Doomsday Again

November 17, 2009

Back in May, I wrote about the stories being circulated on the Internet about the possible end of the world, which, according to the stories, would be brought about because the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN would create a black hole that would swallow the Earth.  In one gentleman’s novel approach to probability, he figured that the disaster either would or would not happen, and therefore the probability of its happening was 50%.

The LHC has had its problems getting completely up and running, but fortunately there is a new theory of ultimate disaster available for those folks that seem to thrive on these tales.  Yesterday’s New York Times has an article about the new putative end of the world, now scheduled for December 21, 2012.  (Don’t forget to mark your calendar!)  There has been growing chatter about this date on the Internet, late-night talk radio (a medium populated almost entirely by the insane even 40 years ago), and other well-known sources of reliable information.  This prediction is based on an enormous farrago of nonsense involving the Mayan calendar, a supposed massive invisible planet Nibiru colliding with the Earth, an “alignment” of the Sun with the center of the Milky Way, a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field (sometimes accompanied by the Earth’s crust, and the continents, rotating 180 degrees around the Earth’s center), and even the Sun spiralling into a black hole at the center of the galaxy.

The hype has been fed by the publicity for a new movie, 2012, which opened last Friday, and features scenes from the predicted destruction of the world.  (My personal favorite is the one in which a tsunami throws an aircraft carrier into the White House.)  Now, anyone who takes seriously everything put out by way of movie publicity is already a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but some of the marketing for this movie has taken advantage of the background hysteria.  According to an article discussing the issue on NASA’s web site,

The film publicity includes creation of a faux scientific website (www.instituteforhumancontinuity.org/) for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind.

As the article goes on to point out, the request by some people that NASA, or someone else, “prove” that the Doomsday idea is false, is ludicrous: if someone claimed that 50-foot tall purple elephants were strolling through Cleveland, he would (correctly) be considered a nut case.

Nonetheless, some folks at NASA are trying to inject some sense into the discussion, with a FAQ page on the topic; they also have posted an article, which originally appeared in Sky & Telescope magazine,  by E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, about the story and some of the history behind it.  (Some readers may remember the supposedly significant alignment of the planets in 1987, the so-called “Harmonic Convergence”, which turned out to be more of a Moronic Convergence.  Some of the same True Believers are still around.)

I have never quite understood the appeal of these end-of-the-world stories, but clearly the appeal is there.  I suppose eventually, if the end is predicted often enough, it might even happen.  I’ll try to remember to have my camera ready.


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