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2012: The end is not near

Columbia Pictures
An airplane flies into a scene of devastation in the movie "2012."


Marketers are escalating the media blitz for the "2012" disaster movie to Defcon 2 tonight with a TV teaser that touts the coming apocalypse. If you watch the two-minute scene, here are two words of advice:

DON'T PANIC!

The teaser is due to run on major broadcast networks as well as scads of cable channels and local stations sometime between 10:50 and 11 p.m. ET/PT, and it's sure to get viewers whipped up in advance of the movie itself, which premieres on Nov. 13.

The flick's premise is that there really is something behind the speculation about an apocalypse supposedly due in 2012. An earlier viral marketing campaign highlighted the fictional "Institute for Human Continuity," which was said to be setting up a lottery for spots in an underground refuge from doomsday.

Unfortunately, not everyone immediately saw through the IHC's TV commercials (or the Facebook group or the Twitter postings or the YouTube channel...).

"The ads seemed very real," Cosmic Log correspondent Darrell Messbarger wrote in an e-mail, "and some of my daughter's friends were in a dead panic over them. Even their parents."

Messbarger figured out that the ads were a hoax, but that didn't make him feel any better about it.

"There has been too little indication that this is just movie advertising," he wrote. "We have many survivalist businesses that are using it as a cue to keep ramping up the anxiety of their terrified patrons. People are actually signing up for the 'lottery,' many of whom, I am sure, believe this is real. I personally don't know whether it is or isn't, or to what extreme this is actually being taken. If it is just advertising, it has produced a lot of fear among many people, reminiscent of the 'War of the Worlds' radio program of the '30s."

The worries about 2012 go back way before "2012" was even a gleam in a Hollywood producer's eye. The cornerstone of the apocalyptic claims is the idea that the ancient Maya devised a 5,126-year calendar system that ran into a blank on Dec. 21, 2012. For the doomsayers, that implied that the end date would mark the end of the world as we know it.

There's one problem with that hypothesis: It's only a calendar!!! Over at the Universe Today blog, Ian O'Neill has an excellent 2012 overview that lays out all the cycles within cycles in the Maya calendar system. Another great explanation from University of Portsmouth astronomer Karen Masters goes into why 12/21/2012 has the same significance for the Mayan calendar that 12/31/1999 had for our calendar, or that 99999.99 miles does for your car. Check here and here for more about the Long Count.

The calendar confusion has gotten wrapped up with a whole bunch of other claims, ranging from the alignment of the sun with the galactic plane (which basically happens every Dec. 21) to an expected rise in solar storms (which follows the sun's 11-year activity cycle rather than the Mayan calendar).

Way-out worries
There are even farther-out claims - for example, that Earth's orbit will be thrown out of whack by an encounter with a roving Planet X (sometimes called Nibiru) or a dark star (sometimes called Nemesis). Some of the doomsayers even cite an article I wrote 10 years ago about the potential for undetected celestial objects on the very edge of our solar system.

I go into the Planet X issue in detail in my forthcoming book, "The Case for Pluto," but here's the Cliff's Notes version: Yes, there's a chance that an icy world bigger than Mercury or Mars is lurking out on our cosmic frontiers. That perceived possibility is based on statistical analysis as well as the fact that its presence would make some computer models work better.

Discoveries of dwarf planets beyond Pluto have added to the intrigue. But a leading proponent of the Planet X hypothesis told me he's not happy about having his work associated with doomsday talk. "It is important to understand that such theories in planetary sciences have absolutely no relation to Nibiru, 2012 or other hoaxes that claim for the existence of 'apocalyptic' or 'mystic' celestial bodies," Japanese astronomer Patryk Sofia Lykawka said in an e-mail.

Even the term "Nibiru" has a dubious connection to doomsday. Some of the folks behind the 2012 flap claim that the ancient Sumerians prophesied the advent of a mysterious planet called Nibiru, but linguistic scholar Michael Heiser makes a pretty convincing case that they were actually talking about the naked-eye planets we know and love.

As for Nemesis, some planetary scientists suspect that our sun did indeed have an encounter with a passing star, which may have played a role in rearranging planetary orbits and even sculpting Uranus and Neptune. But such an encounter had to have taken place millions or billions of years ago, and couldn't happen again until millions or billions of years from now.

What are the chances?
Is there a chance that Earth could someday slam up against a killer space rock? Sure, there's a chance. But there's nothing on the radar screen that would pose a threat in 2012. That goes for asteroid collisions as well as pole reversals, supernova blasts and gamma-ray bursts. (Here are the top 10 world-ending scenarios from Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait, author of "Death From the Skies.")

Well, could we possibly bring doomsday on our own heads? Again, there's a chance. Some doomsayers worry 2012 is the year that the Large Hadron Collider will create a globe-gobbling black hole, magnetic monopole or strangelet - but that's such a theoretical impossibility that it pales in comparison with other nightmares such as bioterror attacks and nuclear conflict.

The LHC should be the least of our paranoid worries, as I explained last year. In fact, worrying about the collider is likely to be a more significant cause of death than operating the collider. Which brings me back to the advice I started out with:

DON'T PANIC!


If you're looking for an additional antidote to 2012 hysteria, check out 2012hoax.org. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And reserve your copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," which is coming out this month.