Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Apocalypse later

Imagine my dismay when I read yesterday that a new study has shown that the world is probably not going to end on December 21, 2012.

Myself, I was rather looking forward to it.  I do so love a good apocalypse.  I was planning on going to school that day wearing a shirt with a bullseye drawn on it.  I was thinking about crossing the path of some black cats that day (not a difficult task as I have two), breaking a mirror, and walking under a ladder, so as to create a Perfect Storm of Cosmic Bad Luck.  Then, when I got to December 22 without having a brain aneurysm, I was planning on having a good long laugh at the superstitious nimrods who believed that just because a human-invented, arbitrary time measurement device was reaching the end of its cycle, that the world was going to end.

But no.  Now, some know-it-all smarty-pants professor at the University of California, Geraldo Aldana, has shown that a value called the GMT constant (nothing to do with Greenwich Mean Time, apparently it's the initials of the last names of three early Mayan language researchers), used to convert between the Mayan calendar and the one we use, is in question.  Floyd Lounsbury, a linguist and anthropologist whose research gave us the heretofore accepted value of the GMT constant, and our date of December 21, 2012, apparently was relying on historical records that were inaccurate.  So Aldana, after a careful study of the available records, has concluded that we don't know what the actual value of the GMT constant is, and the date of the end of the Mayan calendar cycle could be off.

By fifty to a hundred years.

So, what that means is that the apocalypse might well already have happened.  And no one told me!  I feel so... left out.

What I find most amusing about all this is how surprised people seem to be when a calendar proves inaccurate.  All of my students know about Leap Year, when we add a day to February to keep the calendar aligned -- but not that many know that it's necessary because the earth's rotationary and revolutionary periods don't quite line up, so measured in days (rotational periods) the earth's year (revolutionary period) is 365.25 days.  So every four years, we'd be off by a day if we didn't insert one to catch up.  What fewer students know is that it's not even exactly 365.25 days, but slightly less than that -- so to make it all work out, years divisible by 100 are not Leap Years, unless they are also divisible by 400 -- which is why 2000 was a Leap Year, but 2100 will not be.

And what almost no students of mine know about is that the previous calendar we used, the Julian calendar (proposed by none less than Julius Caesar), which divided our year up into the months we know so well, did not take account of the shifting of the months relative to the seasons because of that tiny difference.  So by the 16th century, the powers that be were beginning to notice that the solstices and equinoxes, and more importantly from their point of view the holy days, were coming unglued from the dates they were supposed to occur on.  So this prompted the reformation of the calendar called the Gregorian calendar, which fixed the beginning of the year at January 1 (before, the date that marked the beginning of a new year varied from December 25 to March 25, depending on who you asked).  The adoption of the Gregorian calendar caused the loss of 13 days (February 1 was immediately followed by February 14).  And even it wasn't adopted smoothly and universally -- the Republic of Venice adopted the new calendar in 1582; Great Britain waited until 1750; and Russia and Serbia didn't cave in until 1918.

You can just imagine the hell this played with people's international engagement calendars.  (Actually, the author Umberto Eco used this very idea as one of the many plot twists in his book Foucault's Pendulum, which might well be the most brilliantly intricate novel ever written.)

In any case, my point here is that we should expect uncertainties in any calendar system, especially one like the Mayan calendar, based as it was on astronomical observations done without the benefit of any technology at all.  No discredit to the Mayans; given their tools, they did pretty damn well.  But the truth is that any calendar is bound to be inaccurate, because nature is (face it) messy. 

Still, I have to admit that I'm disappointed.  I was so looking forward to making a huge deal out of December 21, 2012.  I guess we'll have to accept what one of my students said, yesterday, when I told my Critical Thinking classes about this story.

"So, we're still all going to die, but we don't know when?" he asked.

"Pretty much," I responded.

"Business as usual, then," he said.

No comments:

Post a Comment