The ‘2012’ doomsday craze is keeping scientists busy and frustrated

Oct. 18, 2009 | 8:26 p.m.

Los Angeles Times staff writer John Johnson Jr. writes about science for the paper, not science fiction, so you don’t see his name pop up in this blog. That changes today, though, because Johnson and the scientists he covers are busy dealing with pockets of public hysteria regarding “2012,” the doomsday year according to the coming disaster film and a growing number of true believers. Here’s an excerpt from his thorough and enlightening report; I’ve added most of the links so you can make up your own mind about the science and the scare. And, by the way, how thrilled is Columbia with all these headlines about the hysteria? — Geoff Boucher


Is 2012 the end of the world?

If you scan the Internet or believe the marketing campaign behind the movie “2012,” scheduled for release in November, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Dozens of books and fake science websites are prophesying the arrival of doomsday that year, by means of a rogue planet colliding with the Earth or some other cataclysmic event.

Normally, scientists regard Internet hysteria with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a shake of the head. But a few scientists have become so concerned at the level of fear they are seeing that they decided not to remain on the sidelines this time.

“Two years ago, I got a question a week about it,” said NASA scientist David Morrison, who hosts a website called Ask an Astrobiologist. “Now I’m getting a dozen a day. Two teenagers said they didn’t want to see the end of the world so they were thinking of ending their lives.”

Morrison said he tries to reassure people that their fears are groundless, but has received so many inquiries that he has posted a list of 10 questions and answers on the website of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

2012

Titled “Doomsday 2012, the Planet Nibiru and Cosmophobia,” the article breaks down the sources of the hysteria and assures people that the ancients didn’t actually know more about the cosmos than we do.

“The world will not come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012,” E.C. Krupp, director of Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, declared in a statement released Thursday by the observatory and Sky & Telescope magazine. Krupp debunks the 2012 doomsday idea in the cover story of the magazine’s November issue.

Morrison said he attributes the excitement to the conflation of several items into one mega-myth. One is the persistent Internet rumor that a planet called Nibiru or Planet X is going to crash into the Earth. Then there’s the fact that the Maya calendar ends in 2012, suggesting that the Maya knew something we don’t. Finally, end-of-the-worlders have seized upon the hubbub about the 2012 date to proclaim their belief that end times are drawing near.

Maya-Calendar Morrison, who heads the Lunar Science Institute at the Ames Research Center in Northern California, has coined a term for the phenomenon: “cosmophobia,” a fear of the cosmos. According to Morrison, for the most vulnerable among us, all of the things we’ve learned about the universe in the last century have only increased the number of potential threats to our existence.

Besides fearing a rampaging planet, the worriers think the sun might lash out at the Earth with some calamitous electromagnetic force. They also fear that some sort of alignment between the Earth and the center of our galaxy could unleash catastrophe.

Krupp said that the scare-mongers would have us believe that the “ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike.”

According to Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, the Maya never predicted anything. The 2012 date is approximately when the ancient calendar would roll over, like the odometer on a car; it did not mean the end — merely the start of a new cycle.

THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST.

– John Johnson Jr.

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Top photo: Amanda Peet, center, with Morgan Lily and Liam James, stars in “2012,” opening next month. Credit: Columbia Pictures. Bottom photo: The Maya Calendar. Credit: Mayan World Studies Center

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