Up in the Air

Ready for the Mayan calendar wrap-up?

December 16, 2012 

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

On Friday, the world will come to an end.

Not really.

More likely you will be able to post the same thing on Facebook that King George III supposedly entered in his diary on July 4, 1776: “Nothing important happened today.”

The Mayan calendar ends its long count Friday and, well, nothing will happen. The Mayans were not particularly concerned with this in their time and are long gone, possibly victims of natural climate change similar to the changes we humans are forcing on the weather, today.

About a year ago we had a guest lecturer come to Appalachian State to give a couple of presentations on the topic of the Mayan calendar, what the fuss is about, and why in general we seem to want to predict an apocalypse every so often.

Anthony Aveni, who has a popular book on this topic, is a pioneer in archeoastronomy. In fact, I took from Aveni what had to be one of the first courses on this topic, as a graduate student, in about 1974.

If modern cars were built like old ones, would we have similar worries? Until a couple of decades ago most cars had five-digit odometers. Car owners would anticipate the digits rolling over to all zeroes. This would be maybe worthy of a celebration, but not of worry.

The Mayans were not concerned with their calendar rollover, either. And all of the other claims you will find on the Web are nonsense.

At the winter solstice on Friday, the sun will be coincidentally near (but not aligned with) the center of our Milky Way galaxy, but it is that way every Dec. 21. Changes in the Earth’s magnetic field are real – but glacially slow. I could go on and on.…

A new comet has been discovered that could become the brightest one ever by next November. We don’t know for sure, because it depends on the particulars of this specimen, like the amount of ice vs. rock in its dirty-snowball makeup. However, one thing is almost certain: More predictions will be made that the world will come to an end.

Again.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University.

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