Will the world end in 2012?

Will the world end in 2012?

Is it worth buying Christmas presents this year? Let's look at the maths and find out.

How often have you heard someone say: "Don't worry, it's not the end of the world..."?

Well, what if they were wrong?

Over the last few years more and more people have been picking up on an apparent prophecy made by the Mayans which predicts that the world will end this year, on the 21st December 2012.

But before anyone decides that there is no point buying any Christmas presents this year, let's find out who the Mayans were, why people think they predicted the end of the world and whether or not we should be worried about it...

Who were the Mayan people?

The Maya civilisation stretched across a large part of Central and South America and lasted for nearly 2000 years.  Although we remember them for some gruesome reasons (they really liked human sacrifices), they had other things going for them.

Their language is still taught in some places, and words like "shark" and "cocoa" have their roots in Mayan. Even better, without the Mayans we may never have had chocolate! The richest Mayan people drank a lot of cocoa, starting about 1700 years ago, and over the years that luxury has turned into the chocolate we all know and love.

What do the Mayans have to do with science?

The Mayans were:

  • astronomers
  • mathematicians
  • engineers

They built structures that still exist today, even after the majority of Mayan people have been absorbed into other cultures in Latin America.  They measured the solar year (the time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun) and lunar cyles very accurately. They also studied the way that Venus moves and could predict when it would appear very precisely.

800px-Chichen-Itza-Castillo-Seen-From-East

The Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza (c) cc Tørrissen

Why do people think that the Mayan people predicted the end of the world?

The Mayans did an amazing job of working out how long the Earth takes to travel around the sun, measuring it more accurately than European scientists had at that time.

However, when it came to days, months and years the Mayans used several different ways of counting them.  The solar calendar (the nearest to the one we use) was 365 days long, but another calendar was made up of 20 periods of 13 days, starting again every 260 days.

Mayan maths...

When Mayans wanted to look at longer periods of time they used a Long Count calendar. This system is hard to explain, but let's give it a go...

We normally count in tens - the decimal system - but the Mayans tended to count in twenties.  We have 7 day weeks, with 52 weeks in a year.  The Mayans used different groups like:

  • 20 days (a winal)
  • 18 winals (a tun)
  • 20 tuns (a k'atun)
  • 20 k'atuns (a b'ak'tun)

Try thinking in terms of days, weeks, years, decades and centuries and you'll get the idea.

The thing is, that once you reach a b'ak'tun (that's 144,000 days) then the whole thing starts again. And this is where people start to get worried...

You see, according to the calendar that archaeologists and historians use when studying the Maya, the 21st December 2012 is the date when the 13th b'ak'tun ends.

Some bright sparks over the years have got hold of the fact that 13 was a significant number to the Mayan people and this is where the idea of an apocalypse in 2012 took hold.

800px-The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa

Should we be worried?

In a word... no! Whatever Hollywood movies and modern day prophets might suggest, there is really very little evidence that the Mayans even believed that the world was going to end in 2012.

Although the Mayans did believe that the 144,000 day b'ak'tun cycles were important, the end of them was celebrated rather than feared.  And while the number 13 might have had some importance, ancient Mayan manuscripts have nothing in them that suggest they thought the world would end.

It would seem that the idea came from an archaeologist in the 1960s (who also used to be a spy, by the way - very Indiana Jones) but these days vhardly any researchers agree with him.

What do the experts say?

Last week a large group of experts met together in Mexico to discuss the Mayan Long Count calendar.  Their overwhelming conclusion: the Mayans may have predicted droughts, famines and solar eclipses but they never said that the world would end this year.

Even NASA have felt the need to get involved.  Their website looking at the alleged 2012 doomsday, and in particular the catastrophes depicted in Roland Emmerich's movie 2012, is well worth a look.

It would appear that what the Mayans have left for us is a complicated calendar, some tricky maths and lovely hot chocolate - not bad!

Better do that Christmas shopping after all...