galaxy aligning is false too. According to Ann Martin, a doctoral candidate in astronomy at Cornell University, Earth aligns with the centre of the Milky Way galaxy two times a year as Earth orbits the Sun.

Stories about 2012 are a great way to sell books, movie tickets, get you to read web pages or watch TV shows. They might look like they are based on science, but they really aren't.

Learn More!

Science Cabaret talkin Ithaca New York

Mayan Long CountCalendar explanation on Wikipedia

Ancient WorldMysteries website

Article first published March 17, 2011.

Rob Thacker

I am a Professor of astronomy at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I use supercomputers to answer questions about how galaxies form and evolve. As well as being interested in things in the sky, I am also passionate about our planet and take time to go backpacking or diving with my wife Linda whenever possible. English by birth, I still haven't quite gotten used to Canadian winters!


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