Dec 21 2012

The End of the World

Yet again we face a doomsday prophecy – the Mayan Apocalypse. By now most people have heard that according to the ancient Mayan calendar, today marks the end of the current cycle, with tomorrow (the bit doomsday prophets miss) the beginning of another. As many people have already pointed out, it’s no more big a deal than December 31 giving way to January 1st. In fact there are Mayan calendars that extend well into the future.

One big clue that this is nothing to worry about is the fact that modern day Mayans living in Mexico are openly unconcerned, and are celebrating their “new year.”

I must say that I am happy this time around there isn’t much end-of-the-world hysteria. Sure, there are a few pockets of crackpots that are helpfully announcing themselves to the world by huddling in remote villages waiting for aliens to come rescue them. The average person, however, seems to be greeting doomsday with a big yawn, and maybe an amused grin.

Having lived through the end of the earth multiple times, I can start to compare the events. In my memory the biggest apocalyptic fear surrounded Y2K. This was the perfect storm of doomsday prophecy, however – there was actually something legitimate happening (the computer 2-digit date thing), government and corporations were spending real money to hopefully avoid the problem, and the turning of the millennium gave the whole thing a mystical feel. We like round numbers – they should mark big events. At that time I personally knew regular people (not cult members) who were genuinely scared.

Most other doomsday prophecies occur in small groups – cults or subcultures, and not the general population. Harold Camping’s multiple predictions of the end of the world were amusing theater for most people (and devastating for those caught in that particular delusion).

Fears with broad appeal tend to surround natural disasters, like an asteroid impact, or a supervolcano. These have the advantage of being real, if extremely unlikely to occur in our lifetime.

Nibiru, the mythological rogue planet that is supposed to crash into the earth, or come so close as to disturb our orbit, is possible but fake. There are rogue planets wandering between the stars, and one could potentially come pay us a visit – but again the chance is damn unlikely, and Nibiru is just fiction (and recycled fiction at that).

For those who think Nibiru was supposed to come near or even strike the earth today (combining two separate doomsday myths), just look up. No Nibiru.

It is interesting to think about the anti-climax of the Mayan apocalypse. Does the public have doomsday fatigue? Perhaps it can be blamed on my favorite new sociological variable – the internet. Is the rapid communication of the internet allowing skeptics to debunk such nonsense more effectively, or burn out interest in these fictions before the alleged date even arrives? I think this is plausible.

People seem to know (and enjoy knowing) all about why the Mayan apocalypse is bunk. This is skepticism at its best – promoting the joy of critical thinking and knowledge as a shield against fashionable nonsense. No one wants to be the rube who is sent the link (cc’d to everyone they know) that definitively exposes their gullibility.

In the pre-internet days, I would have endless discussions with people spouting all kinds of nonsense. It would always end without conclusion, as both sides had their “facts” and neither side could pull research papers out of their jacket pocket to show that the other side was wrong. We often ended with an agreement to look up the other person’s claims, or provide that study that we read somewhere, but there was rarely follow through.

Now – we can pull research papers out of our virtual pockets. We go online, and someone’s facts (perhaps even both side’s) are exploded by helpful experts who will provide references and analysis. This is also why the internet is the real battleground between science and pseudoscience. The charlatans are trying to flood the internet with fake sites and fake information.

Fortunately, credible evidence seems to have an advantage, if not in numbers. Credible references are better linked, and rank higher on Google. But we cannot let our guard drop – we need to continue to protect the credibility and legitimacy of information on this world repository of human knowledge.

Perhaps the Mayan apocalypse is a sign of something – a brave new world where critical thinking has a fighting chance.

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21 responses so far

21 Responses to “The End of the World”

  1. locutusbrgon 21 Dec 2012 at 10:04 am

    I agree there may be some Doomsday fatigue in the US but not everywhere.
    I wonder how things came out in Russia given the NY times piece earlier in the month about the Mayan myth causing havoc in Russia. The chaos it caused forced the Russian government to come out with a statement saying that the end of the world was not going to happen.

    “Inmates in a women’s prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a “collective mass psychosis” so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south.” Remember when the end of the world is coming, what you need is a good ice sculpture.

    “Once, when the prisoners were standing in formation, one of them imagined that the earth yawned, and they were all stricken by fear and ran in all directions,” the priest said. He lectured the inmates about the signs of the apocalypse according to the New Testament, he said, and after that “the populist statements about the end of the world were dispelled and the tension eased.”

    As every skeptic knows the best way to address fantasy is providing an alternate fantasy.

    France, not to be outdone by anyone, has thrown their hat into the ring.”In France, the authorities plan to bar access to Bugarach mountain in the south to keep out a flood of visitors who believe it is a sacred place that will protect a lucky few from the end of the world. The patriarch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church recently issued a statement assuring the faithful that “doomsday is sure to come,” but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the “so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.”
    It would be good to see news about people standing around in the mountains of France to no purpose, not going to happen but would be good.

  2. slipknottinon 21 Dec 2012 at 10:04 am

    I’m curious if a lot of the skepticism is just related to this doomsday prophecy coming from the Mayans. I’ve seen a lot of “I don’t believe what the Mayans say, I believe in the bible” and things of that nature.

  3. tmac57on 21 Dec 2012 at 10:33 am

    This from locutusbrg FTW!!!

    As every skeptic knows the best way to address fantasy is providing an alternate fantasy.

    :)

  4. Kawarthajonon 21 Dec 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Yes, there definitely seems to be apocalypse fatigue up here in Canada. This is the 3rd apocalypse predicted in the last 1 1/2 years or so, not that many people seemed to take them too seriously. (Whatever happened to good old Harold Camping anyway? He’s been awfully quiet lately.) I think with all the publicity around these doomsday predictions, and the fact that doomsday never comes, is helping the general public realize how ridiculous they are.

    Apocalypse parties have even become passe. I tried to arrange one for this evening but everyone is busy with other plans. There must be some sort of holiday coming up…or maybe I’m just not that popular. And there’s so little time left!!! A very credible news source, the Weekly World News, reported just yesterday that the rogue planet would indeed collide with Earth today and this has been confirmed by NASA. Here is the quote from the article:

    “NASA scientists have reportedly confirmed that the planet Nibiru will collide with Earth on December 21st.

    The Nibiru collision with Earth in 2012 has been predicted for a long time, but astrophysicists, cosmologists and astronomers around the world have now come to a consensus that Earth will indeed collide with the planet, which lies just outside Pluto.”

    http://weeklyworldnews.com/aliens/42896/earth-to-collide-with-nibiru-on-decembe-21-2012/

    NASA has confirmed this!!! It must be moving incredibly fast (~ 31,000,000 km/hr), if it was just outside Pluto’s orbit yesterday and today it will hit the Earth, which is probably why we can’t see it!!! AAAAHHH!!! ;)

  5. nybgruson 21 Dec 2012 at 1:40 pm

    @kawarthajon:

    Doing some quick maths I get a different answer:

    Using the average distance of pluto to be 39 AU from earth (since it is on average 40 AU – 1 AU for the earth/sun distance) I get 5,834,322,000 km as the Pluto-Earth distance. If we divide by 24 for the day it would take Nibiru to travel here, that comes out to 243,096,750 km/hr or 67,526 km/sec. Light travels at 299,793 km/sec, which means it would be traveling at 0.225c which is well within relativistic speeds.

    According to this article I quickly googled, rogue planets do seem to be the fastest moving large objects in the cosmos with the most recent one clocked at ~30,000,000 miles/hr. These are considered rare cases of “hypervelocity” planets that require specific circumstances to arise. Doing the math on that yields a speed of 0.045c.

    In other words, Nibiru would have to be traveling 5 times faster than the fastest of the fastest known planets out there in order to do what the article claims. Which is silly fast, but I have to concede not entirely out of the realm of hypothetical possibility.

    Just for fun, if we assume Nibiru to be roughly the same mass as Pluto, that means it would have a kinetic energy equal to 2.984363362442e38 Joules, or 2,984,363,362,442e11 petajoules (PJ). The largest atomic bomb ever detonated was the Tsar Bomba or “King Bomb” by the Soviets at a piddly 210,000TJ (i.e. a negligible fraction of the supposed energy from Nibiru). If you add up all the energy ever released from all nuclear testing ever it is 2,135,000 TJ which is still a piddly fraction of the proposed energy.

    So to frame it another way, that much energy would be equivalent to converting 3,320,552e15 kg of mass into pure energy, which is (to my surprise) only 0.000556 times the earth’s mass.

  6. Kawarthajonon 21 Dec 2012 at 2:14 pm

    @nybgrus

    I was going with Pluto’s approximate aphelion (7.5 billion km/48 AU), not accounting for where the Earth and Pluto are currently located, plus I forgot a “0″, so my math was sloppy at best. Thanks for the correction. Of course, your estimate is assuming that it would take a direct, linear route to the Earth and not an arched route, which would be much more likely (surprising, the Weekly World News article was short on these details). So, it’s probably travelling even faster than your estimate because it has to cover a larger distance in the same amount of time. If it struck us, even going at the slow rate of 30,000,000 mph, our planet would be molten dust in seconds!

    If the planet is actually moving at 0.225c+, there’d be little warning at all (it boggles the mind to think of something that big moving that fast! What would we see if a planet sized object was moving at almost 1/4 the speed of light). Plus, it’s cloudy here so I wouldn’t see anything if I just looked up anyway. I’ll just be huddled in my survival bunker in my backyard, hoping that the canned food I have amassed will keep me and my family alive through the impending disaster. We’ll also have our aluminium hats and our power balance bracelets!

  7. nybgruson 21 Dec 2012 at 2:42 pm

    @kawarthajon:

    yes, you are correct, of course. I did assume a linear path which does not make sense. And I tried to take into account the current position of pluto and the earth so get the accurate distance today, but it defeated 5 minutes of google-fu and so I went with averages. lol. For this kind of exercise being exact in such a way is, well, pointless.

    But yes, an object that large moving at 0.225c would be a sight to behold… and we would be instantaneously (well, from our perspective anyways) vaporized with essentially no warning depending on the trajectory and if we were looking in that direction.

    Thank the FSM you have aluminum hats, although tin would be much more protective.

  8. 1steved1on 21 Dec 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Comment gold

  9. BillyJoe7on 21 Dec 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Now hold on just a goddamn pickin’ minute you two…

    You have forgotten all about RELATIVITY?

    According to our resident expert:
    “When I walk past someone on the street, time passes at a different rate for me than it does for the person I’m passing (How can I not like that sort of result? I love it).”

    What this means is that the time that passes for Earth as is travels towards Nibiru is different from the time that passes for Nibiru as it travels towards the Earth.
    What this means is…um…wait…

    [I know, I really should stop floggin' the dead horse :) ]

  10. SimonWon 21 Dec 2012 at 7:36 pm

    I’ll confess to worry over the Y2K, I’m less concerned about Jan 19th 2038 simply because I think most stuff that currently breaks is less important, or will be replaced before 2038. I am concerned people will have Y2K fatigue, and not bother with 2038, but presumably those that need stuff to work will make sure it is tested.

  11. BillyJoe7on 22 Dec 2012 at 12:29 am

    Simon,

    If a program in the future uses future dates, the problems can occur long before 2038.

  12. BillyJoe7on 22 Dec 2012 at 12:32 am

    We need an edit function!
    I meant: if a computer’s programs uses future dates, problems can occur long before 2038

  13. locutusbrgon 22 Dec 2012 at 11:07 am

    In my opinion Doomsday and Doomsday concern are based in one of three major categories. Ignorance, Delusional thinking, or Anxiety disorder. I think the smallest percentage is ignorance. Most people know the facts but worry anyways.
    Far more likely you will die another way other than the end of the world.
    Globally Violence is the biggest killer and far outstrips even infectious disease. 2003 analysis by WHO shows 1424 murdered per day, and on average 1 person commits suicide every few minutes.
    Communicable diseases kill millions of people every year (13.3 million 1998, according to the World Health Organization).
    There will always be something to worry about, but we should be more focused on ourselves and our behavior than planets aligning or the last page of a calender. I know I am preaching to the choir here but it always boggles my my mind how much time people spend worrying about the irrelevant and glossing over the hard problems the world faces.

  14. locutusbrgon 22 Dec 2012 at 11:08 am

    In my opinion Doomsday and Doomsday concern are based in one of three major categories. Ignorance, Delusional thinking, or Anxiety disorder. I think the smallest percentage is ignorance. Most people know the facts but worry anyways.
    Far more likely you will die another way other than the end of the world.
    Globally Violence is the biggest killer and far outstrips even infectious disease. 2003 analysis by WHO shows 1424 murdered per day, and on average 1 person commits suicide every few minutes.
    Communicable diseases kill millions of people every year (13.3 million 1998, according to the World Health Organization).
    There will always be something to worry about, but we should be more focused on ourselves and our behavior than planets aligning or the last page of a calender. I know I am preaching to the choir here but it always boggles my mind how much time people spend worrying about the irrelevant and glossing over the hard problems the world faces.

  15. locutusbrgon 22 Dec 2012 at 11:10 am

    obviously I agree with # BillyJoe7, I need an edit option. Steve if you read this please delete the first duplicate comment
    Thanks.

  16. Autumnon 22 Dec 2012 at 2:43 pm

    This is a bit off topic, but:

    This post has inspired me to create the planet Nibiru in the game Universe Sandbox just to see what would happen during various collisions, near collisions, etc. For those of you that don’t know, Universe Sandbox is a very cool universe simulator in which you can do all sorts of fun things like creating rogue planets to terrorize Earth. It’s also a really awesome way to get a sense of scale–you can send out light pulses in real time and see how long it takes the light to reach other celestial objects. I always knew the Earth was 8 light minutes from the sun, but you don’t really understand how far away it is until you actually sit through all eight minutes watching it.

    Maybe I’ll run through the other doomsday scenarios as well. Such as simulating what would happen if the LHC really did turn the Earth into a black hole. I think people took that more seriously than the whole Mayan thing, no?

  17. CodexHammeron 22 Dec 2012 at 6:23 pm

    @Locutusbrg
    If anything, the repeated post emphasises your point.

    I agree that the LHC doomsday scenario was more on people’s radar. At that time, I think the public did not have more knowledge about the collider as they do today and so had more to fear through ignorance. At least now, many people could identify “Higgs Boson” with “LHC”, and not “Black Hole”. I hope the same will occur with the 2012 speculation, particularly Nibiru, so if a rogue planetary collision is ever predicted in the future (which I have no doubt that it will), people can have the knowledge that Planet X is a myth.

  18. ccbowerson 23 Dec 2012 at 4:51 am

    locutusbrg-
    Your figures don’t quite add up. Taking your numbers at face value, your 13.3 million communicable disease figure is much higher than your murder/suicide ones. My understanding is that leading causes of death worldwide are cardiovascular diseases followed closely by infections. Of course it varies by country and by how specific you are with cause of death (CV disease versus MI or CVA).
    I agree with your overall point that these concerns are not largely about ignorance, but in general misplaced anxiety which is pretty common. In the US, there seems to be a preoccupation with relatively rare events like abductions or random killings, while the much more common events like CV diseases, infections, cancer or even motor vehicle accidents do not cause the same reactions. That’s not to say that the latter don’t cause concern, but that the concern is not proportional to the risk.

  19. Auracolon 23 Dec 2012 at 8:01 am

    WE BE DOOMED!

    Did the End of the World, as we know it
    Occur on the twenty-first?
    Did the countdown to global destruction
    Have the whole world expecting the worst?
    Were the Mayans correct with their timeline?
    Or was their prophecy purely a hunch?
    I’m really in need of an answer
    BEFORE my big Christmas lunch!

    The Apocalypse’s made a HUGE difference
    To this season’s festive good cheer
    As I ended up wishing my loved ones
    A Happy POSTHUMOUS New Year!
    Could this Mayan post-Armageddon?
    Cause my Yuletide cravings to stop?
    Or much like my diet resolution,
    Was their Calendar destined to flop?

    But WAIT! the sky’s getting darker!
    And the salon’s begun to vibrate
    But I thought that Doomsday was Friday
    Did astronomers miscalculate?
    IF the End of Time is upon us
    I’ll stop planning my Post-Christmas fast
    And spend my last breath cursing Mayans
    And lamenting this chocolate’s my last!

    vicky schroer – Beirut 2012

  20. nybgruson 23 Dec 2012 at 10:28 am

    Depends on how you ask the question. “Worldwide” becomes masked by middle and high income countries having a disproportionate population and death by CV disease. But in low income countries it is definitely infection that is the leading cause of death, with respiratory being #1 and diarrheal #2:

    http://www.whadvocacy.com/articles/global-mortality-who-identifies-leading-causes-death

    Cool little graphic from the WHO using 2008 data.

    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index.html

    And a nice table of it all.

  21. locutusbrgon 23 Dec 2012 at 8:14 pm

    @ccbowers
    They are WHO figures not mine. Murder does not included state sanctioned murder IE war. In the developed world Cardiovascular disease is #1. Including the third world diarrheal disease, lower respiratory tract infections and HIV kill more than Cardiac. Those figures do not include TB.
    Cardiac by category kills the most as you said. My data was from different years as examples of real things to worry about.

    from WHO website.
    In high-income countries more than two thirds of all people live beyond the age of 70 and predominantly die of chronic diseases: cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive lung disease, cancers, diabetes or dementia. Lung infection remains the only leading infectious cause of death.

    In middle-income countries, nearly half of all people live to the age of 70 and chronic diseases are the major killers, just as they are in high-income countries. Unlike in high-income countries, however, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and road traffic accidents also are leading causes of death.

    In low-income countries less than one in five of all people reach the age of 70, and more than a third of all deaths are among children under 15. People predominantly die of infectious diseases: lung infections, diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth together continue to be leading causes of death, claiming the lives of both infants and mothers.

    Q: How many young children die each year?
    More than 8 million deaths in 2008 were among children under five years of age, and 99% of them were in low- and middle-income countries.

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