… 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.
I took a family vacation recently (as those who follow me on Twitter already know; see also here, and here). I haven’t talked about it at all, but we were visiting friends in Mexico. We took a day to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza — the day after the Equinox, thankfully; it’s massively crowded there due to a light show on the Temple of Kukulkan, the great ziggurat there — and it was spectacular. I promise I will write about that at some point, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
But in the meantime, since it’s Caturday, and I’ve chosen to expand that to any animal, here is a little fella we saw while we were there:
[Click to iguananate.]
We actually saw dozens of iguanas, and my brother-in-law Chris took lots of excellent pictures of them (like this one, too).
We learned the Mayan word for iguana is xtoloc, pronounced SHTO-lok. This is my new favorite word in the whole world (ironically, taking the spot previously held by "Quetzlcoatl"). Whenever we see a lizard on TV, I turn to The Little Astronomer and say, knowingly, "Xtoloc", and it always gets a smile from her.
If I ever write a Star Trek story, I will name a Vulcan character Xtoloc.
I actually learned many Mayan words while down there, and it’s just about the coolest spoken language I’ve ever heard. Plus, they start lots of words with X, which is really just inherently cool as well.
Stéphane Guisard is an incredibly gifted astrophotographer, a man who strives to take the very best and most beautiful images of the sky that he possibly can. If his name is familiar, it might be because I linked to his amazing time-lapse video of the sky over Paranal, his all-sky picture from the same location, and most especially his stunning picture of the sky over Easter Island, which was so beautiful I picked it as my #3 photo for the Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009.
He just sent me a note about a new set he’s created, and it’s every bit as lovely as the ones from Rapa Nui. These were taken in northern Guatemala, at the site of some ancient Mayan ruins. They show the stars above these Mayan temples, and, well, they’re just spectacular. Here is Orion over one of the temples:
Trust me here: click that to get the bigger version; you lose the majesty of the shot by looking at this smaller version I’ve posted here. You really need to see this in all its glory.
He has six other shots there too, and they are all quite beautiful. Years ago I was able to see some Mayan ruins up close, and they were tremendous. From what I’ve read the Mayans didn’t interpret the sky the way we did; they didn’t use maps or charts to study the sky, yet their temples align with various astronomical events in the heavens.
Over the years, I’ve seen some people belittle ancient cultures as being stupid — a ridiculous idea, since we know many had a sophisticated grip on observational astronomy, and to be brutally honest many ancient peoples probably understood the motions and cycles of the night sky better than the vast majority of people alive today.
On the other hand, we have to be careful not to ascribe too much knowledge to them, either, making them seem almost supernatural in their abilities. They were men and women, much like us. They observed the sky, they were tied to it via agriculture and, later, religion. If we know more now, it’s because we’ve learned so much over time. And, of course, we have the advantage of learning from them.
It made me both proud and sad to visit those ruins, proud of what we can achieve, and sad that it can be so ephemeral. On the other hand… those ruins are still around. A bit worse for wear, but they still stand after many centuries. I wonder what of our works will remain in the coming millennia?
And Stéphane’s photographs serve as a reminder that the stars seen by those Mayan people were the same ones I can see now when I walk out my front door. There’s more than one thread that connects us to the past.
"Ephemeral?" Hmmm. Maybe not.
I swear, I need to trust my instincts. As soon as I saw the article on the news.com.au site desperately trying to link Betelgeuse going supernova with the nonsense about the Mayans and 2012, my gut reaction was to write about it.
But no, I figured a minute later, this story would blow over. So to speak.
I should’ve known: instead of going away, it gets picked up by that bastion of antiscience, The Huffington Post.
The actual science in the original article is pretty good; they talked with scientist Brad Carter who discusses the scenario of Betelgeuse going supernova. The whole story is pretty interesting — I wrote about it in detail the last time there was nonsense about Betelgeuse blowing up — but in a nutshell Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star in Orion with about 20 times the mass of the Sun, and it’s very near the end of its life. When stars this massive die, they explode as supernovae. The distance to Betelgeuse is unclear (it has a very puffy outer atmosphere which makes distance determination somewhat dicey) but it’s something like a bit more than 600 light years, way way too far away to hurt us.
It’s the question of when that the two articles go off the rails. Betelgeuse may explode tomorrow night, or it may not go kerblooie until the year 100,000 A.D. We don’t know. But given that huge range, the odds of it blowing up next year are pretty slim. And clearly, the original article was really trying to tie in the 2012 date to this, even when it has nothing to do with anything. The tie-in was a rickety link to scuttlebutt on the web about it, but that’s about it.
What’s worse, the HuffPo article attributes the date to Dr. Carter himself, but in the original article he never says anything about it; the connection is all made by the article author. Given how popular HuffPo is, I imagine a lot of people will now think an actual scientist is saying Betelgeuse will blow up in 2012.
OK then, tell you what: I’m an actual scientist, and I would give the odds of Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012 at all — let alone close to December, the supposed doomsdate — as many thousands to one against. It’s not impossible, it’s just really really really really really really really unlikely.