I was watching the film Armageddon with Bruce Willis a few days ago - as happens with these matters, it came to a freesat channel, doing the rounds, and I managed to record it. It is all about an asteroid hitting the earth, and mankind facing the prospect of mass extinction. That is, of course, quite a feasible scenario, although with NASA budget cut backs, the chances are slim indeed of any kind of drilling operation to split the asteroid asunder - even if it was possible to do this so that the pieces didn't hit the earth, as happens fortuitously in the film.
In fact, the film is in part about rough edged human beings, thrown into a wilderness to fend for themselves - the asteroid is a surrealist nightmare of craggy rocks, sharp and pointed light cathedral spires. Although the setting is space, the theme in part is the frontier spirit of America, the explorers trekking off into the outback and facing a sometimes hostile environment. I won't spoil the denouement, except to say that as expected, the project succeeds.
There's a token Russian for comedy effect from the Russian space station, and he has some of the best lines. Starting a jammed fuel line with a spanner, he says - Russian systems, American systems - all made with parts from Taiwan! And Paris gets wiped out - someone in the movies didn't like the French!
But the end of the world is often on the horizon in other ways. The Christian Harold Camping had predicted the end of the world, or at least the start of it, with the "rapture", a supposed moment when Christians are snatched away from an earth that will be dominated by the antichrist. This started with J.N. Derby, was very popular in the 1980s with Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth (the EU was the empire of the antichrist, the beast with many heads!) and continues to this day with the "Left behind" series of Tim LaHaye which presents it in a fictional form. It seems to be a peculiarly American phenomena, for while there are no doubt Christians in Britain and Jersey who believe it, it has never dominated the Christian mainstream, but remained resolutely on the margins, for fringe sects, and University student fundamentalism.
The New Age has its own take on the end of the world. According to a reading - actually a misreading - of the Mayan calendar, the end of the world will happen in 2012. Nonsense is also disseminated about the start of the Mayan calendar, which recent studies have pinned down not to tens of thousands of years BC, but to around August 11, 3114 BC - based on archeological evidence from the date used on inscriptions, astronomical events recorded which tie in with the calendar in inscriptions, and historical documentary material (such as the Chronicle of Oxcutzkab). 4004 BC for the Usher Chronology of the Bible is actually earlier!
The "great cycle" of the calendar is 13 Baktuns, or 1,872,000 days, which neatly brings us to December 20, 2012 but on a west panel at the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, a section of the text projects into the future to the 80th Calendar Round, which would be 13 October 4772. There is no evidence the Maya thought the world would end in 2012, but rather the contrary.
One significant matter is the length of years, just over 5,000 in a "great cycle", and I've heard it said in all seriousness that meant that the Mayans computed time in much vaster periods than other peoples. But a 5,000 year cycle is hardly large. Even 100,000 years, which would take us back to the Paleolithic, is barely something like 20 seconds to midnight on a clock which had all the age of the earth compressed to one 12 hour period. Or as another geologist said:
"Consider the Earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history"
No ancient calendar came anywhere near estimates of the age of the earth. Eternalists like Aristotle thought it had no beginning, but the notion of deep time of an age of the earth of 4,540 000 000 years old was beyond them. If the Mayans had a calendar which could put the creation of the earth back then, I think their calendar would have a bit more credibility for 2012 end of the world.
And of the mass extinctions which have taken place - and there have been five significant ones - one was almost certainly set off by an asteroid impact on the earth around 65.5 million years ago, which led to the end of the dinosaurs. That remains the one real possibility, but I don't think it is that likely on the exact date of 20 December 2012.
What will happen after? Harold Camping has "recalibrated" his date, recalculating after he missed his date. I suspect strongly that the Mayan end of the world theorists will do the same!
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