Update at 7 a.m. ET, Dec. 21: We're Still Here.
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It is Dec. 20, 2012 — and citizens of Earth are panicking, consumed by the idea that the world will end Friday, something they say was predicted by Mayan astronomers. Of course, most people are not panicking, and Maya expert David Stuart says no one should. The calendar, he says, has plenty of room to go.
In an interview airing on Thursday's Morning Edition, David Greene asks archaeologist Stuart, who helped translate influential ancient Mayan hieroglyphs in 1996, if he thinks the world will end on Dec. 21.
"Absolutely not," is Stuart's answer, dashing the hopes of students eyeing a three-day weekend, and any consumers who maxed out their credit cards in the belief that all history — not just their credit history — would come to an end.
"The Maya never, ever, said anything about the world ending at any time — much less this year," says Stuart, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "So, it's sort of bizarre to be living through this time right now, when so many people seem to be worked up."
And worked up they are. Apocalyptic rumors and doomsday preparations have preoccupied people on seemingly every continent. In Russia, citizens are stocking up on vodka; in China, nearly 100 people were arrested for spreading the rumors, which officials said were partly to blame for an attack on elementary students Friday.
In an international poll of more than 16,000 people, Reuters found that 1 in 10 respondents worried that the Mayan calendar could signal the end of the world. The poll, which was taken in May, also found that 15 percent of those responding said they "believe the world will end during their lifetime," Reuters reported.
The current panic has been bolstered by theories that might charitably be deemed "sciencey."
Under one scenario, the Earth would not survive a rare galactic alignment that would subject it to the powers of not only the sun but also Sagittarius A — a massive black hole in the heart of the Milky Way. In a related scheme, the planet's magnetic poles will reverse — possibly as a result of the alignment.
Some doomsayers even claim to know the exact time the bell will toll for Earth: 11:11 UTC — a nicely evocative time, yet one that the U.S. Naval Observatory says is off by one minute. If you're in the Eastern U.S. time zone, the facility says, you should expect the solstice to occur at 6:12 a.m. Friday.
The fuss stems from the fact that "an important cycle of the Maya calendar which is turning over," Stuart says, "called a baktun."
Each baktun represents 144,000 days — or nearly 400 years. The 13th (and, some say, final) baktun of the Mayan calendar is slated to come to an end on the solstice marked on Dec. 21, 2012.
"It's a big deal — if you're an ancient Maya astronomer priest," Stuart says. "But apart from that, they didn't say anything about ... what will be happening."
Stuart and other researchers have compared what's about to happen to the Mayan calendar to an odometer on a well-driven car: The years will simply click over. If the car's odometer runs past its complement of numbers, you can still drive it.
The end of the calendar cycle is a cause for celebration in Guatemala, home of the famed Tikal Mayan temple. The country is already welcoming an influx of leaders from the region, as well as around 200,000 foreign tourists, reports the Prensa Latina news agency.
On his blog, Stuart has admitted that he inadvertently helped to fuel the 2012 doomsday movement when he labeled his analysis of a glyph found at Tortuguero as the "Tortuguero Prophecy," a title that fueled ideas of a revolutionary dawning of a new age. But in a recent post, he projects that the Mayan calendar has at least 2,400 more years to go.
"I think in our culture, too, or maybe globally — humans like to come up with excuses, sometimes, just to freak out," he tells David. "I think the Maya have become an excuse for something a bit larger. ... It's a reflection of a lot of tension, a lot of anxiety in our society. And Lord knows, there's a lot of real problems out there. But this isn't one of them. You know, the Mayan calendar is certainly not something we need to worry about."
So, David asked, how will Stuart spend Dec. 21?
"I'll be here in Austin that night," he said, "and probably raise a glass of wine to the end of the baktun, and the beginning of a new one."
But not everyone will be as relaxed as the professor. The website Off World Backup pokes fun at the trend of "doomsday preppers," offering what it calls "quantum bilateral encryption" and the assurance that "your data will be secure no matter what happens on Earth."
As the group's terms of service show, they're not taken in by the hype:
"I acknowledge that my files will not actually be backed up off world.
"I also acknowledge that it is silly to believe that the Mayans correctly predicted the end of the world will occur on Friday (especially since they don't even believe that).
"Furthermore, I acknowledge that no such thing as a multiphotonic phase inducer exists outside of this website and possibly Star Trek."
Anyone who needs further convincing may want to consider the Mayan calendar's start date: Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. While few people can say what happened on that day, it's doubtful that any of them would say it's when the world suddenly sprang into being — along with a handy calendar.
And Stuart says not to expect any major changes on Dec. 21, either.
"Nothing is really fundamentally going to change, in terms of the world coming to a standstill," he says.
"That is very reassuring," David tells Stuart. "I'm going to hold you to that."
Some of our earlier posts about another "end of the world" prediction are collected here.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Well, it is here. Tomorrow will be December 21st, 2012. Some believe it's the day the ancient Mayan civilization predicted the world would end. Most people do not believe this. And yet, this idea of the apocalypse has stuck, helped in part by popular mass media, including this blockbuster Hollywood film from three years ago. It was called "2012."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "2012")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This mass suicide (unintelligible) to the Mayan calendar, which predicts the end of time to occur on the 21st of December of this year.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What are the odds?
GREENE: Strange to hear about a date that is finally here. Well, to learn exactly what the Mayans said and to try and hopefully put your mind at ease, we turned to David Stuart. He's the man who cracked the code that was needed to read Mayan hieroglyphics, and he joined us from Austin, where he's director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas.
Professor, thanks for coming on.
DAVID STUART: Hey, thanks for having me.
GREENE: Well, I guess, let me turn to a question that, in thinking about it, seems to carry some level of importance. Is the world going to end tomorrow?
STUART: Absolutely not.
GREENE: That's a relief.
STUART: Yeah. And thanks for playing that clip, by the way. You know, the Maya never, ever, said anything about the world ending at any time, much less, you know, this year. So it's sort of bizarre to be living through this time right now, when, you know, so many people seem to be worked up. And, you know, maybe they don't even understand anything about the Maya, but they still wonder: You know, where is this idea coming from?
GREENE: The Mayans never said anything about this. Where in the world did this idea come from, then? I mean, we've got a lot going on in the world.
STUART: Yeah. No, they never said...
GREENE: The Russians are freaking out. All sorts of countries are preparing for the end.
STUART: Right. It's global now, right. The Maya never said anything about the world ending. What's happening, basically, is that we have an important cycle of the Maya calendar which is turning over, a cycle called a baktun. And there are lots of cycles to the Maya calendar. And it's a big deal if you're an ancient Maya astronomer-priest. But apart from that, you know, they didn't say anything about what's going on, what will be happening.
GREENE: Well, I read about some monument. Did someone see something there that made them at least think that this end is possible?
STUART: Well, there's a site, a ruin, in Mexico called Tortuguero. And one inscription from there actually mentions the year 2012. And there's another one we found, actually, this year, the site in Guatemala that also mentions December the 21st, 2012. But there is no prophecy on either of those ancient texts.
What they're doing is they're just projecting forward to the end of this big cycle, because the ancient Maya were really into time. They were really into connecting their kings to these bigger cycles, these bigger kind of cosmic cycles. And, you know, that's really what it's all about. It's about ancient Maya politics when you come down to it, right. It's not about them predicting anything good or bad about our world.
GREENE: But where did the idea that this turn in the calendar was going to be the end of the world exactly come from?
STUART: It comes more from our culture. As far as we can trace it, you know, it goes back to, really, some ideas that started to get published in the 1960s with the beginnings of the New Age movement.
But I think in our culture, too, you know - or maybe globally - humans like to come up with excuses, sometimes, just to freak out, you know, and to have these ideas. You know, they crop up all the time. And this will not be the last one. There will be another one at some point. I think the Maya have become an excuse for something a bit larger that's, you know, way outside my area of expertise.
GREENE: Well, you definitely have me feeling a lot better, and I'm sure a lot of other people, too. And you have plans for the 21st, right? You're going to be traveling?
STUART: Yeah. I'm going to be Christmas traveling, holiday traveling. So I'll be on a plan, actually, from Boston, back to Austin with my son on the 21st. I'll be here in Austin that night, and probably raise a glass of wine to the end of the baktun and the beginning of a new one.
GREENE: Professor Stuart, thank you. Thanks for talking to us about this.
STUART: No problem. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Professor David Stuart. He's director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.