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Don’t throw in the towel

Don’t worry: The sun will come up on Dec. 22. It’s official that the world will not end on Friday, as some apocalypse theorists have purported based on their interpretation of a Mayan calendar that ends on Dec. 21.

NASA has been debunking doomsday scenarios for some time, and even the Vatican’s chief astronomer weighed in on the issue last week.

“Since man came from the caves, he’s looked at the night sky and wondered,” said Bruce Card, public relations and outreach coordinator for the Aldrich Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomy group that meets at Anna Maria College in Paxton.

“They were avid astronomers,” he said. But, “The whole Mayan calendar (apocalypse) is just a big myth. It’s great for the economy — people are making T-shirts and hats and having parties. It’s all hype.”

The Aldrich Astronomical Society hosted Christine E. Pulliam, public affairs specialist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, at a program this fall that looked at some of the top predictions for Dec. 21, 2012.

“From an astronomical point of view, the only thing happening that day is the winter solstice,” Ms. Pulliam said.

She said the myth connecting it to the Mayan calendar cropped up on the Internet in the last few years and has taken on a life of its own.

“After Y2K (the feared technical transition from 1999 to 2000) didn’t happen, they needed another nonevent,” she said.

Three of the most popular prophesies can be directly addressed by astronomy, Ms. Pulliam said.

The first, involving a rogue planet with names such as Nibiru or Planet X that careers through space to strike the Earth, would not occur without warning.

Ms. Pulliam said, “If it were a planet that brushes past the Earth, we’d be seeing it by now.”

Theories about a polar shift in the Earth, whether it’s between the North and South Poles or the entire Earth’s crust, are also not real threats.

Ms. Pulliam said that a shift of the Earth’s crust would violate the laws of physics.

A magnetic polar shift does happen every few hundred thousand years — the last one was 800,000 years ago. And while it would mess up compasses and disturb bird migration, it would not be cataclysmic. Species survived it in the past. It would also take place over hundreds or thousands of years, not overnight.

Solar storms, another prophesied vehicle for global annihilation, are a concern but would almost certainly not herald the end of the world. These events go through 11-year cycles, and the blasts of subatomic particles can knock out satellites and cause problems with the electrical grid.

A peak in solar activity is expected in late 2013, not 2012.

“Of all the things discussed as threats, solar storms would be the most damaging to our civilization and its infrastructure,” Ms. Pulliam said.

“The lesson there is, let’s invest in our infrastructure. Preparation is our best defense.”

Melissa Dowd, museum educator and planetarium coordinator at the EcoTarium in Worcester, has run a program on the past four Saturdays in which she took an astronomical and anthropological look at the Dec. 21 doomsday theory.

“The word ‘apocalypse’ is ancient Greek for ‘revelation.’ Now we use it for everything from aliens to zombies,” Ms. Dowd said.

“Personally, I’m an apocaloptomist. I don’t think the world is going to end.”

Ms. Dowd said the Mayans had many calendars for different purposes. Two remain in use by Mayan communities (the Haab, or solar calendar, and the Tzolkin, or lunar, sacred calendar). The calendars are circles within circles that go through 52-year cycles.

The doomsday calendar that everyone is talking about is the Long Count calendar, a linear number of 5,126 days that began in 3,114 B.C. and ends on Dec. 21, 2012. The Long Count calendar was used for inscriptions on monuments, Ms. Dowd said.

Dec. 21 marks the end of the 13th “baktun,” a 394-year cycle, on the Long Count calendar. She said most likely, the calendar would have figuratively flipped over and restarted with a 14th baktun.

“Just like us on New Year’s Eve 1999, one of our big cycles came to an end,” Ms. Dowd said. “For most of the world it was a big party.”

Ms. Dowd said that solar alignment catastrophe theories about Dec. 21 are also misinformed.

Prophesies that the sun will be aligned with the center of the galaxy, with the dark rift in the galaxy, or with the galaxy’s so-called equator, and what they portend, are meaningless.

“You can always draw a line between two points,” she said, adding, “The galaxy is not a solid object. You can’t find its equator.”

Ms. Dowd said it’s not strange for people to get wrapped up in apocalypse anxiety, even if the fears aren’t backed by facts. Human survival instincts make us good at seeing patterns, such as a predator’s camouflage. We also tend to see patterns where none exist.

We tend to confirm our biases by only remembering situations that fit what we believe and dismissing cases that don’t fit. For instance, people frequently attribute calamity to the full moon, even though there is no statistical evidence showing an increase in emergency room visits, increased police activity or other mayhem at that time.

“The Internet has made these things worse,” Ms. Dowd said. “We become less and less inclined to look for information that contradicts us.”

Dec. 21 is interesting from a season-changing perspective, Ms. Dowd said. “We’re getting back to our summer side of the sun.” After the 21st, the days start getting longer.

Julie Roberts of Worcester, who co-owns and directs Flowforms Yoga and Soul Center overlooking Lake Quinsigamond, is anticipating this solstice with particular optimism.

“This is called ‘the shift of the ages.’ It’s an opportunity for awakening. We’re at the end of a cycle of darkness and struggle,” she said. “We’re all supposed to figure out what we’re doing on the planet at this time. It’s an opportunity to connect with all that.”

Ms. Roberts said she plans to have a celebration on the 21st with friends and family, getting together before sunset around a backyard fire pit.

“The yoga tradition talks about different eras of lightness and darkness. … It’s a turning back to the light.”

Whether the 2012 winter solstice is any different, Ms. Roberts felt it was time to “listen to her gut” this year and she has recently adapted her yoga classes to include what she calls “soul centering,” a tuning into one’s core of power, or “source.”

Others, according to national media reports, aren’t looking inward this solstice but are booking travel to Mayan regions of Mexico and Central America. Or they may be trying to safely ride out the apocalypse on mountaintops in France, Serbia or Turkey.

Tina Sullivan of Worcester, owner of Sullivan Travel, said she hadn’t noticed any trend in people choosing Mayan apocalypse destinations this December. Maybe New Englanders are too skeptical.

“Coincidentally, I’m going to be in Mexico over the 21st,” she said, although the trip was planned to coincide with her children’s school vacation, not the solstice. “I told my family we should check out the ruins (near Playa Del Carmen) on the 21st.”

Ms. Sullivan promised to let the Telegram & Gazette know if the Mayan apocalypse prophecies come true.


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