Is 2012 the end of the world?
If you scan the Internet or believe the marketing campaign behind the movie "2012," scheduled for release in November, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Dozens of books and fake science websites are prophesying the arrival of doomsday that year, by means of a rogue planet colliding with the Earth or some other cataclysmic event.
Normally, scientists regard Internet hysteria with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a shake of the head. But a few scientists have become so concerned at the level of fear they are seeing that they decided not to remain on the sidelines this time.
"Two years ago, I got a question a week about it," said NASA scientist David Morrison, who hosts a website called Ask an Astrobiologist. "Now I'm getting a dozen a day. Two teenagers said they didn't want to see the end of the world so they were thinking of ending their lives."
Morrison said he tries to reassure people that their fears are groundless, but has received so many inquiries that he has posted a list of 10 questions and answers on the website of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific ( www.astrosociety.org).
Titled "Doomsday 2012, the Planet Nibiru and Cosmophobia," the article breaks down the sources of the hysteria and assures people that the ancients didn't actually know more about the cosmos than we do.
"The world will not come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012," E.C. Krupp, director of Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory, declared in a statement released Thursday by the observatory and Sky & Telescope magazine. Krupp debunks the 2012 doomsday idea in the cover story of the magazine's November issue.
Morrison said he attributes the excitement to the conflation of several items into one mega-myth. One is the persistent Internet rumor that a planet called Nibiru or Planet X is going to crash into the Earth. Then there's the fact that the Maya calendar ends in 2012, suggesting that the Maya knew something we don't. Finally, end-of-the-worlders have seized upon the hubbub about the 2012 date to proclaim their belief that end times are drawing near.
Morrison, who heads the Lunar Science Institute at the Ames Research Center in Northern California, has coined a term for the phenomenon: "cosmophobia," a fear of the cosmos. According to Morrison, for the most vulnerable among us, all of the things we've learned about the universe in the last century have only increased the number of potential threats to our existence.
Besides fearing a rampaging planet, the worriers think the sun might lash out at the Earth with some calamitous electromagnetic force. They also fear that some sort of alignment between the Earth and the center of our galaxy could unleash catastrophe.
Krupp said that the scare-mongers would have us believe that the "ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike."
According to Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, the Maya never predicted anything. The 2012 date is approximately when the ancient calendar would roll over, like the odometer on a car; it did not mean the end -- merely the start of a new cycle.
Some authors have tried to merge that idea, Joyce said, with Maya mythology that said the Earth had gone through multiple ages of creation, each ending in a disaster. "But there's no prediction," she said. "They did not predict the end of the world."
Morrison says it's hard to know whether the people who have written to him with their fears represent a fringe or a larger cross-section of Americans who, distrustful of traditional sources of information and the authorities behind them, are falling victim to the Internet's snake-oil salesmen.
In such an environment, the viral marketing campaign for the movie "2012," which encourages people to "Vote for the Leader of the Post-2012 World," can seem like confirmation of the apocalypse, rather than of an upcoming 90-minute entertainment vehicle.
A spokesman for Sony Pictures, Steve Elzer, said: "We believe consumers understand that the advertising is promoting a fictional film."
Morrison said the movie's distributors are feeding the "panic" by creating some of the fake science websites. Most of the sites, Morrison said, are full of misinformation and speculation, often by people who have written books they are trying to sell.
Morrison said he could not address the motives of people who were feeding the alarm, but added: "It's wrong to tell lies to frighten people merely to make a buck."
What most worries him is the level of alarm in some of the most recent messages.
"I'm getting more and more questions from people who are upset and scared," he said. Some people say their children are refusing to eat.
In the publication Morrison has posted online, he says that astronomers would long ago have spotted a rogue planet headed for Earth, that the so-called photos of Nibiru on the Internet are fictitious, and that just because the Maya calendar in question ends in 2012, it doesn't mean the Maya were predicting the end of the world.
"The calendar on my desk ends on December 31, 2009. I do not interpret that to mean the world is going to end that day."