A Short Course on the Mayan Calendar and the Apocalypse

Dr. Phil Plait wrote a book called Death From The Skies, in which he details the many ways the Earth could be destroyed by astronomical events. But even he isn't worried about the world ending anytime soon, because he knows the odds -they're "astronomical." So why are people still talking about the December 21st apocalypse? Because they misunderstand what the Mayan calendar actually says.

It had as its basic units a day (called a k’in) and a 360-day period called a tun. The Maya understood that a physical year was five days longer than a tun, and had other calendars to deal with that. They had longer units, too, like the ka’tun—just shy of 20 years—and most importantly for apocalypse aficionados, the b’ak’tun—roughly 394 of our years. The starting point for their calendar (Year Zero, if you like) is 3114 B.C., the date they figured the Earth was created.

Knowing all this, we can match their calendar to ours and convert any date they used to our more familiar system. If you do the math, you’ll find that we are nearing the end of the 13th b’ak’tun. In fact, it ends on Dec. 21, 2012.

That’s this Friday. Cue the spooky music.

The thing is, there is no suggestion, not even a hint, in Maya writing that they thought the end of this current b’ak’tun had any connection to doomsday. It’s entirely possible it may have even been thought of as a time of celebration (just like we celebrate New Year’s Eve).

The Maya also had bigger units of time, including the piktun (which was either 13 or 20 b’ak’tun), and the alautun, which was—get this—63 million years! So it doesn’t sound like they were predicting the end of the world ever, let alone by this weekend.

At Bad Astronomy, Plait goes on to explain how other doomsday theories came about and were debunked in the past -and present. And, of course, we'll see more in the future. But as Douglas Adams once said, "Don't Panic." Link

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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