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In My Words: It's not the end of the world

In a newspaper column, Associate Professor Tony Crider looks back on the media buzz surrounding the Maya prophecy that didn't come true.

Associate Professor Tony Crider

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The following column was written recently for the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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It's not the end of the world
By Tony Crider - acrider@elon.edu

New-age authors have been trying to convince us for decades that the Maya civilization predicted a “harmonic convergence” during our lifetimes.

Then a media blitz on the Maya took a darker turn three years ago with the release of “2012” starring John Cusack. The movie’s promotional campaign and subsequent television shows seem to have convinced many people of a Maya doomsday prophecy for the end of this year.

Google searches for “mayan 2012” surged the same month the movie came out, and according to market research company Ipsos, roughly 12 percent of Americans believed there was such a prophecy.

Concerns over the Maya, or the fiscal cliff, or peak oil, or zombies have led a growing number of us to stockpile food, guns and other supplies to prepare for the imminent End Of The World As We Know It. Occasionally, these “preppers” believe in what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thirty-eight members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced by Marshall Applewhite in 1997 that the world was about to end. Their escape plan? Mass suicide.

It is both easy and common to convince people of extremely foolish ideas. In 2001, the FOX network aired the special, “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?”, featuring an “analyst and engineer” named Bill Kaysing. It failed to mention that Kaysing had no training in science or engineering. With his degree in English, he proofread, edited and formatted documents for scientists and engineers building the Saturn V rockets.

The misleading claims from this show have been debunked repeatedly by both astronomers and even other television shows. NASA, however, largely ignored the Apollo hoax believers. How could anyone believe that the Apollo moon landing was faked? Surely no one would take this seriously.

And yet one out of four young Americans surveyed since the show’s airing doubt Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.

NASA learned from its earlier mistake and has been proactive this time around. The agency released a short YouTube video, “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday,” to explain that neither the Maya nor modern scientists have doomsday predictions for this month and that the ancient calendar simply begins again just as our own calendar rolls over every New Year’s Day.

The world is not going to end in 2012. At least, probably not.

On any given day there is some miniscule chance that life on Earth could be decimated. Arguably the most probable threat is from large asteroid impacts. Small asteroids hit the Earth all of the time, but the “mile-wide” ones, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, are rare.

Since the 1990s, NASA has used robotic telescopes and spacecraft to search for potentially hazardous asteroids. While most of them have been found, there are some still out there that haven’t been seen by astronomers yet.

In early December, a previously unknown small asteroid named “2012 XE54” whizzed by Earth at distance that was closer than our Moon. It is small enough to fit neatly on a typical suburban house lot. It was not discovered until just before passing the Earth, a reminder that we need to keep observing the skies.

Fortunately for us, modern telescopes have improved our chances at spotting an asteroid before it hits us. The odds of an unknown asteroid wiping out humanity on some arbitrary date are very low, about the same as two players each drawing a royal flush while playing straight poker.

I still am somewhat reluctant to point out this very encouraging statistic. After all, the headline “Astronomer Claims Asteroid Might Destroy Earth” could sell a lot of papers.

Tony Crider is an associate professor of physics at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
12/21/2012 9:36 AM