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2012's Maya non-apocalypse takes the grand prize for weird science

Jean-Philippe Arles / Reuters

Residents dressed as extraterrestrials with green-painted faces walk the streets of Bugarach, France, which was touted as a safe haven from the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012.



The hype over last month's supposed Maya doomsday has won honors as the weirdest science story of the past year — and although there wasn't all that much science to the claim that the ancient culture's calendar foretold the end of the world, the whole episode was a classic example of people putting too much faith in way-out calculations.

"A year before that, we gave one of our prizes to a whole bunch of people who made specific prediction about when the world would end," said Marc Abrahams, who heads up the Ig Nobel Prize program for silly science. The big lesson? "When you make mathematical calculations, you should check your assumptions," Abrahams told me.


Abrahams and I sifted through the scientific silliness of the past year, including the Maya non-apocalypse, tonight on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show on BlogTalkRadio online and in the Second Life virtual world. If you missed the live webcast, don't worry: You can catch up with the podcast by checking out the archive on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes.

How did the hubbub surrounding the Maya calendar get started? It began decades ago with the suggestion that the ancient Maya may have seen the end of their 5,125-year-long cycle of creation as the opening for a cosmic Armageddon. Although archaeologists have shot down that hypothesis, the idea persisted — and got mixed up with other end-of-the-world ideas.

Abrahams suspects that the idea got a push from folks who could profit from a little doomsday buzz: "Some people made money on it — especially people who wrote books about it or made TV shows about it. The prediction certainly did have monetary value for a few people."

The Internet served a dual role in all this: The bad thing about the Internet is that it's easy for someone to make a way-out claim in some dark corner of the Web — whether we're talking about ancient calendars or alien-looking space blobs. The good thing is that there are lots of knowledgeable sources willing to do a reality check on remarkable claims. That applies not only to doomsday myths, but also to more strictly scientific issues such as the potential for arsenic-based life or the existence of extraterrestrial microbes.

"When some piece of news gets out there about scientific discoveries, almost always that's the start of some long messy conversation between lots and lots of people," Abrahams observed. "They're almost immediately looking things up and arguing about something they actually saw, rather than something they heard tenth-hand. That's something new for the world. There's a lot of nonsense that gets shot down a lot earlier than it did before."

Some of the other stories that made the top-10 list for the 2013 Weird Science Awards may sound almost nonsensical — but for the most part, they're way more substantive. That's the key indicator for the kind of scientific silliness that Abrahams is interested in for the Ig Nobels: "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." Take a look at the list, then tune in "Virtually Speaking Science" for a few laughs — and maybe a few deep thoughts as well:

2013 Weirdie winners:

Still more weird science:

More podcasts from 'Virtually Speaking Science':


"Virtually Speaking Science" is hosted in Second Life by the Exploratorium. Theoretical physicists Sean Carroll and Matt Strassler will be my guests on Feb. 6 for a show about the frontiers of physics.

 Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.