Destination Eschaton

So here it is, 2012, everybody's going to die.

Or at least that's what the doomsday theorists would have us all believe. But better not join them in this belief otherwise you run the risk of Professor Brian Cox calling you a nobber [1]. He's got a point though. There's absolutely no basis for the now widely held suspicion that the world as we know it will end on Friday 21 December 2012 - or even that anyone ever predicted that it would.

This hysteria came about because this date does indeed appear as a landmark in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar which was used by the Mayans amongst other people. The date wasn't part of any prophecy however - it was merely the point at which the digits of the calendar (which was calculated in a rather complex and confusing manner using both base-17 and base-20) rolled over to For the Mayans this was the end of an era - perhaps a bit of an abstraction seeing as it lay so far in the future, but the Mesoamericans were a forward thinking people. The fact that this calendar which was first used over two thousand years ago is only now rolling over is a testament to this. Contrast this with the Unix epoch in which computers utilize the number of seconds since 1 January 1970 to provide a unique timestamp. Unfortunately 32-bit systems will run out of numbers to count these seconds on 9 January 2038. Better make sure you upgrade before then.

But it's only in recent years that the significance of the year in Mesoamerican Long Count has been upgraded to apocalypse.

Apocalypses started to become popular in the nineteen-eighties as the first truly futuristic date appeared. 1984 may not have been as totalitarian as Orwell had predicted so the doomsayers begun to cast about for other signs of the End of Days. New Years Eve 1999 was a popular one and this combined with the fear of the Millennium Bug (a consequence of even shorter sighted computer-programmers than those who devised the Unix epoch) to produce what many felt was the first bona-fide appointment with apocalypse. The signs were all there and it would only be a matter of hours before Jesus returned in the middle of World War Three to a soundtrack by Robbie Williams as the dead rose from their graves, planes dropped out of the sky and mobile phones lost their signals for ever.

As far as I was concerned all that actually happened was that I got so drunk on vodka that I have no memory of midnight whatsoever and subsequently spent my thirty-fifth birthday in a state of alcohol-poisoned paranoia.

This didn't seem to worry the doomsayers. Like Harold Camping and his constant rescheduling of The Rapture, they merely cast about for the next date upon which to pin their hopes for the end of everything. A quick rummage through the bargain bins of von-Danikenesque paperbacks with titles like Toenails of the Gods turned up the so called Mayan prophecies.

These days as far as popular traditional religions are concerned all most people have to choose between are a senile pensioner pissing himself in an old people's home and dreaming of his glory days or a dangerous psychopathic teenager with a knife plotting how he's going to show them... it's no wonder many people turn to half baked poorly thought through belief systems for solace. But why does constantly hoping that the world will end comfort them so? There is probably some deep seated psychological need to predict the end of the world as this list of dates upon which it was supposed to occur demonstrates.

The root of it is I think because for each and every one of us, the world will end. We are all going to die some day. For us the world will cease to exist, although in reality it is far truer to say that for the world we cease to exist.

The thought of this is often too much to take; if they have to go, some people prefer to take the rest of the world with them. Or the universe.

Of course the world will end one day. In around five billion years time the Sun will turn into a Red Giant although it is likely that even if it has survived, Earthly sentience will have moved out into the universe by this point. The universe itself will end at some point too but this will be at a time so remote as to have no real meaning, especially to minds such as our own.

The eschaton is still a very long way off. Time to learn to stop worrying and love 2012.

Happy New Year.

[1] First draft of this blog actually written before this tweet.


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