Friday, December 14, 2012

Waiting for the world to end! – What will (not) happen on 21st December 2012


Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former.
-      Albert Einstein

Countdown to doomsday

Down the ages, one of the favourite pastimes of soothsayers, prophets, oracles, astrologers, ufologists, numerologists and an assortment of similar scaremongers and pseudoscientists has been to make outrageous ‘predictions’ of doomsday scenarios for the earth and watch the chaos created in the minds of the gullible from the sidelines.  They continue to stay on the sidelines if nothing of any consequence happens, as indeed is the case almost always, and jump into the fray with an ‘I told you so’ if anything even remotely resembling their predictions actually happens.  Whatever be the eventual outcome, the more enterprising of these charlatans would have made a fortune through their books, writings, ‘astrological advice’, special religious ceremonies in appeasement of the ‘angry’ gods, sales of ‘survival kits’, sponsored and paid media events, etc., and the gullible would have been taken for a ride, swallowing the bait hook, line and sinker.

The most bizarre and outrageous of the doomsday predictions has been reserved for this year (2012) in general and specifically for 21st December 2012 in particular.  Why this particular date?  Primarily because it is the day of the winter solstice (as viewed from the northern hemisphere) when the Sun is at its southernmost point from the equator; for this reason it is treated as rather special in astronomical terms and highly significant in astrological reckoning.  So far, nothing of any cognizable significance has happened in the year per se, so all the attention is now focused on the specific doomsday date just a week away from now.  While most people are unconcerned with and indeed indifferent to whatever may or may not happen, large segments of the population everywhere in the world are anxious, apprehensive and at the very least nervous about what the day may unfold and some are even contemplating ‘precautions’ like hiding themselves in safe locations as one might do during an eclipse or, much less likely, at the time of an air raid.  In India, these precautions are taking the more traditional form of appeasing the gods with some of the choicest and most expensive offerings to the accompaniment of special prayers and poojas in temples.  The market forces are at work and the managers, owners and priests of the temples are set to make a huge killing on that day, with the service charges and rates shooting up like airfares during Diwali and Christmas holidays.  Like air tickets, there are already a lot of advance bookings.

The Doomsday ‘predictions’

Unlike ordinary times, the doomsayers this time have a number of what they consider ‘surefire’ alternatives to back on to ensure the end of the world no later than this year.  Here are a few of the more ‘reliable’ ones with brief descriptions of how they are supposed to happen and a very reassuring expert assessment of how they cannot happen the way they are envisaged.  Before I delve into these I strongly recommend the reader to go through an excellent website specifically dedicated to discussing these ‘manufactured fantasies’ and related issues for what they really are: http://www.2012hoax.org/Equally illuminating is the article titled “2012 and Counting” by NASA scientist Dr David Morrison in which he answers the ‘Top 20 Questions about 2012’.  It is available at:  http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/2012-and-counting/.

The Mayan Myth

The Mayans of South America is one of the better known ancient civilizations, now long extinct, with some notable achievements in Astronomy and calendar making to add weight to their intellectual prowess.  The chief 2012 doomsday myth concerns how their longstanding calendar calligraphy ends abruptly this year end.  A whole cottage industry has grown around asserting that the end of the Mayan calendar forebodes the end of the world for, as the argument goes, they would otherwise have continued with their calendar making!  This is like claiming that a packaged medical product, marked with an expiry date that says ‘Use before…’, suddenly disappears (along with the container) after the expiry date!  Here is a doomsayer with precisely such an implication when he merely refers to a ‘suggestion…that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth [baktun].  Thus…our present universe…[would] be annihilated on December 23, 2012, when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion’.  To quote an expert on this issue, “Contrary to popular understanding, the ancient Meso-Americans, be they Maya or any other group, left no oral or written “prophecy” record about what would or could happen on or about the year 2012 other than a great age of 5125 years would end and another commence.”  But who would be interested in these prosaic facts in the face of such cataclysmic claims to both dazzle and frighten the vast majority of believers in apocalyptic stories?
       
Pralaya, the Great Deluge

The concept of Pralaya (The 2012 event if it ever happens should qualify as a Mahapralaya),  loosely translated as ‘the great deluge’, essentially describes the terminal phase of the destruction of the Universe that is supposed to have taken place in the past and believed to take place in future according to Hindu mythology.  It is supposed to happen repetitively with a (very long) periodicity, interspersed with the (re)creation of the universe in a different garb.  This is often grotesquely (mis)interpreted as a gigantic volume of water rising up to great heights, rushing in ferociously, drowning out the entire earth, and making it extinct.  People who subscribe to such beliefs never ask themselves the question as to how this is physically possible when the volume of water in the seas is only a tiny fraction of the overall volume of the earth.  As so often happens, this is the result of a totally unwarranted literal interpretation of any mythological event or episode.  Indeed it would be a great disservice to subject these wonderfully evocative works of mythology and literature to drab literal interpretations.

Many people argue that the great tsunami that caused such devastating destruction on 26th December 2004 in many parts of Asia, including large tracts of southern coastal India, is the harbinger of a much bigger one to come.  In any case, it would be as unpredictable as the last one and certainly cannot cause the end of the world!  Even the latest Fukushima earthquake-cum-tsunami disaster of last year doesn’t fit the bill, however terrible it was to the people of Japan.

Planetary Alignments

While the Mayan calendar is a one-off phenomenon, the so called ‘planetary alignments’ have come in handy quite frequently for the doomsayers, especially astrologers.  The last two such ‘alignments’ that were supposed to produce cataclysmic effects on the earth were in 1987 and 2000 respectively, but fizzled out like exploding crackers on a rainy night during Diwali fireworks.  The term alignment itself is a total misnomer when applied to a planetary system; anybody can conveniently mean anything by this.  In 2012, there is no planetary alignment of any significance fitting any description whatever.

One oft quoted claim is; ‘…during this time the two biggest planets in our solar system, Saturn and Jupiter, will be in line with each other.  The gravitational effects of the two planets on the Sun will cause it to wobble during it’s pole shift.’  This is such utter nonsense that any schoolboy should see through it.  For one thing, any two objects can be in line with each other, Saturn and Jupiter cannot cause any wobble on the Sun any time in any configuration and, lastly, the Sun doesn’t even have clearly definable poles like a planet, let alone be subject to ‘pole shifts’.  Another implication that only certain specific planetary alignments cause cataclysmic earthquakes is equally absurd.

Magnetic Pole Shift

The fact that complex geophysical processes in the interior of the earth do give rise to a reversal of the (north and south) magnetic poles of the earth is well documented and satisfactorily explained, but to say that this causes catastrophic consequences to the earth is absurd in the extreme.  Such a pole shift takes thousands of years to take place and cannot happen within a matter of days or months as envisaged by the doomsayers.
 
Rotational Pole Shift

An even more absurd suggestion is that the geographical poles of the earth shift substantially or even undergo a reversal, amounting to a corresponding change in the axis of rotation of the earth, causing cataclysmic changes to the planet.  Apart from the question of why this should happen, what is overlooked is the gargantuan amounts of external energy required to achieve anything like this and the source of this energy.

Galactic Alignment

There are different variants of the ‘galactic alignment’ proposition one of which is that the solar system passes through the galactic plane this month (In actual fact it is moving away from, not towards, the galactic plane and the next crossing is due in about 30 million years from now; also, the last such ‘alignment’ was about 3 million years ago – both long spans of time even by astronomical standards!).  All these are equally ridiculous and meaningless in astronomical terms and merely represent, at best, an inconsistent use or deliberate misuse of high sounding astronomical terminology.  The distances involved are so immensely greater than interplanetary distances that no astrophysical processes of any kind can have any impact on earth which is but one insignificant speck in the vast, incredibly empty, interstellar space even if this space is only intra galactic.

Natural Disasters

Natural and generally unpredictable disasters like earthquakes, typhoons/tornados/cyclones, and the more infrequent tsunamis, etc., cannot possibly spell the end of the world even if they all occur simultaneously at their destructive worst.  Despite the large scale localized disaster they often lead to, they are little more than pinpricks to the earth as a whole.   However, if anyone is caught in an event like this on the projected doomsday, it may certainly spell the end of the world for him, but it would be a far cry from being the end of the world for humanity as a whole.

Black Hole

Black holes in space, be they ‘ordinary’ ones or supermassive galactic nuclei, are among the most bizarre objects known to astrophysics.  Gravitationally they are so strong that they can attract and swallow up any object that gets close to it.  No wonder some of the doomsday scenarios are associated with them.  Their proponents envisage collisions of black holes in and around 2012 resulting in the ‘ejection of massive gravity radiation creating imbalance in our entire galaxy…’ with the hapless earth naturally swallowed up in the process!  As to why these black holes should collide with each other is anybody’s guess.

Another black hole scary scene was conceived around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the gargantuan particle collider near Geneva in Europe which was prominently in the news earlier this year for the discovery of the famous Higgs boson [See my earlier blog post: 52) The Exasperating God Particle – Missing piece in a cosmic jigsaw puzzle (Jul 12)].  The rumor mills ground up a doomsday scenario in which the LHC would go berserk and produce a mini or micro black hole that would swallow up the entire earth!  Of course the LHC is incapable of anything so fanciful.

Colliding Extraterrestrial Bodies

The doomsayers need nothing as exotic as black holes to finish off the earth.  More mundane things like colliding extraterrestrial objects should suffice.  A host of such objects in near-earth space are supposed to be on course to collide with the earth and any one of them should be able to complete the job!  Chief among them is the mythical ‘twelfth planet Nibiru’ that has a long history and hallowed presence on the doomsday stage.  So is the so called planet X.  At the very least, a stray asteroid or comet is considered sufficient for the job.  Needless to say, they exist only in the minds of dedicated hoaxers with a fertile imagination, capable of capturing the attention of the gullible who are prepared to believe anything but the hard truth that no extraterrestrial object heading towards the earth, however elusive, can go undetected years or even decades in advance with the modern tools and techniques of astronomy.

Supernova

Yet another disaster scenario is that the earth will be wiped out by a supernova suddenly erupting nearby.  The ‘ripe’ candidate for such an event is the red supergiant star Betelgeuse that is about 640 light years from the earth in the Orion constellation.  Before this happens we could expect to see the appearance of a ‘second Sun’ in the sky, a phenomenon that is so popular with doomsday hoaxers that it has now become something of an annual event.  It ignores the astrophysical fact that there is no reliable way of predicting how red giant stars behave at the end of their life cycles.  Betelgeuse poses no conceivable threat to humanity now or indeed within the next million years.

2012 the Movie

Hollywood has always had a fascination for sci-fi disaster movies where the imagination runs riot and rationality of any kind is the worst casualty.  Much of the 2012 doomsday myth has been fuelled by one such movie, the 2009 production simply titled ‘2012’, perhaps distinguished for its high technical quality, but little else.  It was successful in stirring up a frenzy of fear among the viewers that has continued to this day.  Only the end of the world next week or the end of calendar year 2012 should bring any relief from its pernicious influence.

Real-world Consequences

The doomsday predictions are not just harmless pranks by any means and have already had some grave real-world consequences.  People who take these seriously (there are lots of people who do so all over the world) have been leading frightened and tortured lives, often rationalizing that it is better to end their own lives before the earth comes to its predicted end.  Indeed there have been numerous instances of people, especially young and innocent children, actually carrying this out. 

I have been approached on numerous occasions over the last 2-3 years (ever since the disaster movie ‘2012’ made a splash) by people of all strata in society asking me what I had to say about these dire doomsday warnings.  Most of them have not been convinced by my dismissive attitude to their apprehensions.  They seek a scientifically reasoned response from me and when I say that there is little or no science behind any of the claims they feel let down.  However, I have had better success with groups of students whenever I have addressed them on these issues. 

Media Madness

As usual, both the printed and electronic media have played their part in spreading and perpetuating the irrational, the pseudoscientific and the grossly unscientific and cashed in heavily on the present doomsday myth.  A routine Google search of the internet will throw up huge amounts of supportive information on every nonsensical claim that is doing the rounds.  Most TV channels and their presenters not only report them dutifully without batting an eyelid, but also hold lengthy discussion sessions with assorted ‘experts’, including the ubiquitous and indispensable astrologer.  Every doomsday scenario is dissected threadbare and discussed as seriously as the latest political crisis or economic scam in the country.  Often they do let sane voices speak up, but somewhat patronizingly and only to project the ‘other’ side of the story.

The role of the once respected History (TV) Channel is particularly disturbing.  Recently it has degenerated and “become a place where various doomsday scenarios are presented, looking like documentaries, and giving the impression that the science behind these shows is well-accepted.  In reality these shows are apparently nothing more than vehicles for book sales for the various authors and ‘independent researchers’ that the History Channel has chosen as their Prophets of Doom.”

Weird Beliefs

Why do people believe in such outrageously nonsensical doomsday scenarios even to the point of being skeptical about perfectly rational arguments and scientific evidence to the contrary?  It is a rather complex question requiring a deep psychological study of human behavior.  To some extent the answer can be found in “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time”, a famous book by Michael Shermer, who is the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine (see: www.skeptic.com) and the director of The Skeptics Society.  It is essentially a survey of a range of irrational human behaviors, with an analysis of their empirical and logical flaws.  It delves into the difference between science and pseudo-science supported by numerous examples from everyday life.  The present doomsday scare represents an excellent example.

Epilogue

It must be admitted that the doomsday phenomenon is more of a western malady, with people in countries like India showing a surprising degree of intellectual maturity.  In recent months, some religious leaders in India have started discounting the widely publicized doomsday claims and trying to allay popular fears.  Even astrologers have started singing a more restrained tune.  Faced with the prospect of yet another fiasco with their public utterances, they are distancing themselves from the Mayan calendar, truthfully claiming that it is not in consonance with their own.  They are now pushing themselves into the background, content with providing ‘private consultations’ at a vastly expanded scale to disturbed clients who have started flocking to them in rapidly increasing numbers.  It looks like they will have their cake and eat it too.  It should be a lot easier to secure an appointment with a noted brain specialist than with one of these worthies.
 
All said and done, December 21 may still not see the kind of mass hysteria that many rationalists and law-and-order authorities fear.

On that fateful day exactly a week from now, I am due to visit an educational institution not far from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the subcontinent that was ravaged during the tsunami of 26th December 2004.  I have been warned not to go too close to the sea that day lest I be washed away by a much more devastating tsunami, indeed a pralaya, which someone I know very well thinks is bound to happen that day!  I shall certainly heed the warning if only because I won’t have the time to go near the sea that day.

Postscript

I have just received reliable information that, due to unavoidable reasons, the End of the World has been postponed!  The revised date is yet to be announced!


3 comments:

Govinda Rao V Adamane said...

Well,I don't think that majority relly believe in doomsday predictions. Negligibly small percentage who really believe are incorrigible.

Anonymous said...

We have a major milestone on 21st dec which we have to achieve at any cost - even if the world ends ;-) - An indication that the software industry (or some of it :)) doesnt believe in dooms day.

Also, Prerana is planning to go on a school trip to Chitradurga on 22nd Dec - which means her school doesnt believe in dooms day either ;-)
- Asha

and she is in a play to be enacted on 25th at makkala koota. There is a 3 day 'Karnataka Children's Conference 2012' at Makkala koota in which she hopes to be a 'delegate'. so, there are lot more people out there who dont care about dooms day.

As far as I am concerned, I have made plans to be in Mysore - attend a function and also the DMS alumni meet on 22nd :)

venkataraman ramanathan said...

An eye opener to the malicious rumour mongers.I am displkaing this information to the youung minds thank u professor for exposing us to such sn elborate study