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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012
Our deepest fears fuel the booming business of doomsday scenarios
Special to The Japan Times
Apocalypse 2012 was born in 1996.
Google "end of the world 2012" and you'll score some 4.18 billion hits — websites, blogs, articles, tweets: yes, the world will end before the year is out; no, it won't; it must; it can't. Search Amazon's website and you'll unearth 2,729 pertinent book titles. "Mayan Horror: How to Survive the End of the World in 2012"; "End of the World: It is Happening"; "Doomsday 2012: The Maya Calendar and the History of the End of the World"; "Apocalypse 2012 Cookbook" — and so on and so on.
NASA, the U.S. space agency, has a website called "Ask an Astrobiologist." The astrobiologist is NASA senior scientist David Morrison, who told National Geographic News in 2009 he had received thousands of queries, many of them from "people who are genuinely frightened. I've had two teenagers who were considering killing themselves because they didn't want to be around when the world ends. Two women in the last two weeks said they were contemplating killing their children and themselves so they wouldn't have to suffer through the end of the world."
What's the matter with us? What are we afraid of?
The ancient Maya of southern Mexico and Central America evolved a marvelously advanced civilization that has fascinated mankind ever since. The jungle setting was not hospitable but the Maya somehow transcended it. Their most flourishing centuries were from the seventh to the 10th. They built no cities but their temple complexes included pyramids like ancient Egypt's and ziggurats like ancient Babylon's. They left artwork, hieroglyphic texts and, most remarkable of all, a calendar for their distant posterity to puzzle over.
The calendar, based on astronomical observation, involves cycles of time less dizzyingly vast than those of the Hindus (see main story), but far wider than anything conceived by early Christians.
A calendrical inscription that struck scholars as particularly significant translates into "126.96.36.199.0." It corresponds, apparently, to Dec. 21, 2012 on our calendar. In 1996, specialists in Mayan archaeology suggested a possible interpretation. On that date, they tentatively proposed, Mayan priests and astronomers had anticipated the arrival of a sinister god — the god of the underworld. The leap from there to "the end of the world" was easily made — not by scientists, who reserved judgment, but by an eager public, which did not. Further investigation suggested that 188.8.131.52.0 was not the end of the world at all but the end of a time cycle that had begun in what we call August 3114 B.C. The old cycle complete, a new one would begin, just as, for us, an old year flows into a new one.
The Mayans were not, most experts agree, apocalyptic. We are, and distorted their meaning.
We — or at least many among us — probe ancient cultures, study the Bible, scan the stars, observe apparently mysterious developments on Earth, and find the evidence we seek that the world is ending. In 2009, the Hollywood blockbuster "2012" wrapped it all up in one bursting package: floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions — caused by a rare "galactic alignment" predicted, for good measure, by the Maya.
That's just entertainment, of course, but sometimes it's a fine line between our biggest thrills and our deepest fears. One of the 4.18 billion hits mentioned above is "The Official Website: December212012.com." It warns, "There are so many things going on around the world that you may not be aware of. The mainstream media only tells you what they have to and downplays the rest to prevent mass panic.
"Have you heard about the increased solar storms that could take out our entire electric grid, or the 2012 DA14 asteroid that could destroy our entire planet? What about the strange sounds being heard all around the world, or the strange lights being seen in the sky?... There are reports of blood red rivers, strange animal behaviors and so much more that you don't know about."
There are, always have been and always will be reports of all kinds of things. Morrison, the NASA astrobiologist, knows the fear is real and struggles to keep it within bounds. Galactic alignment? "There is no 'galactic alignment' in 2012," he told National Geographic News in 2009 — "or at least nothing out of the ordinary." A mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth? "If there were a planet or a brown dwarf or whatever that was going to be in the inner solar system three years from now (i.e., in 2012), astronomers would have been studying it for the past decade and it would be visible to the naked eye by now. It's not there."
"It's" not there, but something is — something always is. If history is any guide, surviving Dec. 21 — if we survive Dec. 21 — will soothe no one determined not to be soothed. New dates will be found. "Markbeast.com: The Mark of the Beast Explained" (another of the 4.18 billion hits) has already found one: 2015, based on the enigmatic "seventy sevens" of the Biblical book of Daniel. Hence: "Our world will end in the fall of 2015. Between the spring of 2012 and the fall of 2015 every living person will choose to worship either the God who created us, or God's enemy — Satan. The Bible alone tells us when the end of the world will be." Mayan calendars be damned.