By Annette Hinkle
Since the beginning of time, it seems humankind has had a propensity for devising dire predictions about the end of time. Throughout millennia, prophecized sources of destruction have been expected from both heaven above and right here on earth. But in the end, one incontrovertible truth remains— none of the “expires on” dates have turned out to be accurate — so far anyway.
Matthew Pappas, an associate professor of astronomy at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, has put some time into researching the history of doomsday scenarios. Call it an occupational hazard of an astronomer’s trade, but when it comes to addressing such theories, Pappas feels it’s best to be prepared.
“Teaching astronomy I get a lot of questions about pop culture topics. Things like UFO and alien invasions,” explains Pappas, who adds that the first time he presented his UFO lecture, 15 people walked out once they realized he wasn’t going to say that aliens existed.
“Occasionally I also get the ‘When is the world going to end?’ question,” adds Pappas.
Perhaps the most popular theory on the current “end of the world” hit parade is the Mayan calendar, which is set to expire on December 21, 2012. The calendar has been the source of endless speculation in recent years among mythologists, prophets and soothsayers alike who portend that cataclysmic world and celestial events will effectively end life as we know it on the day the Mayan clock expires.
While some folks have perhaps been inspired to start stockpiling canned goods for end times as a result of the prophesy, for Pappas, the talk of such a scenario merely piqued his curiosity.
“My interest in the prophesy began a few years ago,” he recalls. “I was at a barbecue when a friend’s aunt said, ‘You’re an astronomer. What do you think of 2012?’ She explained about the Mayan calendar resetting and all these prophesies. I figured I’d be getting more questions about this so I developed a lecture around it.”
This Saturday, November 13 at 7 p.m., Pappas will come to the Ross School Senior Lecture Hall to present “The Sky is Falling?” his lecture on the Mayan prophecy. His talk is part of “Astronomy Night,” a collaboration between Ross and the Montauk Observatory, and, weather permitting, will be followed by stargazing near the school’s soccer fields using telescopes from Suffolk County Community College. The public is invited to bring their own telescopes for viewing as well.
Since last spring, there have been three astronomy nights at Ross — though so far, the weather has not cooperated for telescope viewing afterwards. When possible, the Montauk Observatory also arranges to bring along an inflatable planetarium and an educator who presents a star show to younger gazers while the lecture is going on. Believers of the Mayan prophecies who plan to attend this talk, take note — like his UFO presentation, Pappas confides that those expecting confirmation of dramatic events for late 2012 may be disappointed.
“Astronomically, I found nothing of interest coming in 2012,” admits Pappas who, in his lecture, explains a number of doomsday claims that have been made about the pending date that are astronomically relevant. Among these are predictions that the sun will cross the galactic center, the alignment of the planets will wreak gravitational havoc, there will be an increase in solar activity, Earth’s magnetic field will reverse and an asteroid will hit the planet.
“Perhaps the most interesting one is the threat of the passage of Nibiru – an invisible planet that’s supposed to collide with Earth,” says Pappas who feels strongly that if Nibiru existed, it would’ve been detected by now.
Other Mayan calendar related predictions include a supernova explosion and the notion of earth crust displacement. Pappas notes this theory was dramatically depicted in “2012” a movie starring John Cusack in which the earth’s top layer is sent into upheaval resulting in tidal waves, earthquakes and other “movie friendly digital effects.”
“Then I get into the astronomical fact behind the claims,” adds Pappas. “Solar activity is increasing, but we’ve had much worse in the past. Is there a planetary alignment around that time? Yes, but there have been more impressive alignments in recent years.”
“It’s taking the fanaticism out of it.”
In preparation for this lecture, Pappas did a lot of research – mostly on the Internet which is fertile ground for these sorts of things —where he gathered various perspectives on the prophesy as well as an understanding about how the Mayan’s devised their calendar.
“One thing I found interesting is that what the ancient Mayans believed in was a reset of the calendar on the 21st or 22nd of December in 2012,” says Pappas. “They actually believed in another end of the world date in 4000 something.”
“The Mayans believed when the calendar reset, like our Y2K, they felt there would be new enlightenment or change in how civilization will function,” says Pappas. “Not the end of the world, but a whole different change in the path of civilization. The end of an age and dawn of a new era.”
In fact, Pappas notes that some of his students have come across readings recently that indicate the doomsday scenario is being pulled back a bit as 2012 approaches.
“Instead of end of the world apocalypse, some are now focused more on a change of ideas and change of perspective,” says Pappas. “Maybe it will have more to do with sustainability in the face of climate change.”
One thing’s for certain. Prophecies like this one are hardly novel. In his research Pappas found the frequency of apocalyptic predictions has increased as time goes on. For example, from 2800 BC to 1700 AD he found there were perhaps 57 such predictions.
“But then from 1700 to 1970 there were 82 predictions, he adds. “In 270 years the number of predictions went up. Then from 1970 to 1999 there were 68 predictions, the frequency goes up dramatically according to recorded history. And I counted 25 predictions for January 1, 2000 alone.”
One thing Pappas’ research didn’t reveal is why people are so driven to making doomsday predictions in the first place. Perhaps, he notes, it’s a way to invoke fear and gain followers to a cause, or make oneself feel important.
“I don’t know why someone would do it,” he says. “Whoever turns out to be right, what does it matter? If you say the world ends tomorrow and it does, will you be dancing in the streets? Maybe it’s about the need to be right about something, or more connected to something cosmically than others are.”
So given what he knows now, where does Pappas plan to be when the Mayan calendar resets in 2012?
“We do Friday night lectures at the community college, usually once a month,” he says. “I believe December 21 is a Saturday. I’m hoping to do the lecture the night before and I’ll end it with ‘Hopefully I see everyone tomorrow.’”
“I always tell people if the world ends that day, no one will be more upset than my mom,” he adds. “She’s supposed to retire on December 31, 2012.”
“Astronomy Night” is this Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 7 p.m. in the Ross School Senior Lecture Hall. Following Pappas’ lecture, telescopes will be set up outside for stargazing. The lecture is geared toward adults and students in grades middle school and up. Weather permitting, families with younger children are invited to come just for stargazing and can bring their own telescopes as well. Admission is free. Call 907-5555 for more information.
Top: Stargazing in Montauk’s Theodore Roosevelt County Park with the Montauk Observatory.