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2012: Eh, It's Not the End Of the World

By Joel Achenbach Washington Post Staff Writer , Friday, October 16, 2009

The world is coming to an end.

    In, like, 4 or 5 billion years. The sun will get old and cranky and eventually immolate the entire planet.

    The world, however, is not coming to an end on Dec. 21, 2012, contrary to the viral Internet rumor propounded by pseudo-scientists, hoaxers, Hollywood movie promoters and assorted void-between-the-ears people who wouldn't recognize a scientific fact if it tried to abduct them.

    The notion that 2012 heralds the End of Time has something to do with a mysterious Planet X that will supposedly hurtle into, or perhaps merely perturb, Earth. Also, there might be geomagnetic storms, a pole reversal, and a newfound unsteadiness in the planet's crustal plates. All of that, or variations thereof, can be studied in depth in scores of books now jostling for eschatological primacy with such titles as "Apocalypse 2012," "The World Cataclysm in 2012" and "How to Survive 2012."

    This is no joke to David Morrison, senior scientist for NASA's Astrobiology Institute. He's counted 200 different books for sale about 2012. As the author of an online feature called Ask an Astrobiologist, he's gotten nearly 1,000 e-mails from people who think something dire is about to befall the planet. One teenager wrote to Morrison that he'd rather commit suicide than see the world destroyed. Many of the letters, Morrison said, presume that the government is covering up the imminent catastrophe. Letters begin, "I know you can't tell me the truth, but . . . "

    In an article published in the latest issue of Skeptic Magazine Morrison explains that the 2012-as-Doomsday meme represents a convergence of New Age mysticism and Hollywood opportunism. It is, in short, a hoax.

    The idea draws some of its inspiration from the Mayan "long count" calendar. The date of Dec. 21, 2012, marks the end of a 394-year cycle of time known to the Maya as Baktun 13. But there is no reason to think that the Maya believed this was the end of the world as we know it.

    Another inspiration, apparently, is author Zecharia Sitchin, whose books detail a cosmogony featuring the mysterious planet Nibiru, unknown to modern science but plain as day to ancient Sumerians. This planet, readers are told, has a highly elliptical orbit of the sun, and enters the inner solar system every 3,600 years. A collision between Nibiru and another planet supposedly created both Earth and the asteroid belt. Also there were ancient astronauts from Nibiru who came to Earth and created modern humans.

    Ensuring that no bad idea goes unexploited, Sony Pictures has leaped into the mix with a $200 million blockbuster, "2012," coming out on Friday the 13th of November. The trailers show the entire planet coming unglued. The movie doesn't explain why, exactly, but we do see that Los Angeles falls into the sea. A tsunami obliterates a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas. The dome of St. Peter's tumbles into the square and smushes a throng of Christians. An aircraft carrier crashes into the White House (big wave).

    The director is Roland Emmerich, promulgator of cinematic calamity in such flicks as "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." This time, what he throws at Earth makes each of his previous efforts look like a Merchant Ivory film

    In promoting the movie, Sony has used the marketing slogan "2012: Search for It." Someone Googling "2012"will find plenty of doomsaying. Sony has set up a fake Web site for something called The Institute for Human Continuity -- which uses scientific-sounding language to detail the upcoming shredding, torching and obliterating of the world from so many directions it makes your head spin ("large amounts of solar radiation will bombard the Earth and heat up the molten, semi-liquid layers beneath the lithosphere, thus allowing the crust to shift more easily").

    The reality about the universe is that it is, in fact, wild and woolly, with all manner of exploding stars, gamma ray bursts, black holes, not to mention comets that plunge toward the sun and rogue asteroids that just maybe have Earth's number. But it is simultaneously a fact that Earth is in a quiescent part of the galaxy, a rural place where not a whole lot happens in any given epoch. Cosmologically, we're in North Dakota.

    As with all pseudo-science, the real science provides a platform from which the human imagination soars to great heights of irrationality. For example, although there is no Planet X, or Nibiru, there is, indeed, a dwarf planet beyond Pluto called Eris. It's in a stable orbit and is not coming anywhere near Earth. If there was a Nibiru heading our way, one of the 100,000 amateur astronomers on Earth would have spotted it long ago.

    "You have to be pretty dumb not to realize that Nibiru is a no-show," Morrison says.

    Astronomer Edward Krupp of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles debunks "2012" in the November issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, lumping it in with previous cosmic prophesies, such as the "Harmonic Convergence" of 1987. That was the one where New Agers gathered at geological "acupuncture points" to create, as Krupp reports, a "synchronized and unified bio-electromagnetic collective battery."

    Alternative astronomy has a long history, including the celebrated revelations of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose book "Worlds in Collision" posited that various planets were careening all over the solar system a few thousand years ago and causing biblical phenomena (the parting of the Red Sea, the plagues of toads, etc.).

    Morrison calls this sort of thing "cosmophobia." His efforts to head off 2012 paranoia is ironic in a sense: He's been a pioneer in the study of near-Earth objects that might potentially pose a hazard to the planet. In recent years, astronomers have mapped all the asteroids near Earth that are two miles in diameter or larger, Morrison said. Nothing seen so far poses an imminent threat to Earth.

    One near-Earth asteroid, named Apophis, will pass near Earth in 2029 and again in 2036 and 2068, but recent calculations of its orbit show that it won't get closer to the planet than about 18,000 miles. And Apophis isn't really that big -- about the length of about 2 1/2 football fields.

    "It would basically take out a small state," Morrison said

    Disastrous. But not Nibiru-disastrous. For that, you'll need to see the movie.

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