“He has taken on a thankless task,” said Fraknoi, who also is speaking out to debunk doomsday fears. “He feels that we as scientists have an obligation to respond, to reassure the public and to give the public the fact-based view of the universe. That is so absent from so many realms of our social discourse today.”
The latest angst, say archaeologists and experts on Mayan culture, is based on a big misunderstanding. The Maya, whose civilization flourished in Mexico and Guatemala from 2000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., built pyramids and observatories. Their calendar was based on 394-year cycles called baktuns. The 13th of those cycles since the date of the Mayan creation story 5,126 years ago ends Friday.
But that doesn’t mean they thought the world was going to end, said Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at University of California-Berkeley.
“It’s not the end of the calendar,” Joyce said. “It’s the end of a cycle. It rolls over, like an odometer.”
Joyce said the fears began generations ago, when scholars who hadn’t yet learned how to read Mayan hieroglyphics mistakenly concluded that they were describing mystical prophecies. New Age activists embraced the ideas in the 1960s and 1970s, and today the misread history has blended with “end times” fantasies and spread on the Internet. The 2009 disaster movie “2012,” featuring floods, massive earthquakes and other computer-generated mayhem, further put a spotlight on the issue.
Several million people of Maya heritage are still around today. They don’t believe the world is ending, said Alberto Perez, program director at the Maya Association of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I have the sense that it bothers people in our community that we are perceived in this almost-negative way, like we predicted the end of the world,” he said. “We didn’t. We’re worried about day-to-day things: jobs, education, immigration, health care.”
Many people who know NASA’s Morrison are wondering what he’ll do when we wake up Dec. 22 and Earth is still here. Will he pen a grand “I told you so”?
“No,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m going to stop answering questions about this. I’m worn out.”