Cheer Up – It Maya Not be the End of the World.

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the second of three that I wrote: on the story that 2012 might not be the great cosmic bookend some have in the past believed it to be.

_____________

Audio file available here: 

_____________

Do you want the Good News or the Bad News? If you’re anything like me, then you probably want the Bad News first. That way the Good News, when it eventually comes, will have the appearance of Excellent News in relation to the Bad News which has just preceded it. Unless, of course, the Bad News throws such a colossally wet blanket over the mood that the brief candle of hope the Good News seems to offer flickers out in the great soggy expanse.

Well, let’s try our luck anyway.

The Bad News, seeing as you seem so determined to have that first, is that the world is definitively, inevitably and unstoppably going to end. All human life is doomed to extinction, the beauty of our natural surroundings will slowly decay into the meaningless nothing of the great cosmic void, and our fragile planet is doomed to be annihilated along with it.

So, you might well ask, what’s the Good News?

Well, it turns out that the already long odds of Armageddon popping up on your Facebook events page by the end of /this/ calendar year may have just gotten even longer. And no, this is not based on any exclusive insight into Iran’s Nuclear Programme, nor on Boris Johnson’s recent victory in the London Mayoral election, nor even on the trials and tribulations besetting the Presidential campaign of the ineluctably unelectable Mitt Romney.

So what is the source of this information that should have us jumping for joy in the streets, or at the very least wildly embracing passing sailors in Times Square? Whence comes this intelligence that if we are not to have Apocalypse Now, then, at the very least, we will have the privilege of enjoying Apocalypse Later?

The answer lies in ancient carvings found this week on the wall of a primitive hut in Northern Guatemala, which seem to have been made by Mayan astronomers working nearly 1200 years ago. Now, these Mayan astronomers have a lot to answer for. Those of you who are familiar with your Mesoamerican history will doubtless have heard of the persistent legends surrounding Mayan calendars which seem to mysteriously run out in the year of our Lord, but more importantly their Lord, 2012.

Experts have been saying for years that such claims are, if you’ll pardon my French, horseradish, but the great Mayan Doomsday Prophecy Myths simply refuse to die, much like the great Mayan deities Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Instead of listening to respected experts in the field of Mayan history, we instead prefer to take the word of movie director Roland Emmerich as gospel, and most of us now casually accept people saying “Oh yes, 2012 is the year the world is going to end” with the same sort of equanimity we have come to apply to people saying “Oh yes, 861 thousand residents of London have chosen to devolve the administrative and ceremonial functions of their capital city, for the second time running, to a man who looks like Rupert the Bear.”

Not only are such Doomsday Myths harmful, superstitious nonsense, but the people who propagate these insane demi-truths seem to feel that they are in some way /respecting/ the ancient Central American civilisations whose iconography they are mindlessly plundering. Don’t they understand that they are taking an advanced, indigenous culture – thought to be the only pre-telescopic civilisation to have noticed the fuzzy outline of the Orion Nebula, for instance – that they are taking this culture that they are taking it and reducing it to a three-syllable tagline they can embroider on shirt fronts and print on movie posters and attach to Olympic Game merchandising?

Twen-Ty-Twelve.

It’s not a mystical incantation, not a charm, a hex or a mantra, but a number. A simple number which happens to mark the end of one 400-year period in Mayan chronology known as a ‘baktun’ and the start of another. The year 2012 is the first page of a new chapter in history. It marks a line in the sand. The breath an opera singer might take between musical passages. It just so happens that Mayan astronomers working in the year 800 saw no point in extrapolating any further ahead than 2012. After all, they reasoned, we’ve got plenty of time to continue counting once we nip down to the beach and say hello to these nice Spaniards with their guns and their alcohol and their quaint European diseases. Once we’ve offed them some avocado and made them a nice hot chocolate, we’ll be able to come back to our workshop and carry on where we left off.

Now, this form of procrastination, misguided though it may have been, seems entirely reasonable to me. After all, if you visited your parents’ house in May and noticed that all the calendars in all the rooms went no further than December, would that lead you to deduce that the world was going to end the week following Christmas, or, for that matter, that your parents were idiots for not having ready-bought calendars on hand to span the next two thousand years?

This week’s discoveries in Guatemala prove just that point, according to Anthony Aveni, an academic at New York’s Colgate University and an expert in the field of ‘archaeoastronomy’. He has referred to the newly-discovered wall carvings as the work of Mayan ‘geeks’, who were so keen to test out the accuracy of their new chronological system that they started extrapolating the numbers needlessly further forward in an attempt to check that their calculations would still hold out in 3, 4 and even 6000 years time. In that sense, it’s like a small child counting as high as she can go to make sure that 10,000 is followed by 10,001 just like 9,000 was followed by 9001, and that no tricky business is happening somewhere above her head where she can’t see it.

So, unless you know something I don’t know about, or happen to be giving that little red button in President Ahmadinejad’s situation room a final polish, the world is almost certainly not going to end in 2012.

But if it does, I hope it happens before the Olympics. The District Line is going to be a nightmare.