… or, B’ak’tun The Future.
There’s some buzz going around the web right now because some Mayan archaeologists found wall writings in the Xultun ruins in Guatemala dealing with the Mayan calendar. The writing clearly shows the Mayan calendar extending well past 2012.
As you can imagine, this is being played up as (yet more) evidence the world won’t end come December.
But the thing is, we already knew that. I mean, of course we know there’s nothing to any of the Mayan Apocalypse nonsense doomcriers are advocating. That’s all crap. But in this case, as far as I can tell, what they found doesn’t change much in this regard. It’s a fascinating archaeological find and gives insight on how the Mayans worked out their math and astronomy when it came to calendars — there are notes painted on the wall clearly describing the patterns of Venus and Mars in the sky, which is very cool — but I don’t think it changes the 12/21/12 nonsense at all.
Mostly because we already knew their calendars went past December 21 of this year! For one thing, the cycle that ends this year, the b’ak’tun, is a repeating cycle. The ancient Mayans had lots of cycles to their calendar, just as we do. We have cycles of days, weeks, months, years, decades… The Mayans used different units, but it boils down to the same idea. They had cycles roughly equivalent to a month, a year, and so on.
The b’ak’tun is a unit roughly 394 years long. When one b’ak’tun ended, another one started, just like any other cycle. So when the b’ak’tun we’re in now ends, on or about December of this year, why then, the next one starts up.
Think of it this way: what happens on December 31 of every year? You throw away the old calendar and hang up a new one. Tadaaa!
Worse, there’s no evidence that the Mayans even thought the end of this b’ak’tun was the time of any kind of renewal, doomsday, or anything. All of that nonsense can be traced back to a series of New Agey books and speculations that built on one another like a pyramid built upside down. At some point, it’ll fall over. Stuart Robbins at Exposing Pseudoastronomy has a great series of articles all about this.
By the way, there are longer Mayan calendar cycles, too, like the pictun, which is 20 b’ak’tuns. The pictun we’re in now ends in the 4772! So clearly the Mayans didn’t think the world was ending in 2012.
There’s also one cycle that lasts for 63 million years! If you believe in the Mayan Apocalypse, I guess they knew about the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, too.
If I sound a little exasperated, well, I am. I have never been a fan of nonsense, but nonsense doomsday conspiracy theories really make me angry. Whether the doomsday mongers believe in what they say or not, they are scaring people over stuff that’s provably wrong! If evil exists, that kind of thing falls under the definition in my book.
If there’s any good to come of any of this, it’s a renewed interest in the real Mayan culture, calendars, and how the ancient peoples of our planet used astronomy to reckon time. And, as usual, reality is far more interesting, engaging, and plain old cool than any nonsense we can make up about it.
In June, I posted about a pinup calendar where the model was somewhat more naked than naked: in fact, the pictures were all X-rays!
I was fascinated by the implied raciness of the pictures, given that at best all you could see was a hint of curves. The poses themselves were provocative as well, and I wanted to spark a discussion of it.
One thing that should have occurred to me but didn’t was how the pictures themselves were made. Was a model exposed to X-rays? How much were the images enhanced? Were they real at all?
Quite by accident, just the other day I found myself embroiled in a controversy on Twitter of my own making. I made an offhand mention that the decade would be ending in a few short days. That seemed obvious enough to me, but apparently not so to many others. What ensued was something of a firestorm of people, many of whom disagreed with me. However, I maintain that I was right all along. Here’s the scoop.
My claim is that December 31, 2009 — today, as this is posted — is not just the last day of the year, but the last day of a decade. Now, I don’t mean that in the trivial sense that any moment is the last moment of the past ten year period — you can always talk about the last ten years that end at any time.
I meant, and still mean, specifically the first decade of the 2000s. That does in deed and in fact end today.
What people were arguing over were things like centuries and millennia, and how there was no year 0, and therefore the last day of the decade is actually December 31, 2010. But that’s not relevant because we don’t measure decades the same way we do centuries.
Certainly, the last day of the 20th century was December 31, 2000. In that case, there was no year 0, so the first year of the 1st century ended on December 31, 1 A.D. Doing the math, it’s easy to see that 1999 more years needed to elapse to end the 20th century, and so its demise was on that last calendar day of 2000. January 1, 2001 marked the first day of the 21st century.
But we don’t reckon decades like that. We refer to them by the tens place in the year’s numerals: the 70s, the 80s, the 90s. And since we do, clearly, today is the last day of the decade we will call the aughts or zeroes or whatever.
Actually, looking at this now, it seems to me that centuries are more formal, with an actual method of naming them, whereas decades are more of a nickname, a handy handle to use when referring to a time period.
Also, you wouldn’t say that 1990 was part of the 80s, would you? I think it’s clear that December 31, 1989 was the last day of the 80s, just as December 31, 2009 is the last day of whatever term we’ll wind up using to refer to the first 10 years of the 2000s.
Confusing this a bit is that we might refer to something happening in the 1900s versus saying it happened in the 20th century. Those terms are synonymous, barring the year of 1900, which was in the 19th century, and 2000, which was in the 20th century but not in the 1900s.
If we did reckon decades the same way as centuries then a point would be made that the decade ends in 2010. But we don’t, and in this case there truly is a year 0: the year 2000. So once again, the first decade of the 2000s ends today.
A couple of people pointed out that this means the first decade in our calendar only had 9 years: AD 1 – 9. I suppose that’s true, and so it’s not really a decade then in the strict definition of the word. But since we’re not using a rigorous naming convention, and references to decades are more like nicknames. Plus, who talks about the first ten years of our calendar that way anyway?
Confusing this even more was the case someone made that when you are 30, you no longer say you are in your 20s (unless you’re lying). But all during that last year, when you say you are 29, you are actually living your 30th year on Earth. After all, when we say a baby is 1, really they have already been around 12 months. We change the number after the fact, so when you turn 30 you’ve already lived out your 30th year. The whole time you are 29, you’re plowing through your 30th year.
Perhaps it would lessen the issue if, when asked how old you are on your birthday, instead of saying "I am 30," you say "I have just completed my 30th year." I suspect that won’t catch on, however.
Still, be all that as it may, when you are 29 you are still in your 20s, and when you turn 30 you ain’t.
The lessons here are many fold. One is that, and pardon my repetition, the first decade of the 2000s ends today. A second is that people are still terribly confused about how to delineate centuries. A third is that this can be generalized to people being confused on how we delineate time.
Fourth is that this is all arbitrary and a bit silly. But we do make rules, and sometimes those rules have to make sense, and sometimes it’s fun to talk about them even when it means some people disagree.
And fifth? People shouldn’t argue with me on Twitter. At least not until the next decade starts.
And if I may indulge myself, one final thing:
Happy new year!
And happy new decade. May the 10s and teens treat us all better — and may we make them better — than the aughts.