A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it - and I feel fine!

 A rant about John Cusak grimmacing, why the world isn't ending in 2012 and some adventures in base 12. Yes, it's the requisite 2012 post! Also I've just found out I've been shortlisted for a blog award from The Skeptic magazine which is a great honour - thanks so much for your nominations and support! 

To say the Mayans were an odd lot may be a tiny bit of an understatement. One minute happily making major advances in mathematics and astronomy, the next casually ripping the still beating heart out a living child's chest to celebrate the new year, which is what I imagine a party in Rick Santorum's house might be like. But the Mayans will be all over the news this year, despite the fact the society collapsed sometime between around the 8th century. Why is this ? Because, the popular press will tell you, the super accurate ultra astronomer Mayans predicted the end of the world in December 2012! And you know, it was in that awful 2012 movie so there must be something to it! Exclamation mark!

An entire movie based on John Cusak looking mildly annoyed about some CGI. I've ranted on it before..

 Only  the Mayans said no such thing - not even anything sounding like it.The Mayan calendar was a little different to ours, rooted in base 20 (vigesimal) / base 18 calender. Before you have panicky flashbacks to logarithms and cry out loud "Dear God, MATHS! Why Dave, WHY?!" worry not, it's not too confusing - bases are simply the number to which you count  before you start the cycle again; on a 12 hour clock it's 12, then back to 1. Our hour system is in base 24, our minute and second system in base 60, our week system in base 7, out month system in base 12 and so on - which, if you think about it, is kind of crazy. Anyway, the Mayans just used different bases. A b'ak'tun on the Mayan calendar corresponded to about 144,000 days or 394.3 years.

All your base 12 are belong to us!

We set our dates from the year we assume Christ to have been born, so any time after is AD and before is BC. What's daft is that there is no zero AD - our calendar goes from 1 BC to 1 AD, which is a pretty daft oversight; This is in part due to the fear in primitive Christian minds of the number zero -essentially, the early Christian church adopted the philosophy of Aristotle, who was perhaps the crappiest scientist of all time (I'm going to get hate mail for that one as he did some good things, but come on, the guy thought flies had four legs..). The Mayans were not afraid of zero, and were clever enough to include it. They instead started their count from when the feathered serpent created the world according to their religious teachings; a date we'd called the 11th of August, 3114 BC or to the Mayans. On the eve of the 20th of December 2012 and the dawn of  21st of December 2012, the following will happen on the Mayan date system --> - Happy New B'ak'un!

Yup. That's it. The calendar will shift to a new b'ak'un. So didn't the Mayans predict widespread chaos, destruction, giant serpents made of fire firing around on hover boards with laser death rays ?

Hoverboard and laser death ray out of shot

No actually. All they predicted was a huge party. In fact, the Mayans would have been pretty baffled by the very suggestion the world was ending. In fact, even in Mayan forecasting they exists records predicting far beyong the 13th (current) B'ak'un - one date refers to a time that corresponds to October 21st, 4772AD. Another cheerfully refers to a future date about 41 octillion years in the future!

So if the Mayans weren't predicting the end of the world, where did we get that nonsense from ?! That's a damn good question, and one that's not entirely clear to answer. The simple answer seems to be a total misunderstanding by the New age community in the late 1960s which became more and more reinforced since then with the publication of several books. I won't name these for fear of giving the authors more publicity than they deserve but Wikipedia, as usual, as a good article on it here.

So in short, you can relax... well, until the Earth is swallowed by the sun in about 5 billion years time...

Let's see you make a movie about THAT John Cusak!

But if you wanted to panic people, here's some likely scenarios to end the world...

  • Asteroid collision

  • Nuclear holocaust

  • Total existence failure

  • Supernova

  • Pandemics

  • Republican presidency


  1. How is 'Total existence failure' in any way "likely" in comparison to 2012 being significant?

  2. How is 2012 significant might have been a better question :P TEF is a brilliant Douglas Adams idea from HHG2TG :P


    It's a play on wavefunction collapse and quantum theory, but it's hilarious :)

  3. Would be nice to see the odds of each of the more likely events. Not that I disbelieve you, just to give people a sense of proportion. Otherwise, nice article, I especially like how well you explained bases.

  4. Ha, I think I'll have to do some number crunching to work out those odds :)


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