Two days to the equinox:
There are experts who say that a major event will happen with the ancient Mayan calendar on the 21st of this month.  Let me assure you that I have no expectation at all of anything more out of the ordinary than usual happening on that day.  This is not because of any great wisdom on my part.  I have yet to meet or communicate with anybody else who has the slightest concern.  It’s all a big joke. 

But there has been a flurry of interest in the media.  Articles have appeared, blogs have lit up and at least one movie has been made.  I see no harm in any of that.  What has impressed me, however, is the dismal quality of the debate.  Let me tell you what I know.

There was a science fiction story published some time in the 1950’s in which adventurers found a few humanoids, presumed extraterrestrials, in suspended animation in a Mayan pyramid.  An inscription said that the “gods” would return at some time in what was at the time of writing the future.  The story was good enough for me to remember and since having read it I have always been a bit more interested in the Mayans than in the Aztecs although of course I gave the tale no credence at all. 

Then maybe four or five years ago a friend cheerfully told me that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world this coming Friday.  I thought, “No.  That would be the return of the gods.”  I have no idea whether the decoding of the Mayan colander preceded the story.   If not, then that tale should really have been brought up by somebody over the past couple of years.  Even if the discovery came first, you would have thought the story would have been mentioned.

The next thing that strikes me is that the equinox will occur at about 6 in the morning; at least somebody said so.  Since the relevant inscriptions are at least 500 years old, making an astronomical prediction accurate within 6 hours over such a time span is very impressive.  They must have been keeping track of such things for at least 500 years, and probably a few times that.  Since civilizations so rarely endure more than 300 years, there seems to me to be a mystery here.  On the other hand some predictions are for Dec. 21 and some for Dec. 22.  I don’t know why the discrepancy, nor have I ever read anybody remarking on it, although friends to ask me which it is.  If the Mayan prediction is for the 22nd and the solstice is the 21’st, than the mystery is much decreased.  You’d have to admit that their calculation was pretty good, though. 

At the same time the sun is supposed to go through the plane of the galaxy.  The last I read about it, that happened several years ago.  Yet I do not recall having looked up and thought, “My goodness.  We are exactly in the galactic plane.”  Nor did anybody else remark on it.  In fact, it was not until many years after the inscriptions were made that European civilization even suspected that there was such a thing as a galaxy.  That one I fear we must chalk up to coincidence.  Every story is permitted one and only one coincidence, and we’ll have to use that one here. 

Much of this rather silly flap seems to be concerned with some sort of natural disaster.  That’s because the movie I saw a few minutes of showed a natural disaster.  That’s there job of course.  Movies depend for their interest on special effects.  They can use technology, I think the movie “Avatar” did a remarkably competent job of putting real actors onto a totally computer generated planet.  At the other extreme it can be done with pure acting.  The privately distributed short “Men’s Room” offers no physical implausibility but depends for its impact on subtle and intense acting in a psychologically difficult meeting.  But it’s special effect, all the same.  How are you going to portray the return of the “gods” without widespread agreement on something like what those gods are like?

There is a town named Bugarach in the south of France that supposedly has a flying saucer parked nearby which will rescue a few people.  I thought, “That can’t be far from Rennes le Chateau.”  Rennes le Chateau, or rather an associated legend, figured in the popular Da Vinci Code book.  So I spent five minutes with Google Earth and sure enough, the two villages are only five miles apart.  If you connect the two with a line, there is at about the center of the line a field with a 200 foot circle.  A child with a couple of sticks and a ball of string could draw a circle that big in a field in a few minutes.  But the circle does seem to be a ditch five or ten feet across and have an artifact or two associated with the perimeter.  The ditch would be hard for a child to dig.  And the child would need access to the center of the circle, but there is a little copse of trees covering the center.  Of course the circle could be drawn a bit more laboriously without access to the center; the labor would not be as great as the digging. 

When I look at it I do not think, “Gosh.  It’s a buried flying saucer or maybe a landing site.”  And I trust I do not do the owner of the field a disservice.  (He could charge a fee for people to look at his field, if this were to excite any interest, which I am sure it won’t.)  The number of tourists coming to Burgarach is already so great that the authorities have pretty much closed the area off to outsiders.  The problem is that despite the interest nobody else seems to have noticed the circle.

Yet anyone with the slightest interest could have found it. 

Here is another thing.  This is the end of the third “long count.”  When I look up the length of a long count I don’t seem to find consistent numbers.  I have taken no great care to check the numbers, as my memory may simply be faulty.  But what I have seen always seems to fall between one and ten thousand years.  That’s enough to make one observation.  That last truly global natural disaster I have heard of is when the human population seems to have gone through a genetic bottleneck.  They have revised their estimate of the speed of genetic change, so I guess that bottleneck is either 70 thousand or 140 thousand years ago.  Either way it long predates the start of the first long count so natural disaster seems out of the question.

But there are three beginnings of long counts to play with.  There is a sort of a cottage industry based on people trying to come up with evidence that it was extraterrestrial visitors who lend humans the technology to build the pyramids.  There have been other remarkable construction projects in bygone millennia.  Do any correspond with the beginning of a long count?  Nobody I read seems to have made even a cursory study.  Yet it would be a very good argument either that the date is significant or that the date is not significant.  We have used up our only permitted coincidence already.

So what did the Mayans say?  I would find it hard to believe, if they thought about it at all, that they all agreed on what it might mean.  And nowhere is there a clue that they brought any evidence to bear.  So the whole thing is dismissible as a bunch of unsubstantiated opinions about a bunch of unsubstantiated opinions – hardly anything to lose sleep over. 

But I did see one plausible TV program that said one of the inscriptions did mention one or more gods coming back on the day in question.  The glyph for what was going to happen then was illegible.  That’s kind of cute. 

So a god is going to arrive on the equinox.  That’s what we’re left with.  Does that sound familiar?  Who could care?  It’s just silly.

Well it’s silly to a lot of people, but you might recall that the impressive Newgrange monument in Ireland, built thousands of years before and thousands of years away records the winter solstice.  I doubt they would have found it was silly, whatever else they thought.

Then there is Christmas.  That was sort of timed to be about the time of the equinox.  And there are a lot of Christians who would not feel kindly toward you if you told them there was no God Who came to earth on Christmas. 

Yet nobody I know has mentioned it in connection with the Mayans. 

It’s just a lack of homework.  Nobody actually looks into the matter.  They just say what they are paid to say and people only listen for a three word summary.

The woeful thing is that if we were faced with an unexpected calamity that required a little thinking to understand, nobody would make the effort.  And, alas, the weight of the evidence is that demographic calamity is upon us and the fault is all our own. 

So the foregoing is a grump I obviously built up over some time.  But as it turns out, I do have an ally.  It is none other than the redoubtable editor of SCIENCE.  (Bruce Alberts Failure of Skin-Deep Leaning SCIENCE vol. 338 no. 6112 December 7, 2012 page 1263)  It is not that he has any interest in my take on demographics or on any Mayan apocalypse.  I doubt he has even heard of me.  But he does decry the way things are taught in our public schools.  They are given as factoids, as little testable facts.  He proposes we should spend more time giving students a chance to study a smaller range of things in substantial depth.  He says it would be more fun.

I think he’s right.  It could nurture a habit of looking at some things in depth.  My own experience suggests that this is very much needed.

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