Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It...

...and I feel fine!

Actually, I seem to have caught the delightful virus that's been making the rounds here in southeast Virginia.  On week 2 of the darn thing and I am ready to be done with it.  But back to the matter at hand...

Holy cow!  The world is coming to an end this Friday!  The Mayan Long Count calendar says so!

The Seven-Day Forecast for this week.  Found on Facebook by my friend Jim Drummond.

Actually, it doesn't say anything of the kind.  It's a calendar.  All calendars end...that's how the calendar companies stay in business.  In all seriousness, when the calendar we use today, the Gregorian calendar, comes to the end of a cycle, no one worries that the world will end too...they just go buy a new calendar.  The Mayan Long Count calendar is no different - a new long count cycle will begin on Saturday, and life will go on.

Doomsday predictions and fears have been a common theme in humanity's long history.   It is not, by any means, a modern thing.  In fact, the first known "prediction" for the end of the world dates back to 2800 BC!  An Assyrian clay tablet dating to those times was found with the inscription "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."  Just in case you thought that bribery and corruption were something invented in the modern era as well...clearly, we've always been good at those things.  Perceived degeneration of morals has long been seen as an indication of the coming end of the world.

There's a long tradition of apocalyptic destruction coming from space as well.  One of the earliest space-related predictions for the end of the world was made in the 1180s, when John of Toledo circulated a letter stating that the coming planetary alignment in Libra on September 23, 1186 would signal the end of the world, and only a very few people would survive.

Comets have long been seen as harbingers of doom.  One of the first comets to be directly associated with the coming end of the world was seen in 1532.  The prediction was made by a Viennese bishop, Frederick Nausea (!), after he heard numerous reports of bizarre occurrences, including bloody crosses being seen in the sky alongside the comet.  One wonders if this is the origin of our use of the word nausea today.

"Astronomical Chart of the path of the Comet of 1532", artist unknown.  From the Gedden Museum.

Sometimes the astronomical predictions get really exciting.  Tomasso Campanella, a Dominican monk, predicted that the Sun would collide with the Earth in 1603.  You'd think we'd have seen that one coming.

Obviously, none of these doomsday predictions came true.  But the long history of man's fascination with the end of the world is, in itself, quite fascinating!  Not being a psychologist, I can't really say why we are so fascinated with the concept of the end of the world.  But I wonder if it doesn't indicate a desire on our part to be involved in something greater than ourselves.  Even if that something gets a little scary at times.

So all in all, Friday should boil down to little more than Mayan New Year.  And you know what New Year's's time for a party!  We're having an End of the World Party at the Virginia Living Museum, and everyone is invited!  We'll be scanning the skies with our telescopes, searching for any killer asteroids (weather and disasters permitting), plus we'll have some fun activities and games going on in the Wason Education Center.  Activities and observing are FREE!  Plus, we'll be having some fun in the cafe, and you can grab a last meal, snack, or even some beer or wine.  In the planetarium, we'll have shows throughout the evening, including Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star (6pm), Laser Holidays (7pm), 2012: The End of the World? NOT! (8 & 10pm) and Lasers at the End of the World (9 & 11pm).  Shows are $6 each, or two for $10.  Make it an End of the World Combo: any 2 shows and a $5 cafe gift certificate for $12!  Members always pay half price!  Stick around until midnight and help us end the world with a bang...or ring in Mayan New Year...whichever comes first.

As this will be my last entry of 2012, let me take a moment to wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a joyous and blessing-filled 2013.

Carpe noctem!
See you in 2013,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments and questions are welcome! Please post here, but realize it may be two weeks or more before you see a response. To contact me faster, email me at