This is a liveblog that I wrote during a free public lecture by Dr. Anthony Aveni on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010, at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. Dr. Aveni’s lecture explored scientific research countering predictions that the world will end in December 2012. These predictions are based in part on the fact that the Maya calendar ends in December 2012.
Dr. Aveni is known worldwide as an expert on Maya culture and beliefs and has appeared on the Discovery Channel, NPR, PBS-Nova, the Today Show and other national media outlets to discuss Maya astronomy. Since 1963, he has taught at Colgate University, where he is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology, serving dual appointments. He is considered by his peers to be a founder of the field of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy and has written 13 books on Maya beliefs.
With just a few minutes before the program begins, there are plenty of seats available in the room. Wonder what kind of crowd Aveni will draw. I’d expect a lot. The mythology about 2012 and its end-of-the-world prophecies is a popular theme with Morehead audiences. This is a younger crowd than I expected — 20s, 30s. Interesting that most people are sitting near the front, eager to hear every word.
I see some backpacks. That’s usually a clue that professors have offered extra credit for students who attend the lecture. And this would be a good opportunity; Aveni has world-class credentials in astronomy, anthropology and maybe in archaeology, too. And he’s supposed to be entertaining: “Rolling Stone” magazine named him one of its “Top Ten College Professors.” Sure, that was nearly 20 years ago, but I still think he’ll be engaging.
Suspicion confirmed. A young woman in the row ahead of me is talking to her friend about how many people from her class showed up.
Here come the dignitaries, right on schedule. I see Aveni and his wife, along with Morehead’s director, Dr. Todd Boyette. There’s Dr. Vin Steponaitis, who heads UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archeology. Who else? Some reps from Lenovo, which is sponsoring Aveni’s lectures here and earlier this week at Appalachian State University.
PowerPoint clicks on. Audience quiets.
“Good evening. Welcome to Morehead ….” Boyette begins the introductions. About three-quarters of the seats are filled, and a few latecomers are streaming in.
Aveni hits the stage and introduces a few friends, then launches headlong into his lecture. Energetic, upbeat, tossing darts and digs at his target (which, apparently, is anyone who buys into the 2012 mythology). Wonder how the audience will respond to that — are these people among the conspiracy-theory faithful?
First, the basics. The “Long Count” of the Maya cycle ends on solstice, Dec. 21, 2012. Aveni describes it as a car odometer: The world doesn’t end, but the count rolls over into a new cycle. Some rustling in the crowd, some physical expressions of disbelief.
Aveni puts a Lee Lorenz cartoon from the “New Yorker” on the screen: Two gloomy businessmen are walking down the street. One consoles the other, “It’s not the end of the world.” Around the corner, not yet in their line of vision, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride toward them. “It’s not the end of the world,” Aveni reassures us. This guy has an audacious, boisterous sense of humor.
So what can we expect to happen in 2012? Aveni presents two schools of thought: “Blow Up” or “Bliss Out.” The world explodes, or we melt into a new age of euphoria. Either way, there’s change. But is it really going to happen?
Here’s the astronomy part. “A solar flare releases more energy than all the nuclear power plants on Earth.” Hmmm. Yeah, that could be a blow-up.
Aveni is skewering what he calls “2012 Gurus.” He cites their claims, incredulous: Don’t worry about retirement. Cleanse your colon to receive energy! Earth has acupuncture points, and one of them is Pike’s Peak. This must be the bliss-out part.
Finally, on to the reality. Aveni shows photos of the Maya pyramids, tells us that the Maya were a sophisticated culture, comparable to the Greeks and the Romans in their achievements.
Aveni emphasizes that many Maya books were burned by Christian explorers, intent on eradicating any evidence of what they considered pagan knowledge. Only a few writings remain of hundreds, maybe thousands that once existed. Today, we think of this ancient culture as revolving around astronomy and religious practices, but perhaps it appears that way only because the Maya writings we have found are about those topics.
Now he’s describing one of the rituals depicting in the writings. It’s unpleasant. There’s blood involved.
This is interesting. The words Aveni uses from the ritual don’t sound like anything from Latin America. They’re very harsh, gutteral. I assumed the Maya language would resemble Spanish, but of course it doesn’t. The Maya were present long before Spanish explorers appeared.
Back to astronomy, plus religion and some mathematics. Maya writings establish the “Hearth of Creation” as a core belief (with a symbolic representation in every Maya home). This three-stone hearth, built by Maya gods, is reflected in the constellation Orion. Aveni tells us that the Maya gods descended to Earth frequently and interacted with Maya people often, according to the writings.
He outlines the time passages as marked by the Maya — too fast for me to keep up, but I do understand now that the Maya calendar is based on the number 20. (Aveni says it’s because the Maya counted on their fingers and toes but we only count on our fingers, since we typically wear shoes — what a jokester.) Each Maya month has 20 days, so there are 18 months in a Maya year.
All of the known Maya writings (Aveni calls them “codices”) refer to rituals that must be performed to keep the world in balance. (This reminds me of the Balinese rituals that Elizabeth Gilbert outlined in “Eat Pray Love.”)
There are flood myths in Maya codices, he adds. “What culture doesn’t have a flood myth? You know about this from two weeks ago, when they got 22 inches of rain in Wilmington! Want to know more about floods? Go to the Ninth Ward [New Orleans].”
Aveni’s on a rampage now, ripping through 2012 predictions one by one:
“Maya literature is either historical or ritual. It’s not prophetic. So where does this mythology come from?
“Planets go in and out of alignment. Go to the NASA website. You can see the planetary alignments in 10 seconds. I looked it up myself.”
“Gravitational pull and tides? The Moon’s pull creates a two-foot tide. The Sun’s pull, a one-foot tide. The next most powerful gravitational pull on Earth comes from Venus, and that’s only one five-hundredth of an inch.”
BOOM! He shot those down. There’s even an animation that shows the galactic convergence.
People in China don’t care about this, Aveni says. You won’t find a culture of apocalyptic thinking in Russia or Africa. Americans are the only people in the world who believe this stuff (yes, “stuff” is Aveni’s word).
This predisposition toward apocalyptic belief began with the Pilgrims, continued with the Millerites in the mid-1800s and is strong today. Aveni cites 13 “end of the world” predictions for the year 2006 alone, including one earthquake, one comet collision, one planetary alignment and two nuclear winters, among other calamities.
The book “Hamlet’s Mill” suggests that major world events happen every time the Sun moves in position from one constellation to another constellation. And apparently Americans aren’t alone in their interest in destruction; Isaac Newton predicted the world would end in 2065.
There’s a flurry of PowerPoint slides reflecting different apocalyptic messages. Aveni mentions the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, too, known for a mass suicide in 1997. These people believed that Earth was due to be “recycled” and that they would be transported to a spaceship to travel to another dimension. [Apparently they left some of their cult members behind, though, because someone is still running their website.] Only in America ….
Sacred tourism! That’s one reason that the Maya mythology remains, Aveni says. “Here’s Chichen Itza. If you’re there at sunset on the equinox, the snake will descend. Thousands of people come to see it. Why would you want to be there?”
Lawrence Joseph again. This is the fifth or sixth time Aveni has mentioned Lawrence Joseph, who has written books about a 2012 apocalypse — he really loathes this guy. “People believe that science conspires against giving correct information.” As a scientist, Aveni’s not happy about that.
Another quick look at the “bliss out” option. People expect “joy despite disaster” in fin de siecle (end of century) times.
Aveni begins his close with a visual joke, an “Alien Time Line” (originally published in 1997 by “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine) that depicts the evolution of alien races as seen by the American moviegoer.
“We tend to put our hope in others to save us, to give us knowledge — Egyptians! Mayans! Aliens! Maybe the answers are not out there but in here.”
Ask a Maya shaman, “What happens in 2012?” The answer: “We start another cycle.”
Applause, polite, muted with a few pockets of enthusiasm. The students here for extra credit begin their exodus. Questions, fewer than I expected.
What about polar shifts?
“They happen. Our magnetic north is constantly on the move, in fact. But this doesn’t happen all at once — it’s a process that takes hundreds of years to complete, and it’s not going to happen in 2012.”
What about alien visits?
“That relies on some big Western assumptions: that [aliens] can communicate, that they want to visit us, that they want to give us knowledge.”
What about Fibonacci numbers?
“The spirals predict the growth of a shell, of a pine cone. But they aren’t predicting an apocalypse.”
Why do so many people believe in these Maya prophecies?
“American religion’s appetite for apocalypse comes to the forefront during times of fear. And we’re at war, there’s terrorism, there’s the economy — these are fearful times.”
Boyette approaches the lectern, thanks the audience and Aveni. A few crowd around Aveni with more questions before the evening (but not the world) ends.
Morehead is planning a special "Carolina Skies: End of the World edition" for December 21, 2012.