End of the World

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Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich has another blockbuster on his hands with 2012, if weekend box office returns are any indication. The film’s premise derives from a popular doomsday prediction centered on the Mayan calendar. It lasts 5126, at which point the calendar abruptly stops at December 21, 2012. For whatever reason, the Mayans didn’t bother to count any further, leading some folks to conclude this denotes the End of the World As We Know. It makes for great entertainment, but what’s the science behind all this?

Well, 2012 conspiracy theorists have combined the Mayan calendar ending with the notion that global destruction will occur when the legendary Planet X crashes into Earth. Astronomers were intrigued by the possibility in the mid-19th century, shortly after the discovery of Neptune — they thought it might explain perceived discrepancies in the orbits of the great gas giants. Pluto, discovered in 1930, was initially heralded as Planet X, but it turned out to be too small to effect the orbits of the gas giants. Heck, it’s not even technically a planet any more. (There is a dwarf planet called Eris just beyond Pluto, but it’s in a stable orbit and isn’t going to crash into Earth.)

And because you can never cram too many crazy ideas into a single Disaster Hoax, there are some people who believe Planet X is actually the mythical Nibiru, supposedly known to ancient Sumerians, which has a highly elliptical orbit and passes into our solar system every 3600 years. Earth itself, according to this crackpot theory, was created from a collision between Nibiru and some other object in the asteroid belt. Nibiru also doubles as a “spaceship” of sorts, in that an alien race supposedly traveled to Earth during one of its passes and founded the human race.

The good news is that there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence for any of this. Take it fromNeil de Grasse Tyson, who punctures the myth with typical good humor in the clip below. That doesn’t mean we won’t thrill to the sight of a cinematic end of the world, because who doesn’t love a good disaster flick now and then?

And there’s definitely technology related to the blockbuster film. Sony Pictures joined forces with D-Box Technologies to show 2012 with the D-BOX motion technology in a limited number of theaters. So lucky audience members will not only watch the movie, but also experience it physically since the D-BOX technology creates realistic motion effects frame by frame, in sync with the actual film. Probably not a good option for anyone suffering from motion sickness, though.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.