Beware the 2012 scare

Beware December 21, 2012.

That warning comes from Sky & Telescope, the renowned US astronomy magazine.

The cover story of its November issue offers astronomers a 2012 survival kit. Not because Sky & Telescope editors believe anything terrible will happen then but because they want to prepare their readers for the latest end-of-the-world scare.

“As we approach 2012, more and more professional and amateur astronomers are being asked about the doomsday scenario, so we want to help educate them, so they can inform the general public,” says Sky &
Telescope Editor in Chief Robert Naeye.

Every week, more people are coming to believe that all sorts of apocalyptic events will happen on 21/12/12 (or 12/21/12 in American notation). Continents will break apart and slide into the sea, a secret monster planet will smash into Earth out of nowhere, and so on.

As the magazine says, it’s all thanks to a spectacular blend of bad astronomy, bad Mayan ethnography, several popular books, and spreading internet hysteria. Confusingly, it all sounds like it’s based on science.

The hysteria will increase when the disaster movie “2012” opens next month. Its slogan is: “Find out the truth.”

An article by E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, explains that the doomsday predictions started with a misreading of the Mayan calendar.

If you believe what you hear, he writes, “the ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike.”

Some modern readings of inscriptions at Mayan archaeological sites suggest that an important time cycle will end on the day they called 13.0.0.0.0 and we know as December 21,2012, Krupp says. But there is little evidence that the Maya themselves associated this with Armageddon in the alarmist modern sense.

So if you hear any 2012 drivel, you know how to refute it.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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