2012 Doomsday Prediction: Astronomy and Fallacies


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Kaj Yup, a Mayan Ruin near Rabinal, Guatemala

Many recent books and the major Hollywood movie, 2012, purvey alleged Mayan predictions that the world will end on the 2012 winter solstice, December 21, 2012. These claims intertwine the Mayan calendar with some rather dubious astronomy.

Mayan Calendar

Doomsday predictions based on the Mayan calendar are not being made by present day Mayans. Are people writing 2012 end of the world scenarios based on the Mayan calendar actually knowledgeable about Mayan culture?
Like the modern calendar, the Mayan calendar contains cycles of various lengths. On December 12, 2012 multiple Mayan cycles end and restart at the same time. The most recent analogy in the modern calendar was midnight December 31, 1999, when the day, year, decade, century, and millennium, cycles ended and started over on January 1, 2000. Astute readers will recall that despite all the fuss, the world didn’t end then either – December 21, 2012 has no more significance in the Mayan calendar than midnight December 31, 1999 has in the modern calendar.

Astronomical Urban Myths about December 21, 2012

Doomsday predictions that the world will end on December 21, 2012 in many 2012 themed books, and the movie 2012, are based on urban myths about astronomy.

Doomsday purveyors claim that on the 2012 winter solstice the Earth, Sun, and center of the Milky Way galaxy will align, causing the Sun to eclipse the galactic center. Furthermore, doomsday purveyors claim that tidal forces from this alignment will cause severe disruptive earthquakes to end the world, and that the same tidal forces acting on the Sun will trigger severe solar storms devastating Earth. The planets in the solar system will also allegedly align on December 21, 2012.

  • The Sun Will Not Eclipse the Galactic Center: The Earth’s rotational axis tilts about 23.5 degrees. The December winter solstice occurs when Earth is at the point in its orbit where the southern hemisphere most directly points towards the Sun. The Sun is then directly overhead as seen from Earth at 23.5 degrees south latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn. The Sun cannot appear further south in the sky. To measure celestial positions, astronomers project latitude and longitude into the sky and call them declination and right ascension. The Sun’s declination is about 23.5 degrees south on the winter solstice and cannot go further south. Astronomers have identified the center of the Milky Way galaxy as the object Sgr A*. Astronomical catalogs list the declination of Sgr A* as very nearly 29 degrees south. Because the Sun cannot get this farsouth the Sun cannot align with the galactic center.
  • Center of Milky Way Galaxy in the Infrared Image credit: 2 Micron all Sky Survey

    Tidal Forces from Galactic Center Would Be Weak: Even if the Sun could align with the galactic center, the tidal effects would be completely negligible. Tidal forces from astronomical objects depend on their mass and inversely on the cube of their distance. This dependence allows a simple order of magnitude estimation of the ratio of the tidal force from the galactic center to that from the Sun. For an estimate, it suffices to use 8 light minutes (about 500 light seconds) as the distance to the Sun and about 30,000 light years (9E11 lightseconds) as the distance to the galactic center. Assuming that the galactic mass (about 100 billion times theSun’s mass) is concentrated at the galactic center overestimates the tidal force from the galactic center, and simplifies the calculation. Doing the math, the tidal force from the galactic center is about 2E17 (200000000000000000) times weaker than the tidal force from the Sun. Such a weak tidal force will have no detectable effect whatsoever on either the Earth or Sun!

  • The Planets Will Not Align: Doomsday scenarios also claim that the planets will align and their tidal forces will cause destructive earthquakes. A book called The Jupiter Effect made similar claims in the 1970s. There were no problems then either. Computing planetary positions on December 21, 2012 with a good planetarium, orephemeris program, shows that the planets will have different positions. They will not align. Even if they did, however, the tidal forces from the planets are more than from the galactic center, but still much less than from the Sun andMoon.

Will the world end December 21, 2012? No!

Many people make considerable money spreading panic by preying on those who lack scientific knowledge. Learn about real science; keep your money.

Further Reading

Krupp, EC. “The Great 2012 Scare” Sky and Telescope, November, 2009.

This article was originally published on Suite101.com.

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