Jimmy Westlake: Doomsday or just another solstice?
December 18, 2012
I'm a survivor. I must be, but I don't know how or why. I have survived doomsday many times over and have lived to tell the tale.
I lived through the Jupiter Effect way back on March 10, 1982. That's when all of the planets (yes — even Pluto) found themselves aligned on the same side of the sun. Authors John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann predicted in their 1974 book that this alignment would wreak havoc on our planet, that the San Andreas Fault would rupture and that California would fall into the ocean. Well, the planets aligned, and the only thing that happened was Dr. Gribbin and Mr. Plagemann made enough money selling their book to retire comfortably somewhere in the Caribbean.
Then, there was the End of Days predicted to accompany the turn of the millennium Jan. 1, 2000. (Never mind that the new millennium didn't actually begin until Jan. 1, 2001.) The so-called Y2K bug was supposed to shut down civilization as we knew it. I recall waiting, at the stroke of midnight, for the power to go out, but it never did. Civilization and I dodged another bullet and survived Y2K.
But the danger wasn't over. Just five months later on May 5, 2000, yet another alignment of the planets was predicted to send the Earth spinning off into space like a loose hubcap. This time, Richard Noone got rich selling his book "5/5/2000 — Ice: the Ultimate Disaster," but the Earth and I somehow survived. (Hmmm. I'm starting to see a pattern here.)
When scientists fired up the world's biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, in September 2009, many critics screamed that it would inadvertently create a black hole that would devour the Earth. Well, it's been smashing atoms to smithereens for a couple of years now, and the Earth and I have miraculously survived.
Now, they tell us that on Dec. 21, the ancient Mayan calendar is due to run out and so will the sands of time for planet Earth. In 1995, John Major Jenkins triggered talk of a pending apocalypse with his book "Maya Cosmogenesis 2012." Apparently, the ancient Mayans had astronomical insights that modern astronomers and their Hubble Space Telescope don't have. Jenkins thinks that the ancient Mayans realized that the sun would eclipse the central black hole in the core of the Milky Way on the winter solstice this year and some magical force will destroy Earth. Either that or a hypothetical rogue planet named Nibiru will appear suddenly out of the darkness and collide with Earth, drawing the curtain on human history once and for all.
So, what is true out of all these fairy tales? It is true that the Mayan Long Count calendar will reach the end of an era Dec. 21, but, like your car's odometer, it simply will roll over to all zeros and start over again. The Mayas never predicted an end-of-the-world event.
As for the supposed perfect alignment of the sun and the core of the Milky Way, it won't happen. The two never can eclipse as viewed from Earth. Even if they did, nothing would happen.
What about Nibiru clobbering the Earth? If a planet-sized object were going to collide with Earth this week, it clearly would be visible in the sky right now as a big honkin' bright thing up there, but there is nothing unusual in sight.
No, I think that Dec. 21 will be just another winter solstice. The sun will bottom out and begin moving northward again at 4:12 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, and it will rise as usual that morning and the morning after.
But even if doomsday does arrive with the winter solstice Friday, I'm not worried. I'm a doomsday survivor.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.