Well, we have made it this far. But this year we have the epic, galactic alignment to survive next, the gravity of which will rip our planet to shreds.
What's that you say? Nonsense, you say?
Shame on you skeptics. How can you not see the evidence passed down in the annals of ancient wisdom?
Okay, maybe it is nonsense. The Mayans had absurd ideas about the history of time, just like every ancient culture. Their's may have been a fraction closer to the truth than others. They believed in cyclical time, the passing of ages, which doesn't seem too absurd in light of the way we divide Earth's history into named ages. According to the Mayans there were three ages before ours, each lasting about 5,125 years. In terms of time scale their ideas about the age of the world was not as realistic as the Hindu's, but miles closer than Ussher's prediction of 6,000 years ago, on Sunday, October 23rd, at 6pm (which was based on close analysis of biblical events). For the Mayans, ours is the fourth age, the age of the humans, and the calender they set for this age is due to run out in December 2012. Veritably the end of the world.
The Mayan calender was a Long Count calender, conveniently based upon their choice length of time for each age. Obviously their mathematics was limited by a certain number of euphemistic fingers on which to count. They counted a certain number of days, which became a certain number of months, which became a year. But they didn't stop there: a certain number of years became an age. Presumably a certain number of ages became a countable... something.
If they had just set a calender with infinite counting abilities, perhaps we would not have a handful of such loud akceptics declaring the end of the world. It's nothing more than an ancient form of the Millenium Bug. And the human race survived the millennium with the most modest of mishaps, relatively speaking. Then again, if it was not the Mayan's calender that formed the basis for the 2012 prediction, perhaps it would be something else.
I am quite looking forward to the end of the Mayan calender. It will mark the dawning of a new age, one that I feel has more spirituality, more cultural connotations attached to it than the turning of the second Julian millennium. As well as this, there is no better reason for pouring a nice glass of wine and throwing a dinner party in celebration of having survived the end of the world. Again.
I like to think that this is what Manuel The Great did when he took the bricks out of his window in 1174 to find that the world still there, and not nearly as hot as the solar flares from the sun were predicted to have made it.
It seems that this alignment of the celestial objects tearing the world to shreds is a prediction as old as heavenly geometry. The prediction that had Manuel The Great bricking up his palace windows was made by one John of Toledo who noticed the known planets would all be in the same sign at the same time. The logical conclusion he drew was that the power of this would cause the sun the bellow out fiery balls of death. Albert Porta made a similar observation and conclusion for December 17th 1919 when six planets lined up before the sun.
On a related note there is a perfectly wonderful word for planetary alignment. Sadly it only applies to three celestial bodies: Syzygy. One 'y' for each body.
Please allow me to take you on a brief tour of the history of the end of the world. It will by no means be a comprehensive exploration of poor predictions, more of a pre-amble through the ones I think are interesting.
A great many catastrophic dates seem to be nice round numbers. The year 500, the year 1000, the year 1500, and the year 2000. Nice round numbers stemming from the birth of Jesus Christ. For reasons I can't begin to fathom a nice round number is the perfect marker for the Second Coming. If the Second Coming fails, then the next good number will be 33 years later, the age of Christ when he died.
Christ's return at the dawn of the second millennium was overshadowed a little by the possible destruction of modern society at the hands of the Millennium Bug.
William Miller, a Baptist preacher, destroyed his reputation by predicting the end of the world to be October 22, 1844. He had raised so many hopes, that when people found they were still alive on October 23, the event became known as the Great Disappointment.
The Watchtower magazine has predicted a few dates for the Rapture in its time, including 1914, '15, '18, '20, '25, '41, '75, and '94. Now famously, Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on May 21 last year, followed by the Apocalypse six months later. Atheists celebrated, but sadly for him the four horsemen of the Apocalypse did not crash their parties.
And here lies the danger of believing in a literal Bible. The stories were clearly intended as instructive lessons than accurate historical texts. But this has never stopped scientists looking for scientific answers in it.
Bad predictions by bad science does not necessarily imply a bad scientist though. Not only did Isaac Newton, the giant whose shoulders on which more recent scientific giants have been standing, make a prediction that the world would end in the early 21st Century based on his own understanding of Biblical Chronology, but he had a similar theory to Ussher about the age of the Earth.
Newton's protégé at Cambridge University, one William Whiston, was a formidable mathematician, and like his mentor, a catastrophist and believer in a literal Bible. He saw Halley's comet in 1680 and 1682, along with most of the world, and understandably took it as a sign/precursor for inevitable doom. The recent understanding of comets' periodicity allowed for a certain minor hysteria relating to knowing precisely when the sign would return. Still, it was not quite a 'great' disappointment.
Less of a disappointment will probably be any of the horrible ends that current science is able to predict for us. Apophis could very well hit our planet square in the Atlantic Ocean. I'll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain that one:
There's robots, ice age, gamma rays, viruses, giant volcanoes, global warming, cyber-warfare, nan-technology, nuclear holocaust...
The frequency of predictions, and the readiness that they are lapped up with, about the end of the world suggests something sad to me, that perhaps people believe the world should end, or that it deserves to end. A series of unfortunate events followed by the only thing that the human race can call home going ka-blooey. It strikes me as a very defeatist thing to read in symbols, and maybe this is the reason Newton kept mum about his own prediction.
Or are they believed in so vehemently because the idea of an end without a bang is not an end with dignity. Personally I think T.S. Elliot's own prediction is more comforting (and more lyrical): "This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper."