Based on Internet myths, popular culture and Hollywood hype, the prophecies in the ancient Mayan calendar foretell that the world will end on Dec. 21; not since the Y2K rollover of the calendar to the false millennium start of Jan. 1, 2000, has there been such anxiety about trailing zeroes marking the date.
Many calendar dates instigating panic have come and gone, especially in recent times as the beginning of the new millennium approached. In 1999, the End Time was predicted based on forecasts of the 16th century French mystic Nostradamus. When the opening day of the 20th century’s final year came and went with only a few cash registers printing the date as 1900, doomsday was shifted several months ahead to the alleged planetary alignment of “5/5/2000.” Yet, we are still here.
The start of the new millennium hasn’t been the only reason to use the arrangement of planets to anticipate that it’s time to pack it in. Back a few decades, the lineup of planet positions on March 10, 1982, failed to turn out a disaster with the well-publicized Jupiter Effect.
Now the (mis)interpretation of the Mayan calendar, created several millennia ago and still used in some parts of Central America, is the latest numerological craze in the end-of-the-world date scenarios.
Count to 20
The Mayan calendar tallies days in a complex way. Our system of counting is based on advancing the 10 digits from zero to nine then incrementing the next placeholder; this is called the decimal system or base 10.
Mayans counted most calendar days in increments of 20. Counting would begin with zero and proceed to 19 before the next placeholder was moved ahead by one; this is a base 20 system of numbers — also called the vigesimal method. However, one of the placeholders was on base 18, so it would cycle sooner in order to match the number of days in a year more closely.
Mayan calendar dates are represented by five placeholders each separated by a decimal point (actually, a vigesimal point). The first place is called the “kin” that increments each day. Next is the “winal” (sometime designated “uinal”) that is equal to 20 kin, followed by the “tun” which is advanced after eighteen winal. After that is the “katun” for 20 tuns, then a “baktun” follows after 20 katun have passed.
To place this system in terms of our current (Gregorian) calendar: a kin is one day, a winal is 20 days, one tun is 360 days, a katun is 7,200 days, and one baktun is 144,000 days. This arrangement of days is called the Mayan Long Count. A typical Long Count date has the form: Baktun.Katun.Tun.Winal.Kin. Today’s date, Nov. 25, 2012, is written in the Mayan calendar as 184.108.40.206.14.
Just as our calendar is dated from a cultural and historical event — the birth of Christ — the Mayan calendar is referenced to a date bestowed with not only religious significance but with cosmic significance as well — the creation of the world. Mayan scholars believe that the starting day of this ancient calendar corresponds to Aug. 11, 3114 B.C., as determined from historical passages and Mayan monument inscriptions.
Some versions of Mayan calendrics make a sequence of 13 baktuns into an important interval called the Great Mayan Long Count. After 13 baktuns, the Mayan calendar rolls up the red carpet of time and resets like a car odometer turning over to a string of zeros.
A 13 baktuns cycle corresponds to 5,125.36 years; therefore, on Dec. 20, the Mayan date will be 220.127.116.11.19. The next day — this year’s winter solstice — will be written as 18.104.22.168.0, starting a new baktun cycle. Dec. 22 will be 0.0.0.0.1 according to this version of the Mayan calendar.
In Mayan tradition, the completion of a significant calendar cycle was marked by the dedication of monuments and its related ceremonies specifically observing the end of the series.
It should be noted that other interpretations of the Mayan calendar have the date sailing right past the 13 baktuns countdown with 20 baktuns elapsing to make a pictun, a count of approximately 7,885 years. This cycle will round out on Oct. 13, 4772, when the Mayan calendar date will be 22.214.171.124.0.0.
New Age concepts of harmonic convergence and synchronized cosmic energy that will cause transformations in the human potential have inevitably linked with the Mayan calendar turnover. Claims of an alignment of the winter solstice point with the centerline of the Milky Way to establish such a cosmic connection are problematic. A centerline for the galaxy is arbitrarily assigned since the galaxy does not have an edge to establish a true centerline.
Further, claims of the winter solstice sun eclipsing the Milky Way’s center triggering the sun to plummet inward toward our galaxy’s core will not happen.
The sun’s apparent sky position will not appear nearest to the true center of our galaxy — the Milky Way’s central black hole — for another 200 years. In addition, the sun would have to be millions of times closer to this black hole than it is now to disrupt the orbits of the planets.
Enter Planet X (again). Internet chatter has now revived the controversial Planet X as Nibiru, a planetary pinball that is on a collision course to make Earth go “tilt.” Conspiracy theorists believe that NASA and the government are covering up the impending apocalypse that Nibiru will bring.
Although such an object would disturb the orbits of the outer planets long before it reached Earth, its supporters say that the doomsday planet is currently concealed on the far side of the sun waiting for the magic Mayan day to ambush the Third Planet.
If the world ends on Dec. 21, it will not be from celestial causes.
Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.