The movie 2012 opens Friday, predicated on the notion that on December 21, 2012, as the most recent Mayan long-form calendar cycle (5,125.366 years) comes to an end, along with a unique planetary/solar alignment and a high level of solar activity, the world will cataclysmicly end one era and enter another. With earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and all sorts of devastating destruction in the process.
The movie is not the only source of prophetic notions of doom, or at least cataclysmic change, that are gaining increasing play and attention as 2012 approaches. There are books, websites, and even several other movies scheduled for release on the subject with all kinds of angles, from secular and New Age to religious and indigenous folk legend.
Now, even if it were true that the Mayans had predicted some apocalyptic ending of the world at the end of their long calendar cycle (they had several calendars and ways of marking time; that was just one of them), it's a bit odd that we'd grab onto that one particular prophesy and belief system of theirs. After all, the Mayans also believed in human sacrifice, and we don't exactly leap on board that train in attempting to maintain civic and theological order.
But according to Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the truth is, the Mayans didn't have any apocalyptic predictions for 2012. "There is NOTHING in ancient Maya records that predicts the end of the world; no apocalypse, no destruction, no cosmic clashes. Nothing," she says.
But, wait. What about Quetzacoatal returning and all that? Big sigh from the folks at FAMSI. In a fascinating paper available from the FAMSI website, Dr. Mark Van Stone, who has studied the Mayan culture for over a decade (and can read and write in Mayan hieroglyphs) provides an illuminating and entertaining cataloging of why all the doomsayers are off the mark and includes some great photo exhibits regarding the astronomical events scheduled for 12/21/12. Here's a sample, from his "9 Reasons Why The Mayan Prophecies Should Be Read Very Critically":
Though Aztec, Mixtec, and Maya sources provide us a number of narratives, different versions disagree. For example: the Aztec predict that this Creation will end on a 4-Movement day in a 2-Reed year, if it ends at all. The next possible Aztec end-date will be in 2027. Maya literature does not explicitly predict any end at all, and their so-called "end date" in 2012 is a 4-Ajaw [4-Flower in Aztec cycle] not 4-Movement. Mixtec Creation stories mention 2-Deer in 13-Rabbit, and other dates.
So perhaps in on the 2-Deer day in the 13-Rabbit year, under a 4-Flower Moon, we might have cause to worry -- except that it seems the Mayans never corrected written mistakes (the original, and literal, "carved in stone" approach). And the Aztec official responsible for a lot of how that culture's history was written apparently had a bit of a Machiavellian propaganda minister's streak in him. Which is to say, even what they did say should be taken with a handful of archeological salt.
December 21, 2012 is still a significant day for the Mayans. It's the equivalent of our Gregorian Calendar's December 31, 1999; the turning over of a new millennium and era of timekeeping. So it would be a big celebration. But that's about it. Of course, there were also a slew of predictions about disaster and doom surrounding our own "end of a cycle" mark at the end of 1999. None of which came true, as you may recall.
So why are we so drawn to these apocalyptic notions and prophecies of doom, gloom, and destruction (even if it eventually leads to a shining new era for the select few who are chosen or manage to survive)?
The answer apparently dates back to the very earliest days of human existence. "Apocalypticism," as it is academically known, arises from a deep evolutionary sense or need for social justice, according to Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in Religions of the Ancient World at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"The sense of social justice, fairness in dealing with each other, and a felt need to cooperate with each other was already in place long before our hominid ancestors reached the cognitive ability to reflect on it," Professor Kerkeslager says.
As long as humans lived in the relatively egalitarian hunting and gathering societies that dominated up until about 10,000 years ago, that need was sufficiently met and enforced, because the survival of the group depended on cooperation. But when humans moved into more agrarian societies with land ownership, where a more hierarchical structure evolved, disparities increased. So those who had less had to come up with a way to explain the differences and satisfy their need for an eventual leveling of the scales. Apocalypticism, according to Kerkeslager, fulfilled that need and gave people a way of still believing that the gods were good and fair, even in an unfair world.
"Typically," he explains, "[apocalypticism] involves claims to prophetic authority among the leaders of the movement, an emphasis on visions and other forms of direct experience with the gods, and prophecies of a future transformation of the world that will bring relief to the afflicted members of the apocalyptic group and destruction on their enemies."
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon typically springs up among groups who find themselves in the minority, threatened, or repressed unfairly--at least, in their own view of the world. The Christian Book of Revelation came about under perceived Roman repression of the fledgling faith. The Anabaptists of the 1500s came out of a society stressed by economic disparity between rich and poor. Native American cultures developed apocalyptic narratives in the 1880s and 1890s, when those cultures were in danger of annihilation.
Visions and prophecies have been found in writings dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., according to Kerkeslager, although not all cultures had an equal need for thunder and lightning delivery of justice. In a polytheistic culture like ancient Greece, the need for apocalyptic beliefs was less, because a multitude of warring gods could explain misfortune or disparity. You might simply be the casualty of a power struggle between Hera and Zeus.
But as cultures became monotheistic, the disconnect between a supposedly fair and just God, and an unjust world, became harder to explain away. Hence, Kerkeslager says, apocalyptic notions in the Hebrew Book of Daniel, which was written only three years after a Greek King named Antiochus had begun a brutal repression of the Jews in Jerusalem, including turning the Jewish Temple into a shrine for Zeus. The revolt of Jewish revolutionaries, including the restoration of the temple in 165 B.C. (the same year that the Book of Daniel was written) is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. But at the end of the Book of Daniel, the author predicts that an apocalyptic end will come to the repressive Greeks 1,290 days after their desecration of the temple. Unfortunately, as with other apocalyptic prophecies, it didn't happen. So the last line of Daniel changes the date to 1,335 days.
The fact that that date, too, came and went, didn't seem to fluster believers, any more than a failure of the earth to end on January 1, 2000 has stopped people from believing that it might still happen in 2012.
"The stubborn and often surprising ability of apocalyptic groups to ignore or explain away the failures of their prophecies is one of the most well-known features of apocalyptic groups," Kerkeslager says--a phenomenon also known as "motivated reasoning," as I discussed in an earlier piece here.
So with all that knowledge and understanding, can we all breathe easy? Not quite. "The belief in an apocalyptic doomsday is still alive even in the most skeptical societies," Kerkeslager says, "because it is very much a real possibility ... The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has sometimes been characterized by global transformations that have indeed had an apocalyptic scope." Some of those events were natural disasters that caused mass extinctions. But many civilizations, he points out, have brought about their own extinction "by practices that exhausted their natural resources and gradually undermined their ability to sustain their own populations." Including, ironically enough, the ancient Mayans.
So perhaps the Mayans did leave us a prophecy or warning worth heeding. Just not the one everyone's talking about. But in director Roland Emmerich's defense, I have to admit that it would be a lot harder to make a blockbuster action-adventure-thriller out of recycling your grocery bags and developing renewable energy sources than something that results in an aircraft carrier on a tidal wave wiping out the White House. Which is something spinners of apocalyptic tales figured out long before there were aircraft carriers, movies, or really cool special effects.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
When two black holes collide, the noises scientists hear are birdlike.
This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravity Observatory announced that LIGO had detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, an event so cataclysmic that it converted the mass of three solar systems into pure energy in about a tenth of a second.
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to “listen” to gravitational waves—and to prove their existence—ever since Einstein predicted them in 1915. But until September 14, 2015, when the colliding black-hole event was first detected, this was beyond our technical abilities. In the words of Scott Hughes, “Gravity is a weak force. Measuring these things is bloody hard.”
Hughes is a theoretical physicist at MIT who has been contemplating LIGO since its inception in 1992. He has struggled with a question at the heart of the observatory program: Once we do hear gravitational waves, how will we know where they come from? How can we use them to explore the mysteries of the cosmos? To this end, Hughes has modeled the “sounds” of a host of astrophysical events, including colliding black holes. (You can listen to his impressions of these sounds below.)
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.