Friday 21 December 2012

Another "End of the World" Day

It seems that many people are taking rather too seriously the suggestions that somehow the ancient Mayans were able to divine the exact date of the end of the world. It seems that in the popular imagination anyone who made "art" and was vaguely exotic who built pointy-top buildings "must" have had some ancient wisdom that is hidden to our "experts". After all pointy-top buildings look so weird. Such is the power of the past - or imaginations about the past.
Swirling with lunacy and paranoia, the theories warn of mayhem and cataclysm. They fill books and websites, inspiring hand-wringing among gullible people. The claim: The world is ending on Friday, the final chapter in an ancient Mayan prophecy carved into stone calendars thousands of years ago. The stories are a jumble, based on everything from New Age mysticism to biblical "end times." In some accounts, a giant secret planet is about to slam into Earth, or a solar storm will wipe out the human race. None has any basis in fact, scientists say, but a poll this summer found 12 percent of Americans are worried. 
It probably means very little to these people that archaeologists and experts on Mayan culture say this latest angst is based on a huge misunderstanding. These irrational ideas began generations ago, when scholars who hadn't yet learned how to read Mayan hieroglyphics mistakenly concluded that they were describing mystical prophecies. In the 1960s and 1970s these ideas were embraced by New Age activists - and later on their misreading of history has become blended with "end times" fantasies, and these have been primarily spread on the Internet:
 The Maya, whose civilization flourished in Mexico and Guatemala from 2000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., built pyramids and observatories. Their calendar was based on 394-year cycles called baktuns. The 13th of those cycles since the date of the Mayan creation story 5,126 years ago ends Friday. But that doesn't mean they thought the world was going to end, said Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. "It's not the end of the calendar," Joyce said. "It's the end of a cycle. It rolls over, like an odometer." 
It is interesting that the several million people of Maya heritage who are still around today don't believe the world is ending. As Alberto Perez, program director at the Maya Association of the Bay Areasays:
"I have the sense that it bothers people in our community that we are perceived in this almost-negative way, like we predicted the end of the world," he said. "We didn't. We're worried about day-to-day things: jobs, education, immigration, health care."
Dr. David Morrison is a NASA senior scientist who is attempting to deal with questions from members of the US public, fearful that Doomsday is looming. 
While some of his colleagues wonder if he's wasting his time, Morrison holds out hope that reason and facts can win out, even in an age of Internet hoaxes and hype.[...] Andrew Fraknoi, chairman of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, said Morrison's work is heroic. "He has taken on a thankless task," said Fraknoi, who also is speaking out to debunk doomsday fears. "He feels that we as scientists have an obligation to respond, to reassure the public and to give the public the fact-based view of the universe. That is so absent from so many realms of our social discourse today." 
It is certainly absent from any discussion of Portable Antiquities.

Paul Rogers, 'Debunker of Doomsday: NASA scientist tries to talk some sense into the world', Inside Bay Area 17th December 2012

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