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This is the translation of an excerpt of a publication in Natuurwetenschap & Techniek (Science & Technology), a Dutch scientific magazine. The excerpt was written by Maarten Keulemans. The publication was made in the 11th edition of 2009.
The movie 2012, which premieres this month, shows the viewer cities and continents being whiped from the face of the earth when the world comes to an end. However, research has just shown that the 'end of time' of the 21st of December 2012 has been miscalculated by two centuries.
Dozens of books, countless websites, people planning to flee to mountains or other areas believed to be safe. You couldn't have missed it: prophets of doom have discovered yet another end date. This time the world will end on Friday the 21st of December 2012. Our planet will be ripped apart by a stray planet, burned by the flames of the sun, crushed by the gods or completely cleansed by cosmic primal forces - depending on the book or website consulted.
These stories of doom all agree on two things. The first: the sun will climb to a very special place in the sky on 21/12/2012 . The second: the Mayan calender will end on 21/12/2012. Motivated prophets of doom have already made up their mind: say goodbye to the world. Sacha Defesche, a University of Amsterdam graduate in Philosophy and Religion Studies who graduated on the subject of 2012, believes that the idea of 2012 as a special year arose during a meeting between Terence McKenna and José Arguëlles. Sacha Defesche: "They are responsible for giving a religious and apocalyptic meaning to the date. It is possible that without this meeting the date would not have been noticed as such".
Astronomer Louis Strous says that it's not such a great event. "It's the beginning of the astronomical winter, but there are no special forces connected with it", says Strous , who created a public page for the University of Utrecht to discuss the astronomical side of 2012. The 'special' position of heavenly bodies is not so special according to him. During lectures, he sometimes shows pictures of the sky and the stars on different dates. After that he asks the attendants on what picture they see something special. No one chooses the 21st of December 2012. "There is nothing special to see for the ordinary civilian."
However, there does happen something on doomsday. The sun will climb to the point where, if it were dark, you would be able to see the Milky Way - the light band of stars running diagonally across the sky. The sun will reach it's highest point right in the center of that band, the 'galactic equator', on 21/12/2012. It only happens once in about approximately 25.800 years that the sun does this precisely at the time of the winter solstice. The 2012 believer can imagine it already: that alignment causes a cosmic gate to the Milky Way to open, through which spiritual forces will flow.
Too bad this position is not very unusual. "This event happens every couple of thousand years", stresses Strous. Moreover, there is no such thing as an exact 'equator' of the Milky Way. "This is not about things you can just see. The galactic equator is not a line in the sky or something like that. "Apart from the fact that the sun passes the galactic center twice a year already, when it's not the winter solstice, the sun was on the galactic equator on December 21 in previous years as well, and the coming years that will also be the case. Strous believes there is no reason for panic. "If you ask me it's not sure that the Mayans had this kind of knowledge."
So no sudden cosmic gates of heaven that will open. But how about the other story of doom: the Mayan calender?
Here too the truth is quite different (Skepter, 2008). When the Spaniards conquered the kingdom of the Mayans in the 16th century, the Mayans did not have only one calender.
These people were tracking time with no less than four calenders at the same time. The oldest calender had a count of 260 days called the 'tzolkin', made up of 20 days, each with their own name, each passing 13 times. The Mayans also knew the 'haab', a calender of 365 days, divided over 18 months of 20 days, with at the end 5 'bad luck days'. Calender number three was the 'short count', with days, months, years and 'katuns', periods of nearly twenty years. Lastly, in the background, there was a 'long count' that counted the katuns: 20 katuns make one 'baktun', and there were 13 of those baktuns. However, the long count was no longer in use when the Spanish arrived, likely not in the last place that because that count runs so slowly.
So it is a system of creepy complexity, being expressed in date notations like '10.4.0.0.0 - 12 Ahau - 3 Uo', or: 'the tenth baktun plus the fourth katun after the creation according to the long count, the last but one Ahau day according to the tzolkin calender and the 3rd day of the month Uo according to the haab-calender.'
Alright, so what is the Western 'translation' of such a date? What christian calender date belongs to which Mayan year. This is a practical problem that scientists have been debating for centuries. The Spaniards have burned most of the Mayan texts that could have acted as a guide. So researchers that want to know how Mayan time fits into the normal calender are forced to rely on chiseled inscriptions, a few written clues from the Spanish conquistadores and modern tables that allow you to find the positions of the planets and stars. This complex scientific puzzle that tries to fit the Mayan calender onto those of the West is called the 'correlation problem'.
An observatory in Uaxactun, Guatemala. One of the places the ancient Mayans used to study the skies.
And this is also where the notorious end date of 21-12-2012 comes into play. A small one hundred years ago scientists thought they had the answer. By looking at casual references in Spanish writings, archeologists named Goodman, Martínez and Thompson presented their 'GMT-correlation': a calculation that determined the creation date of the Mayans to be the 11th of August 3114 B.C. After some calculations the GMT-correlation says that the long count will complete one full round in December 2012. The counter will jump to 18.104.22.168.0 and time will be finished, or so the archeologists thought.
Thought, because what few 2012-prophets know, is that the GMT-correlation has been under heavy fire for the last ten years by modern research of astronomers, archeologists and a few hobby mathematicians. The final blow has been dealt by the thesis that gave earth-scientist Andreas Fuls his Ph.D. at the Technical University of Berlin three years ago. Fuls demonstrated that the GMT-correlation was not in line with a Mayan table that displayed the positions of Venus. And there is more, like inscriptions and artifacts that had not been discovered or dated in the time of Goodman, Martínez en Thompson. By adding it all up Fuls comes with a completely different date: one that has moved it 208 years. According to that correlation the long count will end in two centuries, on the 21st, 22nd or 23rd of December 2220. "That's the only possibility", Fuls says when asked about it.
This does not mean that the world will still end in 2220. "It's not sure whether you can speak of an 'end' with a cyclic calender like that of the Mayans", says Defesche. You can expect that Mayan time will continue at 22.214.171.124.1 after 126.96.36.199.0, even without taking into account whether the 'long count' actually ends at that time.
Archeologist David Kelly and astrophysicist Eugene Milone pointed out that the Mayans probably knew an even longer count, one in 'pictuns'; periods of 20 bactuns (or 20 x 144.000 days = 7.890 years). The prophets of doom - and the movie industry - have many thousands of years to continue their business.
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