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Debunking doomsday: U of T experts

Not the end of the world

A solar flare from March 6, 2012. The recent increase in number of flares is part of the sun’s normal 11-year solar cycle. (Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

The Internet abounds with warnings of disaster as the calendar year winds down, thanks to a variety of alleged apocryphal events supposedly set to occur Dec. 21, 2012. Is it coincidence? Fate? Enjoyable nonsense? U of T News turned to experts Edward Swenson and Kelly Lepo for their research-based responses to the five most common complaints of Doomsday diviners.

Doomsday claim: December 21, 2012 is the end of the Mayan calendar, meaning it's the beginning of the End Times

 "The Maya certainly never saw this as the end of the world," says Professor Swenson of anthropology.

Swenson says Dec. 21, 2012 is significant because it’s the end of what the Maya would have called the grand or great cycle, also known as the long count. It was only one within a system of complex calendrics they used to decide everything from planting corn to divining the future.

“The important thing to remember is that, in Mesoamerican cosmology and thinking, ends and even great destructions were also very much a nexus of beginnings and creation,” Swenson says. “This may very well have been a date of great celebration, where one era ends and a new one begins.”

Swenson says there is no record of the Maya referring to this period as the end of the world, and that “unfortunately, the doomsday thing has been a complete appropriate of Maya philosophy and cosmology."

Doomsday claim: massive solar flares will destroy communications systems and power grids, crippling modern technologies and creating chaos

“This happens every 11 years—the sun goes from having no sun spots to having lots and lots of sun spots,” says Lepo, a PhD candidate in Astronomy and Astrophysics at U of T, who lectures on the science and pseudoscience of the apocalypse.

“When you have lots of sun spots, you have lots of solar flares and coronal mass ejections coming at you, but this has been happening for billions of years and it has yet to kill all life on earth,” says Lepo, adding that every few hundred years sees a particularly bad solar flare with real potential to do some damage.

But, while she admits that this is the most plausible of all the disaster theories, “it won’t end all technology on earth-- it will probably just be a nuisance,” resulting in localized disruptions of electrical grids or satellites.

Doomsday claim: the Earth’s magnetic field is due for a flip, meaning “magnetic north” would point towards the south pole

Even though Earth is overdue for a switch in its magnetic fields, which happens erratically every 100 million years or so, Lepo says that “even if it happened tomorrow, the process takes about 1,000 years to complete—for the poles to switch over.”

Potential consequences include difficulty navigating by compass and disruption to the migration habits of birds, Lepo admits.

“But in our modern society, we rely a lot more on GPS to navigate. So it really wouldn’t be that bad.”

Doomsday claim: Earth will be consumed by a black hole at the centre of the universe Dec. 21, 2012

“We align with this black hole every year and nothing has ever happened—nothing at all,” says Lepo, adding that although the black hole boasts a large mass, its extreme distance renders its gravitational pull on Earth insignificant.

Asked why people seem more cognizant of it in 2012, Lepo says: “It just happens to occur on the winter solstice this year. Although, for the past 1,000 years or so it has occurred around the winter solstice….”

Doomsday claim: Earth is set to collide with Planet Nibiru – also known as Planet X – on Dec. 21, 2012

“Of all the doomsday theories, that one is the most easily debunked,” says Lepo, pointing out there is no such thing as Planet Nibiru.

Nibiru “would be the brightest thing in the night sky, everyone would be able to see it,” Lepo says.

To those who counter that Nibiru might be invisible, Lepo explains it would still gravitationally affect the planets in the solar system and asteroids that are being monitored.

“There can’t be a large planet in the inner solar system right now.”