… 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.
Charlie McDonnell — who is still adorable — does a bang-up job debunking the big claims of the 2012 doomsday predictions.
I know, he posted this back at New Year’s, but I’m a bit behind on watching videos. Sue me. I’m free on December 22.
Tip o’ the bomb shelter door to Tommy V.
Tomorrow, November 8, the 400-meter-wide asteroid 2005 YU55 will glide past the Earth, missing us by a very comfortable margin of 320,000 kilometers (200,000 miles). This distance is three-quarters of the way to the Moon, and is in fact so far that you’ll need a decent telescope to see it at all.
However, I’m starting to see rumors that the asteroid will have an effect on us. I expected this — it happens every time there’s a decent-sized rock that whizzes past us. That’s why I wrote a post about it a few months back, but I want to follow up on it. Why? I’m getting wind of some folks worried about YU55, including a couple of notes on Twitter saying there are people blaming Saturday’s earthquake in Oklahoma on YU55!
Let me be clear: no asteroid, YU55 or otherwise, can cause earthquakes as they pass. Even Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system, would have to practically skim the top of our atmosphere to have any real effect on us. YU55 is dinky, and will miss us by 25 times the diameter of the Earth!
And c’mon: why would it shake up Oklahoma? Japan, Turkey, Chile, California — there are dozens of seismically active spots on Earth that are more prone to earthquakes. Someone claiming an asteroid causing one in Oklahoma should set off alarm bells in your head*.
I’m sure there will be other claims as well. People will squeeze whatever they can out of this event. I saw it happen in 2008 when a similarly-sized rock, 2007 TU24, passed by us at a distance of more than half a million kilometers. Things got so ridiculous with the doomsday scaremongering back then that I made a video to alleviate fears. I’ve embedded it here; all you need to do is replace "2007 TU24" with "2005 YU55", and the 530,000 km miss by 320,000 kilometers, and all the stuff I said back then still applies.
And for those of you still prone to worry, let me add this: I was right. And when was the last time an end-of-the-world doom crier was right?
Let me give you a hint: Never.
Not that this will stop them. There’re two things I know for sure: they’ll never admit they were wrong, and there will always be something else. The next asteroid, the next full Moon, the next star they think will explode, a pole shift, whatever.
As long as people aren’t familiar with the reality of the situation, there will be fearmongers to take advantage of the situation. That’s a big reason I do what I do, and why I have to do what I do.
Image credit: NASA/Cornell/Arecibo
* You’d think at least they’d claim it was last week’s solar flare that did it; after all, it’s Oklahoma, where the solar wind comes sweepin’ down the plain…
A few days ago, three astronomers from Mexico posted a paper online (PDF) claiming that an observation from 1883 indicates a small comet passed within a few thousand kilometers of the Earth’s surface, and perhaps as close as 500km! Had this hit us, we would’ve been hammered by thousands of explosions as powerful as the largest nuclear explosions ever detonated.
Here’s the deal. During the days of August 12 – 13, 1883, a Mexican astronomer named Jose A. y Bonilla reported seeing hundreds of objects passing directly in front of the Sun. They were small, appeared fuzzy, and left behind a misty appearance. In total, Bonilla says he saw 447 such objects!
The authors of this new work claim that what Bonilla may have seen was the remnants of a small comet that had previously fragmented. We’ve seen comets do this, and in fact it’s somewhat common. In 2006, Hubble took the picture shown above of the comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, which had recently disintegrated. So that part isn’t too far-fetched. However, once you make that assumption, things get pretty dicey.
The authors use the observations by Bonilla to estimate the distance and size of the comet fragments. Bonilla observed these objects at an observatory in Zacatecas, Mexico, but they were not seen transiting the Sun by any other observatories anywhere else. This can be used to narrow down their location; it means they must have been close to Earth. Had they been far away then other observatories would have seen them moving across the Sun. It’s like a bird flying by just outside your window; someone looking out a different window wouldn’t have seen it, but a bird a few hundred meters away would be visible to both.
Doing some simple math, the authors calculate the comet fragments were no closer than about 500 km (300 miles) from the Earth’s surface, and no farther than about 65,000 km (40,000 miles).
This right there is enough for me to be extremely skeptical of this idea. When a comet breaks up, it spreads out. Even when intact, the material surrounding a comet can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of kilometers across! Claiming that a comet broke apart, yet managed to constrain its pieces to volume of space less than a few thousand kilometers across strains credulity.
SXSW (or South by Southwest if you want to make it easier to say out loud) is a major geekapalooza held every year in Austin, Texas. There’s music, film, and lots and lots of tech nerdery. I’ve wanted to go for a long time.
Now’s my chance, but I need your help! I was contacted by Stephanie Smith at JPL who is proposing a panel called "2012: You Bet Your Asteroid the World Won’t End", featuring JPL’s Veronica McGregor, near-Earth asteroid expert, Don Yeomans, and me. The panel would be about end-of-the-world scenarios, something about which I have plenty of fun things to say.
The thing is, the panels have to be voted on, and that’s where you come in. All you have to do is go to the SXSW panel picker, register (that only takes a sec), and then you can vote for what is undoubtedly the best panel out of the 3285 listed.
If you do, I will love you forever and send you a unicorn*. But please hurry — voting closes at noon Central (US) time on Friday, September 2. Thanks!
* Offer void where unicorns exist.
On November 8th of this year, the 400-meter-wide asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass the Earth, missing us by the comfortable margin of 325,000 kilometers (200,000 miles).
While this is the largest asteroid (that we know of) to swing past us for the next 17 years or so, YU55 is not an immediate threat to Earth. Its orbit does bring it close enough to our planet that it’s been deemed a potentially hazardous asteroid, but the orbit is well-enough known that we can rule out an impact for at least the next century. That’s long enough for me personally to not be concerned.
I’ve seen some small amount of buzz on the usual conspiracy sites about this asteroid, and I do see some folks trying to play this up a bit (search on "YU55 doomsday" for example), but fear-mongering chatter is surprisingly low for this event. I expect that by this fall you’ll be seeing breathless YouTube videos accusing NASA of covering up a imminent impact — and I don’t say this blithely; it’s happened before. Remember asteroid 2007 TU24? No? That’s because nothing happened, despite the claims of panic-promoters.
As you can see in this JPL animation below, in November YU55 will miss us by a cosmic mile as well (click to embiggen and get a clearer animation):
[Note: I may have to start a series of "No, a blank won't blank" posts; there's been a spate of nonsensical doomsday pseudoscience lately. Sigh.]
So the latest doomsday fearmongering I’m hearing about are global superstorms caused by dangerous shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field. Maybe you’ve heard: the Earth’s magnetic field is wandering around, and may be about to reverse. When this happens, incoming radiation will affect our weather, causing gigantic storms the likes of which have never been seen except in Hollywood movies.
Panic! Death! Higher gas prices! Cats and dogs, living together!
Yeah, right. I’ll be up front right away: this claim is baloney. Garbage. Nonsense.
The article in question is pretty long, and as usual debunking something takes more time and effort than it does to simply say wrong things. So for the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) crowd: the article makes basic science errors, attempts to link totally unrelated phenomena, states things as facts that are pure conjecture, and generally gets almost everything wrong. Bottom line: his claim of a link between the Earth’s magnetic field and superstorms is totally wrong.
OK, so you want details? I got details.
As far as I can tell, the source for this silly claim is an article titled "Magnetic Polar Shifts Causing Massive Global Superstorms", first seen online at helium.com, but also reprinted widely (I’m getting lots of emails from people who read it at the Oregon Salem-Online site). The author, Terrence Aym, wrote at least one breathlessly overblown and grossly inaccurate doomsday article without doing the necessary basic research; that one was about Apophis hitting the Earth in 2036 — and you know how I feel about that sort of thing.
This one is more of the same. Aym makes scientific claims that are completely unfounded in reality, and sometimes says things that are simply dead wrong.
For example, some of the basic science Aym claims is way off:
Worse, what shields the planet from cancer-causing radiation is the magnetic field. It acts as a shield deflecting harmful ultra-violet, X-rays and other life-threatening radiation from bathing the surface of the Earth. With the field weakening and cracks emerging, the death rate from cancer could skyrocket and mutations of DNA can become rampant.
Bzzzzt! Nope. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from charged particles like fast electrons and protons in the solar wind. If we didn’t have a magnetic field the Earth’s air would stop these particles anyway. The radiation he’s talking about — UV and X-rays — are totally unaffected by magnetic fields. That type of radiation is also absorbed by the air (including the ozone layer). Ironically, I will note that without the magnetic field protecting us, subatomic particles in the solar wind could erode the ozone layer, causing an increase in skin cancer rates from UV, but Aym doesn’t say anything about the ozone layer. And it takes X-rays to affect DNA [UPDATE: I've been made aware that some forms of UV light can affect DNA], which can’t get through our air no matter what. So that last statement of his is still wrong.
When something as basic as that is wrong in an article, it should make you at least a little suspicious about bigger claims. As well it should. But perhaps it’s an honest mistake. We all make ‘em, right?
But then he says this:
BABloggee Alereon (and many others) sent me to an interesting site: Life After the Oil Crash Forum — a forum that apparently has a lot of doomsday-type scuttlebutt posted to it.
An anonymous poster there says he has heard that the star Betelgeuse is about to go supernova, maybe as soon as a few weeks:
I was talking to my son last week (he works on Mauna Kea), and he mentioned some new observations (that will no doubt get published eventually) of “Beetlejuice”; it’s no longer round. This is a huge star, and when it goes, it will be at least as bright as that 1054 supernova…except that this one is 520 light years away, not 6,300 [...]
When it collapses, it will be at least as bright as the full moon, and maybe as bright as the sun. For six weeks. So the really lucky folks (for whom Betelgeuse is only visible at night) will get 24 hour days, everybody else will get at least some time with two suns in the sky. The extra hour of light from daylight savings time won’t burn the crops, but this might. Probably, all we’ll get is visible light (not gamma rays or X-rays), so it shouldn’t be an ELE. It’s sure gonna freak everyone out, though…..
Then it will form a black hole, but we’re too far away for that to matter.
The buzz is that this is weeks/months away, not the “any time in the next thousand years” that’s in all the books.
The basic takeaway:
OK, folks, first: when news like this comes from an unnamed source on some random forum, and that source is not even a primary one, and that secondary source quoted is also unnamed, and that person heard it from a third party that is also unnamed… well, oddly enough my skeptic alarm bell in my head rings loudly enough that my eardrums explode outward in every direction at the speed of light.
I hope I’m being clear here.
The first important thing to note here is that if Betelgeuse explodes, we’re in no danger at all. It’s too far away to hurt us. Got that? It’s the most important thing to remember here, because I’m quite sure this story will get wildly exaggerated as it gets repeated.
So, what’s the deal with Betelgeuse? What is it, will it explode, and if so, when?
I am fed up.
For those who haven’t been following this saga, some doomsayers have been claiming that an asteroid named 2007 TU24 poses a grave threat to Earth. These fearmongers are completely wrong, scaring lots of others, and are apparently unwilling to listen to reason. The videos still make outrageously bad claims and the websites still make utterly false statements. I decided to make my own video so that the truth can get out to as many people as possible.
To be clear: TU24 will miss us by hundreds of thousands of kilometers, and the electric connection claims are wrong. This asteroid will pass us by, and sail on into the night.
As for me, now that the book is submitted — and the irony of finishing a book about cosmic catastrophes while debunking false claims of such has not been lost on me — I’m off to The Amaz!ng Meeting 5.5 in Florida, where I will meet with other skeptics and critical thinkers, and figure out how in the world — or off it — we can stop this kind of nonsense.