There are those who believe that the end of the world is nigh, that the Earth will cease to exist as we know it in 2012. Some of these beliefs center around the end of the Maya Calendar, which ends its long-count cycle on December 21, 2012. Some center around solar flares, a mysterious Planet X (or Niburu), the Second Coming of Christ, nuclear annihilation, killer asteroid impact, magnetic pole flux, and/or a combination of the end-times scenarios (and sometimes mixed with even more theories or prophecies). With all the doomsday prophecies currently circulating, NASA decided to fight fire with fire in the age of visual media. In the interest of science and allaying the fears of those who might be swayed by all of the articles, blog posts, videos, and movies that cater to the doomsday crowd, NASA posted a video on March 7 to at least dismiss the more creative of the doomsday prophecies, especially the Maya doomsday calendar myth.
Don Yeomans, head of the Near-Earth Objects Program Office at NASA/JPL, narrated the video, and begins by explaining that the Maya calendar itself is just that -- a calendar. It simply ends on December 21, 2012. A new cycle begins again on December 22, just like the regular Gregorian calendar in use today that ends on December 31.
Yeomans then addresses the strange idea of a hidden giant planet, dubbed Niburu (Babylonian for "crossing" or "point of transition") or Planet X by believers, that will suddenly appear on a collision trajectory with the Earth. This theory posits that Niburu (also spelled Niburu) has been out of sight by Earth's astronomers and the planet's space agencies are keeping its existence hidden from the general populace to avoid widespread panic. The idea of its existence is based on the calculated mass of the Solar System, which, given all the matter discovered in object form to date, is shy of its suggested level. Nibiru is that missing mass, or so the theory goes, and a collision or near miss, either of which would cause untold devastation on Earth, is imminent. Yeomans actually laughs at the idea that thousands of astronomers keeping the secret over the years that a planet four times the size of the Earth was about to cause a cataclysmic event.
Another popular 2012 doomsday storyline is the advent of a massive and destructive solar storm or series of storms. This idea is often tied into the Maya calendar/December 21, 2012 prophecy. As Yeomans explains, solar flares and storms do exist, but the doomsday calculation is a bit off. Solar flare activity goes through an 11-year cycle and its maximum period peaks in May 2013, not December 2012. As the NASA scientist points out, even then there is no indication that the solar flare activity will exhibit worse than a "mild" period. He added that there was no evidence of impending solar storms.
The NASA scientist briefly dismisses the idea of planetary alignments doing any great damage to the Earth as some believe, noting that gravitational and tidal pull is mostly affected by the Moon and the Sun and that all other gravitational effects from other celestial bodies, whether aligned or not, are negligible. (It should also be pointed out that the Moon and Sun align with the Earth twice monthly and is part of the normal process of workings of the Solar System.)
The last doomsday scenario Yeomans takes on in the video is the idea that a flux or switch in the alignment of the Earth's magnetic poles can or will cause some type of destructive event. This will not happen, he insists, because, even though the Earth's magnetic poles do reverse on occasion (the last occasion being nearly 750,000 years ago), it takes thousands of years for the shift to take place. Even so, a simple recalibration of compasses would suffice to rectify the alteration for humans. No Earth-ending calamity there.
Yeomans ends the debunking video with words from noted scientist Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." He elaborates: "Since the beginning of time there have been literally hundreds of thousands of predictions for the end of the world, and we're still here."
Of course, for those determined to be apocalyptically pessimistic, no mere video narrated by a renowned scientist from a government agency will suffice to dispel the interpreted written words of Nostradamus, the calculations of skeptics who have calculated for themselves the path of Niburu, and those prophetic glyphs carved in stone by ancient Mayan priests. Besides, even without all the doomsday scenarios NASA has attempted to debunk with evidence-backed assurances, there are still a myriad theories -- like nuclear annihilation, killer asteroid impact, pandemics, manmade biological disasters, etc. -- that predict the end of the world as we know it. And since uncertainty in humanity's future will likely never diminish, neither will the anticipated endings and the apocalyptic prophecies. But come December 22, 2012, at least one of them will be -- unless those ancient Maya priests miscalculated.
Watch NASA's "Just Another Day":
(photo credit: Don Davis/NASA, Wikimedia Commons)