In recognition of our survival of the end of the Mayan calendar
It’s 10 PM on a Friday night. There’s faint chatter outside my window and traffic hums as people leave town to spend the holidays with family. I’ll join them tomorrow.
But for now I wait. Just two more hours and I survive the apocalypse.
What are we so worked up about?
Current estimates date the birth of the Mayan civilization back as far as 2600 years BC (around 1800 BCE is more well agreed upon). While it is not exactly known when the Mayans began using a calendar, the oldest long count inscription found on an artifact, 220.127.116.11.13, corresponds with the Gregorian calendar date of December 6th, 36 BCE.
The Mayan long count calendar was created to, you guessed it, count long periods of time. Deciphering this code that looks oddly similar to my IP address is actually rather simple. By multiplying the first digit by 144,000, the second by 7,200, the third by 360, the fourth by 20 the fifth by 1 and then adding the products, you get the number of days since the date of creation of the fourth world (the “human world”) according to the Popol Vuh (the Mesoamerican equivalent to the bible). This date of creation coincides with August 11, 3114 BCE and would be written as 18.104.22.168.0.
This is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification as each of these numbers has a name and meaning that I don’t find all that relevant at the time. Having said that, it is important to note that yesterday, 12/20/12, was equivalent to 22.214.171.124.19 on the long count calendar. This calendar uses near base-20 system (the next to last digit actually resets at 18) which makes today 126.96.36.199.0 and tomorrow, 12/22/12, 188.8.131.52.1 (or 0.0.0.0.1, depending on whether you want to start over). Essentially, because the cycle preceding the fourth world (cleverly dubbed the “third world”) lasted for 13 b’ak’tuns (the first number in the IP address), something serious is supposed to go down.
But why the end of the world?
There are plenty of explanations for this, none of which actually involve any supernatural, geological or astronomical event.
Humans inherently fear death. At least the smart ones do. This is how we survive. And any time that the thought of mass destruction enters our minds, we get a little silly. Even I, the biggest cynic you may ever meet, could not shut the hell up about this. It was the same old bullshit all day today. “Have a nice holiday! – See you next week if the world doesn’t end!” I understand that, for the most part, it’s all in fun, but come on. We’re intelligent creatures. We should know when the joke gets old.
And we’ve been through this before. Not once, but TWICE in recent memory. We should all recall, as the year 2000 approached, the mass chaos that transpired over our fears that somehow our computers would all malfunction, leading to nuclear war, earthquakes and a botched presidential election. And how could we forget, more recently, the lovable Harold Camping and his end of the world calculations. And when we was wrong, he tried and failed AGAIN before finally admitting that he was an imbecile and thus further damaged the credibility of all outspoken religious zealots (did they really need the help?).
But we just cannot help but eat this shit up. People gave away their fortunes. I recall that somebody even euthanized their poor dog! People stood in the streets with costumes and signs while I sat in a bar that played that infamous REM song on repeat, drinking beers and wishing that I could apologize to all the intelligent extraterrestrial life that may be out there for our stupidity.
And frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue why we are so gullible. The world is full of extraordinary beings that can design skyscrapers; create billion dollar enterprises; sequence genomes; and frankly do anything that we put our minds to. We’ve sent a man to the moon, made bombs that can destroy entire cities and can communicate with one another across the globe. Can’t we just get over this doomsday phase please? I think we may be frightening the children.
So do we have anything to worry about?
Well yes, we do. Beyond the inevitable nuclear warfare looming on the horizon, we have quite the interesting scenario approaching in our relatively near future. In the year 2029 the 1,000 foot wide asteroid 99942 Apophis will pass is such close proximity to Earth that it will be visible in the night sky and fall inside of the orbit of most geosynchronous satellites. There is no chance for collision at this time, but if the asteroid passes by Earth at a specific distance known as a gravitational “keyhole”, it will inevitably make impact on Friday, April 13th, 2036 when it returns from its orbit around the sun. How ironic that our bullshit bad luck/play movies about serial killers day could inevitably yield such a catastrophe! While this collision will not cause an extinction event (the impact will release the energy equivalent of 1,500 megatons of TNT, compared to the estimated 100,000,000 megatons of energy released in the Chicxulub impact), landfall in highly populated areas could cause millions of fatalities while a strike to one of our oceans would generate massive tsunamis. Fortunately, the odds of collision are currently estimated at about 1:250,000, as the gravitational keyhole is only about a half mile wide.
But let’s just imagine for a moment that on that fateful day in 2029, 99942 Apophis does hit that keyhole. Based off of the position of the Earth upon calculated impact seven years later, there is a sigmoidal line of possible landfall (sigmoidal in relation to a flat map of the world) that runs through Russia, across the Pacific, through central and northern South America before tailing off into the Atlantic Ocean. A collision in densely populated regions of northern South America could cause upwards of 10 million fatalities while a Pacific impact would likely generate epic tsunamis on the east coast of Asia and west coast of the US. I don’t even want to think about an impact in the Atlantic! The good news is that we will have 7 years to come up with a plan! And we’ve already been working on one. Currently, the proposed mode of action does not involve an attempt to blow up the asteroid with nuclear weaponry, but instead the use of a spacecraft to “nudge” the asteroid away from the keyhole as it makes its initial approach.
I’d like to be optimistic and postulate that if this scenario unfolds, it could forge some much needed global unification of the human race. Rather than sanctions and fighting over land, religion and our perceptions of human rights, maybe we can pull together to make something happen. I know it may sound like a movie that we’ve all seen, but one day the fate of humanity may truly rest on our ability to work together in a time of peril.