Friday, 20 May 2011

End(s) of the World

Time and again, people have been predicting the end of the world. This has been largely harmless as the rest of the world has chosen to ignore the claim of a minor group. I write this entry in wake of the immediate date - May 21, 2011 which has been made popular by Harold Camping, a 90-year old man who is also a Talk Radio broadcaster and President of Family Radio. According to him the end of things as they are is to come in the period between May 21, 2011 and  October 21, 2011. He had previously predicted the end of the world with the Biblical Second Coming of Christ in September, 1994.

The amount of publicity he has received is most surprising, as are the billboards that have sprung up with messages on the end-of-the-world. One would notice Investments and coordinated marketing toward this - despite knowing that there are numerous instances of the Biblical Second Coming of Christ predicted earlier (including 1999, 2000 and even much earlier in recorded history.) A good majority of the people of the world have ignored the May 21, 2011 rapture and are continuing with their plans for the rest of the year (and years to come.)

There are other theorists who pin December 21, 2012 as a date based on the reset of the Mayan Long Count Calendar and a little understood ancient Maya text which they claim is a prophecy of the end of the world.

Experts who study the Mayan culture have pointed out that the time-keeping techniques of the Mayans is worthy of praise. The Mayans calculated lunar cycles with high accuracy. It is probable that they also calculated the cycles of the Planet Venus with considerable accuracy.

However, from their complex creation myths and vastly different culture (which we cannot easily relate to,) it is almost impossible to understand surviving texts of the Mayans in proper context. It is also true that large volumes of Mayan documentation in bark-paper was destroyed in a regrettable move to stop idol worship by the then conquerors of the new world. The text that has survived as testimony of the heritage of the Mayan culture and archaeology has helped in scientific efforts to understand them.

Scientifically, efforts still continue to understand the culture of the Maya, their understanding of nature and particularly their fascination with astronomy & time-keeping. Most scholars agree that their time keeping was good and far better than the rest of the world in the time they flourished, but not comparable with the understanding of time and the level of time-keeping that exists today.

There are several claims about doomsday scenarios in 2012 - which attempt to connect the year and dates to the reversal of the earth's magnetic poles [which occurs roughly over 780,000 years - possibly taking a period of 1,000 years to effect], a solar climax [which occurs roughly every 11 years], mass extinctions [which paleontologists claim - happen roughly every 26 million years] and stranger theories. It is even unclear whether the Mayans believed in prophecies literally.

There are others who attempt to connect the fictitious 2012 end-of-word scenario with Babylonian creation myth, which is far more complex and is less understood. Some profess that an  unidentified planetary object called Nibiru is headed on a near-collision or collision course with the earth. This theory is probably the most implausible.

There are earlier instances when such fictitious predictions created mass hysteria and resulted in deaths or mass suicides which were socially engineered. I recall the more recent tragedy of the cult Heaven's Gate in March, 1997 in which 39 members of the cult committed suicide during the period Comet Hale-Bopp was at its brightest. Earlier cults in the 20th century included the People's Temple and the Solar Temple.

As Michael Crichton expressed in his novel "State of Fear", fear or heightened anxiety spread across society can be a complex behavioral element used in sociopolitical control. It is easy for people to be confused, deluded or harried by convincing arguments of cataclysmic scenarios which seem scientific and plausible. If a large population is swayed by fear of possible cataclysms, it would set the stage for groups or cults or even nations to use this fear to their strategic advantage. The damage could be anything between heightened stress levels to hostile behavior to ritual suicide or even war.

It is time to see our Demon-Haunted World (as Prof. Carl Sagan elegantly wrote) in the right scientific perspective. It is far too easy to ignore mainstream science for populist pseudoscience. In known history, Humanity has been continually progressing, and always striving to improve.  Understanding possible Disaster Scenarios to plan Disaster Recovery techniques and allocate resources to handle those scenarios is a scientific pursuit. There are also strategic studies to help plan resources for the future, optimize energy usage and re-engineer our cities for better living conditions. Much of this happens in day-to-day work (like city/town planning) and is not considered strange. Science continues to help us understand the our reality in a consistent way and simultaneously explore ways to create solutions to uplift our quality of life.

If anything diverts our current consistent and clear progress as a unified civilization, the setback might cost us dearly. Most of these diversions come from socio-political behavior. It is important that we do not engage our time in efforts that would destabilize human society. War has been known to wreak havoc on progress and improvement of the quality of life in several historic instances. Irrational belief in a time of natural disaster has also caused the destruction of past civilizations.

Pursuing myths of the end of the world or reality as we know it, could land us in such a situation if enough of us are convinced. We need to continue increasing our awareness, employ scientific method and use our awareness for the betterment of all life as we know it. History shows us periods like the Middle-Ages existed during which reason was abandoned, and we had to wait for the Renaissance to regroup and continue our collective pursuit of growth. We have to learn and avoid making similar mistakes that could cost our civilization several centuries of peace and quality of life. Reacting coherently and rationally to true natural disasters would also help us fare better.