It’s Not the End of the World

In which The Author’s rational side reasserts itself for a while

A week from today, according to a raft of New Age thinkers from Robert Anton Wilson to David Icke, from Terence McKenna to my friend Ian H., it’ll be the end of the world.
Of course, they’ve each put their own personal spin on the basic idea. David Icke sees it as the moment when the global fascist state finally falls into place and Humanity’s enslavement begins in earnest – unless we awaken from our collective dreamworld and take back the power that’s rightly ours.
Meanwhile, Terence McKenna has been building on the work of the French social scientist Georges Anderla, and his theory of exponential Information increase. Mr McKenna sees it as the point when the Information content of our common data banks reaches a critical point and enters the chaotic phase.
Robert Anton Wilson had some interesting speculations about what would happen next week, somewhere between the two. It’s a shame he’s not around to see the outcome for himself. Type next Friday’s date into the Internet and you’ll find yourself adrift in a sea of predictions, prophecies, conspiracy theories and bizarre notions. It’s what the Internet could have been made for!
Somewhat closer to home, just before I finished in Waterstone’s, a whole slew of books was published which purported to deal with the 2012 Situation. Ian H. had a particular fascination with the subject, and ordered every piece of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook he could lay his budget on. Even mainstream newspapers started mentioning it in passing. It must be serious.
You see, in this particular Doomsday Scenario, the Mayan Long Calendar is set to end. So what, I hear you ask? The long calendar which Thi Nga from the Pagoda takeaway gave me at the start of 2010 ran out ages ago, and I’m still here. (Admittedly, that particular long calendar was printed on narrow bamboo strips and looked very nice on my wall.) For my own part, I don’t know what the Mayan Long Calendar looks like. However, everyone of a slightly New Age inclination agrees that it comes to an end on 21 December 2012.
[A digression: They haven’t agreed on the exact time, of course. That sort of precision went out with James Ussher, the former Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. In 1650, he published the work for which his reputation survives to this day: Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti. (‘Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origin of the world.’) By a series of ingenious calculations, largely based on the ages of the biblical patriarchs, Ussher had concluded that the Creation took place on 23 October 4004 BC, at midday. (A fuller account of Ussher’s work can be found in Gould, 1993: pp. 181–193.)
Ussher’s date was taken as authoritative by the church for some two centuries afterwards, until findings from geology and biology began to uncover the facts behind the faith. However, it clung on (and still does) in some pockets of society. It gets a mention in Stanley Kramer’s film about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Inherit the Wind (1960), starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. During one courtroom exchange, Tracy’s hard-nosed attorney asks March’s fundamentalist preacher if Ussher had taken Daylight Saving into account. The Freemasons and some other occult-based groups date their founding from 4000 BC – largely as a result of Ussher’s findings. It even turns up every so often nowadays, usually when Creationist preachers in the United States seek to attack the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools.
[A sub-digression: Here’s a weird thing: I wanted to look up the date of the Scopes Trial yesterday, and I knew the very place. I looked at the Second Anniversary Edition of OMNI (see OMNIscience). In his Continuum leader, Ben Bova had written:
We may laugh at the quaintness of the 1925 Monkey Trial in Tennessee, when teacher John T. Scopes was threatened with fine and imprisonment for teaching Darwinian evolution to his high-school students. Yet it wasn’t until 1970 that the last anti-evolution laws in our country were wiped off the books.
Yes, folks, that’s the year after a man first walked on the Moon.]]
Anyway, after a rather odd conversation with a bloke in a pub one night, I decided to find out a bit more about the cosmic reality of 2012 for myself. When I first had my Netbook, a couple of years ago, I ran a couple of simulations of 21 December 2012, using the software I mentioned in Dark Side of the Moon. The results were intriguing, to say the least. I ran them again recently, now that I’m a bit more au fait with the programs, and I’ve added the screenshots here.
First of all, Stellarium, the virtual planetarium, produced a rather interesting result.

Not the End of the World 8

That, according to Stellarium, will be the position of the planets, looking due south of my home, at noon UTC. Stellarium has stripped away the atmosphere to make the heavenly bodies visible in the daytime. They’re very nearly in a straight line. As with Archbishop Ussher, I haven’t taken different time zones into account. I’ve used Universal Time as my benchmark.
The other program, Celestia, allows us to step outside the solar system and view the whole thing from the point of view of a distant spacecraft. In this case, we’re parked just under five Astronomical Units from the Sun, in the same time frame. (An Astronomical Unit is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun. 1 AU = 149, 598, 500 km.)

Not the End of the World 1

Just look at the way the inner planets, the Sun, and Jupiter are lined up. It’s almost like one of the trick shots made famous by the snooker player John Virgo.
When you zoom the picture out, it’s even more surprising.

Not the End of the World 2

From our virtual spacecraft positioned some 73 AU from the Sun, we can see the outer planets as well – and they’re all at it. Even the gas giants Uranus and Neptune have got in on the game. The first recorded sighting of what might have been Uranus didn’t occur until 1690, but it was identified as a planet as late as 1781 (Moore, 1979). Neptune was recorded in 1795, but it wasn’t identified as a planet until 1846 (Moore, 1979). There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that the Mayans knew of their existence, never mind predicted their crashing the party.
Out of interest, I ran a Stellarium simulation from a town in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the former centre of the Mayan civilisation. The alignment would be even more obvious from their point of view.

Not the End of the World 9

(If you want to run the software for yourself, Stellarium and Celestia are both open-source programs which run across platforms. Just download and install the source code, and you’re up and running.)
So, what on earth (no pun intended) is going on here? Is it just a coincidence that the Mayan Calendar comes to a stop at such an exciting moment in astronomy? I’m keeping an open mind at this point. I’m just saying that, in purely astronomical terms, an alignment like this doesn’t happen every week – or even every year!
Let’s tackle the big question first: if there is something important due to happen in the skies a week from now, why was it only the Mayans who picked up on it? After all, the Babylonians and Egyptians were stargazing thousands of years ago, and they don’t seem to have predicted this move in the cosmic snooker game. Similarly, the great Greek astronomers were silent on the topic. How about the Islamic scientists of Baghdad, who gave many stars the names which we use today? Not a word, apparently. Strange, isn’t it?
Furthermore, where did the idea of the Mayan Long Calendar come from in the first place? I hadn’t heard of it until about ten years ago, and I’ve been interested in what might loosely be termed ‘the unexplained’ since I was a teenager. Is it just something cooked up to tie in with James Redfield’s bestseller The Celestine Prophecy and its numerous spin-offs? Is there really some nugget of archaeological truth underlying the story? Or is it just one of many possible interpretations of an unexplained artefact, each as valid as the others, given the lack of supporting evidence? I didn’t have the time, the patience or the inclination to read any of Ian’s books on the subject. Therefore, I reserve judgement on the topic (for now, anyway.)
As for the masters of paleoastronomy, they seem to have missed a trick here as well. I haven’t read his recent books, but I’m pretty sure that Graham Hancock, the Indiana Jones of off-grid archaeology, doesn’t mention anything about 2012 in Fingerprints of the Gods. Surely, if anyone was going to unearth an obscure prophecy about the end of the world, it would be Mr Hancock and/or his fellow researcher Robert Bauval.
So, what exactly is going to happen next week? Is there a clue buried deep in The Revelation of St John the Divine, or in one of Nostradamus’ quatrains, or somewhere in the cryptic prophecies of the ‘Blind Seer’ Edgar Cayce? Will the planetary alignment usher in (sorry, I couldn’t resist that!) a new age of peace and love – the long-awaited Age of Aquarius? Will the fabled Hall of Records under the Great Sphinx reveal the lost wisdom of Atlantis? Will a Stargate open, allowing Humankind to ascend to its rightful place amongst the citizens of the universe?
Or, worst of all, will we just disappear into a Black Hole, accidentally generated by Aberdare-born Dr Lyn Evans and his team at CERN? It would a shame if we all vanished without giving Dr Evans a chance to spend some of his earnings from the Fundamental Physics Prize, which he was awarded on Tuesday. I was reassured to find Old Moore’s Almanac for 2013 on sale in the newsagent’s earlier on. If the essential guide for astrology fans everywhere has been published, there can’t be much to worry about.
There’s always something on the horizon to make people afraid of the future. If it can’t be found in a translated verse of scripture or a newly-discovered papyrus, it’ll take the form of a natural disaster, a deadly virus, a celestial occurrence, or some sort of man-made catastrophe.
Remember the Y2K panic at the end of 1999, when the so-called ‘Millennium Bug’ was set to return Humankind to the Stone Age? Our computers would be so much scrap metal as soon as their internal clocks reset themselves to 1 January 1900. Government databases would become instantly useless as a century’s worth of data became irretrievably scrambled. Hospital equipment would cease to function at the stroke of midnight. Warehousing and distribution facilities would grind to a halt. Aircraft would fall from the sky and ships would be lost as navigation systems failed and engines shut down. Our bank balances would default to zero, our credit cards would become useless slivers of plastic, and the global economy would collapse. There’d be riots over food and fuel supplies – at least until they ran out – and we’d all find ourselves playing minor parts in one or another of several post-apocalyptic science-fiction novels.
My friend Paul E. was in the Philippines in 1999, earning good money as an ‘IT Consultant’ for SMEs who’d swallowed the hype about the Y2K bug. Since most computer users don’t know what goes on inside the grey box under the desk, Paul was on Easy Street. He told me afterwards that each ‘consultation’ involved basically adding a few lines of code at the DOS prompt and rebooting the system. Nice work if you can get it.
Obviously, our civilisation didn’t collapse overnight. The rest of the world went blissfully on. Maybe a few people’s home computers or video recorders played silly buggers the morning after, but the technological crash failed to happen. (If only my bank balance would default to zero …)
After the Thames failed to catch fire and the hangovers had worn off, things carried on in the new millennium pretty much as they had in the old one.
It was pure human greed, not mechanical failure, which brought about the global financial crisis five years ago. The United Kingdom’s last wave of riots wasn’t sparked off by rocketing food prices, fuel shortages, or an oppressive regime. It was simply a convenient way to steal designer clothes and plasma TVs. It was pretty fucking far from the Arab Spring …
The only thing that was wiped out at the end of 1999 was our New Year party in the Whitcombe. I was tempted to go pub-crawling with Alyson and Josie (lesbian pals of mine) to see if we could find the girls who’d been in the Pickled Pepper earlier in the evening, dressed as Xena the Warrior Princess and her sidekick. In the event, people drifted away in dribs and drabs as the night wore on. Everyone had flu in various stages of incubation, and in the event only three of us were still standing as the year 2000 began.
Talking of illnesses, do you remember the panic over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome? Just under ten years ago, if you believed the newspapers and the TV, it was set to become the twenty-first Century answer to the Black Death. According to the World Health Organization, it claimed just 774 lives worldwide (WHO, 2004). Out of nearly 7 billion people, that’s a piss in the ocean. Nearly two-and-a-half times that number of people were killed on Britain’s roads in 2011. The Andromeda Strain it wasn’t!
Last year, an American televangelist named Harold Camping advised his followers to sell their possessions, donate the proceeds to his church, and make their peace with God before Armageddon. He confidently predicted that it would all go supine on 21 May 2011. When it failed to happen he simply announced that his calculations had been wrong. He came up with a new date, and warned them to go back to their churches and prepare for Rapture. Oddly enough, it seems that Mr Camping didn’t have enough faith in his own prophecies to sell up and ship out.
Incidentally, while I was searching online to verify the details of Mr Camping’s adventures, I found this posting on a Chicago-based forum:
Jack Van Impe has changed the date of the Rapture from Dec. 21, 2012 to sometime in 2016. He’s been preaching, fear mongering and selling dvd’s /prophecy bibles BASED on that prediction for past 10 years. What I find suspicious and a dead giveaway is Van Impe started the 2016 bs last week (nov. 26) BEFORE the original date even arrived. Pretty dumb Jack or is it your GREED that made you jump the gun and give yourself away. The Charlatan A-hole doesn’t have the balls or integrity to say hey I made a mistake, let me recalulate like the other charlatans try to pull off…he’s is the worst of the lot. Jack Van Impe is 80 + years old why doesn’t he give us all a break and…retire, keep quiet, lay in a pine box anything just go away [Copied from source, all errors preserved].
I read a book a few years ago called Have a Nice Doomsday by Nicholas Guyatt. He was investigating the links between a loose group of American evangelists and the Neo-Cons who were in the US Government at the time. Would you believe that some of these people actually want a war in the Middle East? They believe that such a conflict would fulfil Biblical prophecies and hasten the Second Coming of Christ. What can I say…? Incidentally, according to a report in yesterday’s Toronto Star:
Nearly four in 10 U.S. residents say the severity of recent natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy is evidence the world is coming to an end, as predicted by the Bible, while more than six in 10 blame it on climate change, according to a poll released on Thursday.
Apocalyptic omens and fringe religious beliefs often go hand in hand. In Switzerland in 1994, 48 members of the esoteric Order of the Solar Temple committed suicide en masse. Another five deaths in Canada were linked to the group. The following year, another sixteen people died in France, and in 1996 five more people in Canada were found dead. Apparently they thought that their deaths would enable their souls to ascend to the Sirius star system.
There was a similar incident in March 1997, when Comet Hale-Bopp was closest to Earth. 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves, in order to rendezvous with a spacecraft which was apparently hiding in the comet’s tail. I wonder how many people will be found dead next weekend, having bought themselves an express ticket to the next life (one way or the other!)
This may be a good time to briefly mention the Swiss psychologist’s Carl Gustav Jung’s work on astrology. He noted an interesting correspondence between key events in the history of the Christian church and the position of the stars in the constellation of Pisces, and suggested that they were underpinned by the numerous mentions of fish throughout the Gospels. (Please see Maggie Hyde’s book Jung For Beginners for a more detailed treatment of this fascinating subject.)
On this basis, Jung suggested that the Earth was on the threshold of the next astrological house, and the next stage of our collective psychological evolution. Some people believe that next week’s alignment will in fact be the long-awaited dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It’s a nice idea. However, in one of his many books on astronomy, the late Professor William J. Kaufmann III poured cold water on it:
Imagine a spinning toy top … If the top were not spinning, gravity would pull it over on its side. But when it is spinning, the combined actions of gravity and rotation cause the top’s axis of axis rotation to trace a circle — a motion called precession. As the Sun and the Moon move along the zodiac, each spends half the time north of the Earth’s equatorial bulge and half the time south of it. The gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon tugging on the equatorial bulge tries to “straighten up” the Earth. In other words … the gravity of the Sun and Moon tries to pull the Earth’s axis of rotation toward a position perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. As with the toy top, the combined actions of gravity and rotation cause the Earth’s axis to trace out a circle in the sky while remaining tilted about 23.4° away from the perpendicular.
The Earth’s rate of precession is fairly slow. It takes 26,000 years for the north celestial pole to trace out a complete circle around the sky… At the present time, the Earth’s axis of rotation points within 1° of the star Polaris. In 3000 BC, it was pointing near the star Thuban in the constellation of Draco (the Dragon.) In AD 14,000, the “pole star” will be Vega in Lyra (the Harp). Of course, the south celestial pole executes a similar circle in the southern sky.
As the Earth’s axis of rotation precesses, the Earth’s equatorial plane also moves. Because the Earth’s equatorial plane defines the location of the celestial equator in the sky, the celestial equator also precesses. The intersections of the celestial equator and the ecliptic define the equinoxes, and so these key locations in the sky also shift slowly from year to year. The entire phenomenon is often called the precession of the equinoxes. Today the vernal equinox is located in the constellation of Pisces (the Fishes). Two thousand years ago, it was in Aries (the Ram.) Around the year AD 2600, the vernal equinox will move into Aquarius (the Water Bearer) (Kaufmann, 1992: p. 21).
So, according to Prof Kaufmann we’re about 600 years too early for the Age of Aquarius. Let’s rule out the paradigm shift for Humankind – at least for the time being.
Maybe we should just accept that the planetary alignment is going to take place next week, as the simulations demonstrate, and leave it at that. It’ll be a thrilling event for stargazers throughout the world. It’s a great tragedy that Sir Patrick Moore, who arguably did more than anyone else in making astronomy accessible to the man in the street, won’t be around to see it. He passed away last weekend at the grand age of 89.
Personally, I’m confident that I’ll wake up on 22 December and find the order of the day to be BUSINESS AS USUAL. The worst thing that can possibly happen on Friday is that Aberdare becomes a no-go zone. It’s the day when a lot of people finish work for the Xmas holidays, and go straight out on the piss. By 9 p.m. all the pubs will be rammed, and the police will be stretched to the limits dealing with drunken fights throughout the valley. I’ll be at home long before it kicks off. I might try and borrow a nice uplifting film in to watch that night. 2012, maybe.
The best-case scenario is that the junkies, lowlife and idiots of Aberdare get taken up by a spaceship cunningly concealed by the planetary alignment. What the extraterrestrials decide to do with them afterwards isn’t important. With any luck, they’ll conclude that they’ve got a representative sample of life on Earth, decide that we’re not bothering about after all, and scrap their plans for a military takeover.
Then again, if Doomsday does come about, it will spare me a considerable headache. The ongoing situation between The Piss-Artist Formerly Known as My Brother and I will cast a long shadow over the family this year. If the world does end, I won’t have to explain to Mother why I won’t be joining her for Xmas lunch.
Nor will I have to come up with a credible excuse for not joining C— for the church’s Xmas buffet on Doomsday+2. The dilemma I explained just under a year ago (in Meet the Parents) is still hanging over me. I met her father at a friend’s funeral a few months ago, and he seemed to think I was a decent chap (compared to the crowd C— usually finds herself with, at least!) C— invited me to the buffet a couple of weeks ago. If I do go, I’ll have to meet her mother. That would be a real challenge. She’s extremely protective of her daughter (with good reason) and I don’t think even my most winning smile and very best behaviour would win her round.
Given the unenviable choice between facing my own mother or facing C—’s, maybe the end of the world wouldn’t be such a disaster after all.
REFERENCES
GOULD, S.J. (1993) Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in natural history. (London: Jonathan Cape.)
HYDE, M., McGUINNESS, M. (1994) Jung for Beginners. (Cambridge: Icon Books.)
KAUFMANN, W.J. (1992) Discovering the Universe. (3rd ed.) (New York: W.H. Freeman.)
MOORE, P. (1979) The Guinness Book of Astronomy Facts and Feats. (Enfield: Guinness Superlatives.)
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (2004) Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003. (Geneva: WHO) (Accessed Dec 14 2012)
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