Thursday, October 22, 2009

ReprintPrint Email Font Resize NASA scientist attributes 2012 doomsday scenarios to Hollywood, hoaxers and hucksters

The world is coming to an end.

In, like, 4 billion 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 and Hollywood movie promoters.

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 says, 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
Advertisement
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.

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 Earth 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 squares. An aircraft carrier crashes into the White House.

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 — www.instituteforhumancontinuity.org — 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.

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 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, where not a whole lot happens in any given epoch. Cosmologically, we're in North Dakota.

As with all pseudoscience, 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.

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

Morrison calls this sort of thing "cosmophobia." He's been a pioneer in the study of near-Earth objects that might 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 says. Nothing seen poses an imminent threat to Earth.

One near-Earth asteroid, Apophis, will pass near Earth in 2029, but recent calculations show that it won't get closer than about 18,000 miles. "It would basically take out a small state," Morrison says.

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

No comments: