Doomsday predictions are usually doomed to failure

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By John Pawlak

Dec. 21, 2012.  It will be the end of the world as we know it!
Yeah, right. We should be so lucky.
Doomsday prophets have prospered throughout the ages by feeding off end-of-the-world phobias. One of the more recent nutcases forewarning global cataclysm was Harold Camping who predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011.
Camping’s vision of destruction was however mathematically sound. 2011 is a prime number and is itself the sum of 11 consecutive prime numbers (with 11 likewise being prime). What better prime time for a prime disaster?
So his chant rang out. “The world is ending! The world is ending!  Give me all your money!”
And people did. But when the “final day” came and went without incident, Camping announced that the date had changed to Oct. 21, 2011.
“The world is ending! The world is ending! Give me all your money!”
And again, people did. Yeah, it’s easy to laugh at him, but that clown accumulated $75 million from his circus followers. Not bad for a small doomsday cult.
I’ve never understood the logic behind the money part.
With Judgment Day right around the corner, I suppose some people hope that they can buy themselves a few million years reprieve from Purgatory?
To no great surprise, doomsday cults are again hopping onto the destruction-bound bandwagon, warning that the Mayan calendar accurately predicts our collective end on Dec. 21, 2012.
One truly has to admire the Mayan culture, a civilization that could accurately predict to the day the end of the world, yet couldn’t predict the Spanish conquest.
The Mayan calendar is actually a collage of several counting methodologies for managing dates.
Reference to “the end” comes from the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, a 5125 year cycle that began at the “creation of the world,” which on the Gregorian calendar would be August 11, 3114 BCE.
I was wondering what day of the week that would have been, but the seven-day week wasn’t created until around 700 BCE.
Someone asked me, “If the world isn’t coming to an end, then what happens when we reach the end of the Mayan calendar?”
I asked back, “Well, what happens when we reach the end of our 12-month calendar?”  He said, “We start a new one.”
Duh, what a concept, huh?
Many “experts” have challenged the Mayan calculations.
In the 1600s, Bishop Ussher calculated the creation of the world to be Oct. 23, 4004 BC.  Another biblical researcher has since refined this estimate, setting the start date as Oct. 21, 4101 BC, at 6 p.m.
Was that Mountain Standard Time or Greenwich Mean Time?
Actually, there was a time when time stopped, or more accurately disappeared.
Sept. 2, 1751, was a Wednesday. The following day, Thursday, was Sept. 14 — 11 days had simply vanished!
Well, not exactly.  Folks had been using the Julian calendar (introduced coincidentally by Julius Caesar) for centuries.  This calendar deviated from the solar year by approximately 11 minutes (24 hours every 131 years), ultimately accumulating an 11-day offset from the Gregorian calendar.  In order to “reset the clock,” the British government discarded Sept. 3 through Sept. 13.
A real bummer for anyone born on the skipped days. No birthday party.
Now, the Mayans might have been the first civilization to predict the end of time, but they certainly weren’t the last. The end of both millennia (1000 and 2000 AD) saw a frenzy of predictions of worldwide disasters and death (and of course, the associated demand to give away all your money).
For example, in the 1960s, Jeron Criswell King predicted the end of civilization, specifically to occur on Aug. 18, 1999. He predicted all metal would turn to rubber (which oddly enough should have reduced deaths by making car collisions far more easy to survive) and mass cannibalism.
Mass cannibalism? If King had only seen the market value in his “zombie warning,” he could have made a fortune writing movie scripts.
Myself, I’m placing my bets on the Mayans.  It just happens that the last day of school this semester is Dec. 21.
I’ve decided to wait until Dec. 22 to grade final exams.

John Pawlak
Los Alamos columnist