apocalypse

2012 Apocalypse via Galactic Alignment by Nathalie Ouellette

The X-ray view of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. Image credit:  NASA /CXC/MIT/F. Baganoff, R. Shcherbakov et al.

The X-ray view of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. Image credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/F. Baganoff, R. Shcherbakov et al.

This is the Doomsday Scenario I’ve personally encountered the most, perhaps because it deals with things seemingly less outrageous than giant planets slamming into our us? As things go about their merry way in space, orbiting about one another, certain alignments are bound to happen. As with anything rare (OMG I JUST SAW A BLACK CAT SLAM INTO A MIRROR UNDER A LADDER WHILE OPENING AN UMBRELLA INDOORS WHAT ARE THE ODDS???), people like giving some significance to these events. Partial planetary alignments occur now and again, but do you know what’s even scarier than a planet? Why, a supermassive black hole(Sagittarius A*, to close friends) at the centre of the Milky Way, of course! Silly you.

Some have been saying that the Mayan calendar has been constructed around the alignment of Earth, the Sun and the Galaxy’s centre, which they say will happen on December 21st 2012, at which point everything will explode, or something. Truth is, it’s not actually going to happen on that date. Even better, were it to happen, Sagittarius A* is just so darn far away from us that it wouldn’t matter. Despite being over a million times more massive than our Sun, the fact that it’s 30,000 light years away means its gravitational effect would be insignificant compared to the pull we feel from our Moon. Even betterer, the actual alignment happened in 1998, so… Unless you count Britney Spears releasing her hit song …Baby One More Time as the apocalypse, I think we came out of that alignment relatively unscathed. Chances are, the same will happen this December (is Britney due for a new album?).

2012 Apocalypse via the Maya Calendar by Nathalie Ouellette

An engraved Mayan calendar. Image credit:  Kim Alaniz  /  CC BY .

An engraved Mayan calendar. Image credit: Kim Alaniz / CC BY.

Next up in our apocalyptic adventure is a more general overview of why people have been freaking out in the last little while. With Y2K coming and going with no end of the world insight (well, I guess all this pollution isn’t that great, but I digress), people have been seeking some other importnt and alarming transition point in some calendar. When one was not found within our own Gregorian calendar, our prayers were answered when we delved in the ancient Maya calendar! 

Whereas our calendar is split up into weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia, the Mayans – and the Olmecs before them – split their calendar into different units.

1 day is a Kin

20 Kins is a Uinal

18 Uinals is a Tun (approximately a solar year)

20 Tun is a Ka'tun

20 Ka'tun is a Bak'tun

20 Bak'tun is a Pictun

[…]

All the way to 1 Alautun, which is 23,040,000,000 days, or Kins.

We are currently at the end of the 12th bak'tun since the beginning of our current age. This December 21st 2012 will be the moment when we enter the 13th bak'tun, denoted in the Long Count calendar as 13.0.0.0.0. There is very little evidence in the study of historic artifacts that would lead us to believe that a cataclysmic event is inevitable at this date. In fact, the Maya celebrated the end of each cycle, and welcomed the new bak'tun as a chance for renewal, much like we celebrate the end of every year by dropping giant globs of lightbulbs onto buildings, awkwardly kissing whomever happens to be closest to us at the time and counting our blessings.

The Maya have survived and celebrated previous changes of bak'tun. In their writings, they even speak of events that happen in their mythology far beyond December 21st 2012. There’s no reason to believe they knew something we don’t about some impending doom waiting for us at the end of this year. Breathe easy for now, and start saving your money for next Christmas, because it looks like we won’t be saved from the holiday gift giving season just yet!

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is currently hosting a great temporary exhibit on The Maya Civilisation until April 9th. If you’re heading out there, you should definitely check it out! If you’d rather not leave your computer, but are still interested in learning more on the Maya calendar, read up on it right here, on my personal favourite resource: Wikipedia.

2012 Apocalypse via a Colliding Planet! by Nathalie Ouellette

V838 Monocerotis, a variable star shrouded in a dusty halo. Image credit:  NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

V838 Monocerotis, a variable star shrouded in a dusty halo. Image credit:  NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Peppered over the year, we will be looking at different scenarios brought forward by a variety of people as how the year 2012 will bring about our demise. This month, we’ll be discussing the supposed collision of our own Earth and a planet named Nibiru, also known as Planet X. The Planet X hypothesis has been kicking around for a long time. As far back as the 19th century, scientists thought an unknown planet in the far reaches of our Solar System larger than Pluto was necessary to explain certain discrepancies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. These were later solved without the need for such a planet, and the issue has mostly been laid to rest in the scientific community.

Enter one Nancy Lieder in 1995. Convinced she has been elected by a race of aliens inhabiting the Zeta Reticuli star system to warn us of our impending doom, she has been hard at work spreading the good word over the internet. Initially, she stated that the planet Nibiru, supposedly 4 times the size of the Earth, would be sweeping through our Solar System on May 2003 before finally colliding with Earth. She states that even a near collision could be deadly, as interactions with Nibiru’s magnetic field would stop our own planet from rotating for an extended period of time, causing terrible, horrible things like displacement of the Earth’s crust. Obviously, May 2003 came and went and nothing of the sort happened. Logically, Lieder opted to argue that she had lied about this first date to “fool the establishment”… whatever that means. But if you’ve always dreamt of witnessing a planetary collision from a particularly close vantage point, never fear! “Experts” now say this mammoth event should happen in December 2012. Lucky us!

Obviously, there’s no real proof that any such planet with any such malevolent intentions is out there in our Solar System. An object of such a size would have been visible by now, yet there have been no visual confirmations of Nibiru or Planet X or Kerplowksiker. Of course, if NASA is part of “the establishment”, then it might all be a coverup. Furthermore, the orbit of this planet as described by Lieder has been found to be highly unstable by credible astronomers, and it would have been ejected from our Solar System within a million years of its creation. There are basically a bunch of reasons why we shouldn’t worry about this scenario coming to pass. If you’re curious, you can read up a little more on this topic here.

If you’re worried about our 2012 scenarios, and just can’t wait for me to talk about them, go through this neat NASA FAQ to ease your mind.

Until next month! Just because the world isn’t ending this year doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of it! 

Killer Supernovae? by Nathalie Ouellette

Kepler's supernova remnant. Image credit:  NASA ,  ESA , R. Sankrit and W. Blair (Johns Hopkins University).

Kepler's supernova remnant. Image credit: NASAESA, R. Sankrit and W. Blair (Johns Hopkins University).

This month, we'll be delving into supernovae! Some scientists are studying the possible effect such a cataclysmic event might have on Earth, were it to occur at close enough proximity. A straightforward measurement of how likely a supernova is within a distance D from Earth is given by this distance divided by 32.6 lightyears, all cubed — or (D / 32.6 lyr)^3. This is how likely such an event is over the span of one billion years. Trust me, it isn’t very likely to get something significant close by once you do the math. Furthermore, the effects of a supernova don’t only depend on its distance from Earth, but also on its type — which is strongly correlated to the amount of energy it outputs. 

A significant, and significantly close-by supernova may have occurred approximately 450 million years ago. The gamma raysemitted by such a supernova would have been so powerful that they would have stripped a large part of our planet’s ozone layer. This might have been the cause of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction — the third largest extinction ever to be recorded — which resulted in the extinction of about half of the planet’s species. Geez… Killer comets, supernovae shooting death rays. Maybe my monthly trivia should lighten up a bit!

There are about a trillion articles out there on the world wide web on this topic, ranging from very interesting and thought provoking to ridiculously bad faux-science fear mongering. Here’s a nice starting point, via Discovery News.

If you find yourself navigating the intertubes for more info, tread carefully and read critically, as always!