Astrophysicist David Morrison talks to RFE/RL about favorably innocuous alignments of the planets, government secrets, and how your GPS navigator will be the Mayan apocalypse's first casualty.
Morrison heads the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and is a senior scientist in astrobiology at NASA Ames Research Center. This is a slightly edited transcript of his e-mail responses to correspondent Eugen Tomiuc's questions about December 21.
RFE/RL: Humans, arguably the only beings endowed with reason, seem to have always been afraid of -- and strangely attracted to -- the idea of the end of the world. The latest doomsday scenario cites an ancient Mayan calendar as proof that the world will end on December 21, 2012, due to some catastrophic event. Are there the slightest scientific grounds for this?
None at all. This doomsday hoax is pure fantasy.
RFE/RL: Strange theories abound on the Internet. A planet called Nibiru lurking somewhere behind the sun, ready to strike Earth. A sudden reversal in the rotation of the Earth (probably an idea coming from those who did not read Jules Verne during childhood). Some meteor, asteroid, or comet about to hit and wipe out life on Earth. After all, something similar happened to the dinosaurs.... So what are the odds of something bad happening out of the blue?
The chances are zero of any of these things happening on December 21. There is no planet named Nibiru, and the fictional books by [Azerbaijani-born American author and] economist Zecharia Sitchin about a civilization on this planet are a hoax. For the past decade there have been reports of a rogue object (Planet X, or Nibiru, or Hercubolus, or even Comet Elenin, discovered in 2010) that will collide with Earth on December 21. These claims are not true. If such a threatening world existed, it would be one of the brightest objects in the sky, and astronomers would have been tracking it for years. If it existed, its gravity would be distorting the orbits of planets, especially Mars and Earth. Astronomers know that it does not exist.
There is no alignment of planets in December 2012. There is an approximate lining up of the Earth and sun and the center of our galaxy in late December, but this happens every year. In any case, planet alignments have no effect on the Earth. There are also no inbound asteroid or comets.
Finally, there is nothing strange this year about either the magnetic poles or the rotational poles of the Earth. The magnetic polarity changes every million years or so, but that is not happening now, and it probably takes thousands of years when it does happen. A sudden change in the rotational axis has never happened and is not possible. If there were any change in the Earth's rotation, it would be instantly apparent by failure of our GPS systems.
RFE/RL: The current information technology and the widely available means of communication have offered people an amazing tool of learning. What is the explanation, in your opinion, [for the notion that] that people who literally have the world at their fingertips remain prone to believing bizarre theories no matter what arguments scientists...come up with?
Many people are under the impression that they can trust everything posted on the Internet. They have not learned that there is as much misinformation as real information on the Internet. Until people learn to distinguish truth from fiction on the Internet, we will have such problems.
RFE/RL: In the 2009 Hollywood movie "2012," which depicts a cataclysmic scenario of biblical proportions, governments across the world keep the public uninformed in order to ensure the survival of political and economic elites. Hard-core supporters of the idea that the world will end on December 21 claim that, like in the movie, governments are also hiding the truth now. What can and what can't the government reveal to the public in a hypothetical catastrophic scenario?
The idea of a government keeping such a secret is silly. If anything were happening to the Earth, hundreds of thousands of scientists all over the world would know. NASA and the government have no monopoly on information about the Earth or the cosmos.