Why we didn’t all die yesterday

Thanks NASA.

My own opportunity to play “Ask Me About 2012”

I got one of those rather heartbreaking emails that seem to be going around, were people (kids mostly) ask whether it is really true that the world is going to come to an end next Friday.  While some people like to troll the people who ask those questions, I think it’s worth taking them seriously.  I can only hope that these answers can get out there and even if they can’t keep up with the lies racing around, they can at least give people the kind of answers that can lead them to think more clearly about the claims so many liars and hoaxers are putting out.

So I thought I would reprint my answer here in it’s entirety and allow people to link or forward or whatever as they desire…

Hi, Caren, thanks for emailing me with your question.

I know that it seems like a real thing that the world will end on the 21st, because there are a lot of people out there trying to make money by scaring people, but it’s just not going to happen.  The thing you should pay attention to is that all of the “evidence” that people have for saying the world is going to come to an end is either made up (sometimes by some people who are kinda crazy) or it is based on real facts that are misunderstood or misinterpreted.

First, a lot of people focus on the date of 21 December because that was the end of what was called the Mayan long count calendar.  But the people who made that calendar didn’t think the world was going to end on that day, only that it would be like the 31st of December on our calendar, and the day after would just be January 1st of the new count.  The Maya called this count a baktun, and this coming new one starting on the 22nd will be the 13th.  The “end” of the calendar that is happening next Friday has already happened 12 times before, so there is no reason (none at all) to believe that anything is going to happen.

Even the Maya didn’t think that the world would end with the end of the 12th baktun, and in several murals they referred to events which would happen long after 21 December 2012.  See this article for some proof that the Maya were looking to dates beyond next Friday.

Some people are saying that there is a planet out there which will hit the earth like in the movie Melancholia, while others say it’s just an asteroid like the one that hit in the movie Deep Impact.  Neither is true.  NASA has been watching and counting all the objects that are in the sky around us for years and they know where all those objects are and they can use computers to find out where they will be at any moment in the future.  If there were a planet, or even an asteroid which was going to be a danger to us on the 21st, it would be the brightest thing in the sky right now and you could go out and look up and see it without a telescope even during the day.  There is nothing out there, and the pictures and videos that people have been posting are hoaxes.  You can see this with your own eyes just by going outside and looking up.

Some of the people who say that the planet or asteroid mentioned above is being hidden somehow – they say it is “behind the sun” (though if it were going to hit us when “they” say it would now be between us and the sun) or they say it is “below the earth” (there is no such place, as anything we couldn’t see in our hemisphere would still be visible to people in South America or Africa or Antarctica).  People also say that the 100,000 or more astronomers on earth have seen this mysterious planet or asteroid and are lying about it, or that NASA has told them that they aren’t allowed to reveal the “secret” of this object.  But as I said above, if there really were such an object, everyday folks would be able to see it, because it would be so big and so close that there would be no way to hide it.  If it were really there, people you could trust would see it: people on the real news (not just somebody who has a free website) and at universities all over the world, and average people would be able to see it even without telescopes.  No one can see anything because there is nothing out there to see.

Finally, lots of people are saying that the world will end like on the movie 2012 because of some weird, sorta scientific sounding thing.  But if you look into every one of these claims, you can see that in lots of cases, the things they are saying are even somewhat true, and they don’t matter at all.

Some people are concerned that the earth and the sun are going to line up with the center of the galaxy or a far off black hole or something like that.  And that is actually true, but we “line up” with other parts of the galaxy all the time and nothing happens, because these things are so far away that there is no way the effects of their gravity or any other force they could possibly exert can reach us.  The moon, for example, is pretty big and pretty close to us, but the best it can do is pull the oceans just enough to make tides.  The center of the galaxy and the black holes in the universe are much, MUCH farther away and we simply can’t feel any effects from that far away.

Lots of folks have been talking about something bad happening when the magnetic poles of the earth switch places, or because the geological poles would move.  Both of these things are happening, right now, and have been going on for the entire history of the planet.  The magnetic and physical poles of the Earth are moving all the time; 99% of us never even notice because we don’t have to make measurements or give directions that are precise enough to worry about it.  Over thousands of years the magnetic poles have sometimes shifted completely, but there is no evidence anywhere that this is going to happen in the near future or that, if it did, it would affect us beyond causing some difficulties for our orbital satellites and some electrical equipment.  It certainly wouldn’t be enough to drop Los Angeles into the Pacific ocean (no matter how much we may sometimes want it to!).

NASA’s Beyond 2012 site and it has a lot of good information for you to get more answers.   There is also a scientist at NASA who has been answering questions for a year or so now, and he has lots of in-depth answers there for you, too.   Finally, there is a really great site that keeps track of all the lies and hoaxes people are making up about 2012 and gives explanations of why you shouldn’t believe them.

The key fact to keep in mind is that a lot of people are trying to make money by telling lies and making people afraid so that they can get a lot of clicks on their websites, which make it possible for them to charge lots of money from their advertisers.  Some of these liars and hoaxers will even have a book or a video or something to sell you so that they can get some money from you, too!  Whenever you see some really scary claim that they make, don’t just go to Google, go directly to a site where there are experts who have spent a long time studying the science behind the claims and where you can get answers you can trust.

Next Friday, 21 December 2012 will be just like any other day, except that it will also be like New Year’s Eve for the Maya.  So instead of being afraid, you should be happy that this year you will have two opportunities to have a party and celebrate getting a new calendar.

Ask an astrobiologist

Dr David Morrison was featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Monday.  It’s worth a listen, for the usual answers, if not for any insight into why the question just keeps popping up again and again no matter how many times it is debunked.  As with the vaccine issue, it surprises me how many smart people seem to find these crackpot theories so compelling, despite all rational evidence to the contrary.

During the interview, Dr Morrison mentioned that NASA will be having a Google+ hangout to discuss the 2012 myths tomorrow, 28 November 2012 at 2pm EST/10am PST.  Bookmark that link and I’ll see you there (who knows, maybe they will let slip something about the upcoming “historic” Mars news)!

Definitely *NOT* Nibiru

So, apparently a group of astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the  European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope recently published a paper announcing the identification of a free-floating object of planetary mass in the AB Doradus Moving Group, a loose assemblage of relatively young stars moving together through the galaxy.  Did you miss it in there?  The casual reference to the possibility of a planet floating loose out there in the black, and one of the closest we’ve ever discovered at that!!  It gives us the opportunity to learn a great deal about the nature and composition of planets in other solar systems and clusters, and this one potentially offers the opportunity to develop a standard against which all future planetary discoveries will be judged and provides an incredibly valuable peek into the characteristics of stars, planets and systems much younger than our own (a mere 50 to 120 million years as opposed to the 4.6 billion of our own solar system).

Unfortunately it also provides the opportunity for rampant, mindless panic and ill informed fearmongering.  I’ve been surprised how many of the news sites which have mentioned the new planet have connected it, however tenuously, to the Nibiru hoax, presumably to draw more traffic to their site, though in at least one case, the Nibiru fantasists have definitively rejected any connection.

My favorite take on the news is provided by Hank Green at SciShow.  Incidentally, I completely agree that it needs a new name.  And I have a humble proposition, to name it for David Morrison, in honor of his heroic struggle against the Nibiru hoax hysteria.  Seriously.