I receive numerous questions about the Mayan “end of time” prophecy that supposedly occurs on Dec. 21 of this year. Along with some quasi-accurate astronomical information, there are also some blatantly wrong facts that are being thrown around.
One claim is that the sun and the center of the Milky Way galaxy line up on that date. Geometrically, any two points make a line, so technically, this is true on any date. It is also true that any star or planet you wish to name “lines up” with the galactic center. But Earth, the sun and the center of our galaxy will not make a line. As seen from Earth, the sun is close to the center of our galaxy on that day, but that's true on EVERY Dec. 21. Nothing special about this one.
Supposedly, this “alignment” will cause the sun, or something, to focus energy from the center of the galaxy on to Earth. According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, a massive object can, in fact, focus light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Astronomers study this effect, known as gravitational lensing, all the time. But they study the focusing effect from entire galaxies or even more massive clusters of galaxies. The focusing effect of something as astronomically small as our sun is minuscule. And, in either case, this occurs every year at this time. Hasn't hurt us yet.
I have been asked about the alignment of planets that occurs that day. That morning, Mercury, Venus and Saturn form a nearly straight line stretching upward from the horizon. But that “alignment” is an optical illusion. Mercury, the lower one, will be just 103 million miles away, Venus, above Mercury, will be 131 million miles away and Saturn, the highest one, a whopping 975 million miles away. That's not a line; more like a parabola curving away from us.
Conspiracy theories aside, archeologists studying the Mayan calendar say that the Mayans never thought of the end of the Long Count as the end of time, rather as the end of the calendar cycle, just like Y2K was in our calendar. They fully expected to wake up the next morning and turn the page on the new Long Count — probably after a night of heavy celebration on “New Long Count's Eve.”
Start of winter
On Dec. 21, at 5:12 a.m. CST, the sun will be as far south as it will get in our sky, marking the start of our winter. It will also mark the start of the southern hemisphere summer.
Is it just a coincidence that that those who interpret the Mayan calendar as indication the end of time picked the shortest day of the year? I don't know, but perhaps that's all the Mayans really meant to describe, the rebirth of the solar year.
We may not be able to tell you when the end of time is coming, but we can tell you what's coming up in the night sky. “Tonight's Sky” runs daily in the Kirkpatrick Planetarium Star Theater. Also, throughout this month, our popular holiday program “Star of Wonder” runs daily. Go to www.sciencemuseumok.org or call 603-3761 for details.
Planet Visibility Report: Mars has been hanging around in the evening twilight for several months and remains there all this month. It's low in the west and difficult to find in the sun's twilight glow, but it's there. Jupiter glows brightly in the eastern sky at sunset, outshone in the night sky only by the Moon and Venus, which is almost lost in the morning, predawn sky. Saturn rises around 3 a.m. but Mercury is hiding in the sun's glare. New Moon occurs Dec. 13, with full moon Dec. 28.