Science
1:24 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

As 2012 Comes To A Close, The Facts About Doomsday

Originally published on Tue November 27, 2012 1:44 pm

On Dec. 21, 2012, some fear that a rogue planet will collide with Earth and destroy the planet, or that the supposed end of the Mayan calendar will lead to the obliteration of the universe.

When people have questions about these scenarios, they often turn to the Internet.

NASA astrobiologist David Morrison has taken it upon himself to enter that online conversation and answer hundreds of questions about the science of existential threats.

On NASA's Q&A site Ask an Astrobiologist, Morrison debunks and details the origins of popular apocalyptic scenarios and thoughtfully responds to questions about potential doom.

"Many people don't know what they're afraid of," Morrison tells NPR's Neal Conan, "but they have heard this doomsday thing so often that they just come to me with a simple question: Will we have Christmas this year?"

Morrison wants to assure the world that Christmas will come this year. The planet Nibiru doesn't exist, and there is no correlation between the end of the calendar and the end of the world — the calendar would simply start over.

Morrison says he's not quite sure how he became NASA's doomsday expert, but the questions started coming in around 2007 or 2008. "They came out of the blue," he says. "I had no idea anyone was worried about a 2012 apocalypse. So I answered."

The questions kept flooding in, and the blog has become something of an obsession for Morrison over the past year. Ask an Astrobiologist has received more than 5,000 questions about doomsday 2012, and Morrison has posted more than 400 responses.

As the senior scientist of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Morrison has a lot of scientific knowledge about how the universe works. But he says the logic is actually pretty simple.

"If there were anything out there like a planet headed for Earth," he says, "it would already be the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. Everybody on Earth could see it.

"Go out and look. It's not there. You don't need to ask the government or me, just use your eyes. There's no interloper out there headed into the solar system."

Though some of the questions may seem frivolous and outlandish, Morrison receives queries from people who are legitimately concerned and contemplating suicide. "Another extreme one ... I got was quite touching. It was: My only friend is my little dog. When should I put her to sleep so she won't suffer in the cataclysm?"

NASA does not track the origin of the responses, but based on context, Morrison says most of them are from the U.S., and a lot also come from the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan.

Morrison thinks the increased public interest in the subject can be linked to TV shows and movies focused on the apocalypse, and also the increase in natural disasters across the world.

As for his plans for the site after Dec. 22, 2012, Morrison says, "I'm going to drink a bottle of champagne and say that somebody else should take it up."

Even when doomsayers wake up on the day after the predicted apocalypse, Morrison says he doesn't expect the worries to stop. "Some of them will just think it's going to happen next year or the year after. There's always people who want there to be an apocalypse. But, Morrison says, he's moving on to other quests.

"I'm going to go back to worrying about little things, like life in the universe and searching for life on Mars," he says. "How dull compared to the end of the world."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Where do people go with questions about the apocalypse, the Mayan calendar or end-of-the-world events? Well, many turn to the Internet, of course, and decide to ask NASA, where Astrobiologist David Morrison has taken it upon himself to answer thousands of questions about the science of existential threats. The site is called Ask an Astrobiologist. But it's possible that you may have received such questions, too, as a parent, as a teacher or as a faith leader. So what were you asked? What did you say? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Morrison is an astrobiologist and space scientist at NASA. You could find his link to his Ask an Astrobiologist blog on our show page, and you can submit your own questions there if you'd like. And he joins us from NASA Ames Research Institute. Nice to have you with us today.

DAVID MORRISON: Hi, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here again on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: And I wonder, has 2012 been a tough year for you?

MORRISON: It's been a little distracting. I have found myself receiving anywhere from five to 10 questions a day, some of them quite agonized, from people who are truly afraid that the world will end a month from now.

CONAN: And that's the predicted date for the end of the world reportedly or reputedly on the Mayan calendar.

MORRISON: Well, maybe. But it's much broader than that. There are a whole range of things that people are afraid of, all of them fantasies, nothing with a foundation in science. But they all focus on December 21st of December.

CONAN: The equinox. The - and is there any pattern to these?

MORRISON: Well, there are several things that people are afraid of. You mentioned the Mayan calendar, which does not end on December 21st. Actually, I know that's true because last week I got in a mail the 2013 Mayan calendar. So I know it keeps going.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Collector's item, yeah.

MORRISON: Right. But there are other things. Some people think there is a planet or a brown dwarf or some other interloper that's actually going to crash into earth and destroy the planet. Some people think there does going to be a mysterious force that flips the rotation poles so we start going the other way. Many people don't know what they're afraid of, but they have heard this doomsday thing so often that they just come to me with simple question: Will we have Christmas this year? Will we all die on December 21st? Is the Earth about to be destroyed?

CONAN: And as you say, I mean, it's easy to snicker, maybe, but these are agonized questions.

MORRISON: They are, and they include some young people who say they're contemplating suicide. A friend of mine, a teacher in Stockton, had two parents come saying they were planning to kill themselves and their children before December 21st. And another extreme one; the early questions I got was quite touching. It was: My only friend is my little dog. When should I put her to sleep so she won't suffer in the cataclysm?

CONAN: I could - how did you wind up doing this?

MORRISON: I'm not quite sure. There are a number of Ask a Scientist websites, some that NASA has and some others. And somehow people about four, four and a half years ago start asking me these questions. They came out of the blue. I had no idea anyone was worried about a 2012 apocalypse. So I answered. And once I started posting answers, more and more questions came in until it's become something of an obsession with me in the last year.

CONAN: And do you now spend most of your time doing this, at least, most of your blogging time?

MORRISON: Yeah, most of my blogging time. I guess I spend three or four hours a week on it. And it's fascinating. But I am so sorry for the people, especially young people that are really scared. And I don't know what I can say. I can tell them the facts, the science, that it's all just a fantasy. But you know, if the kids' friends in school are telling them the world is going to end, if they turned on the TV and it says the world is going to end, it's pretty scary.

CONAN: And where do these questions come from? From this country or from abroad or both?

MORRISON: Well, NASA doesn't actually identify the people that the questions are coming from. Unlike some other parts of the - of our environment, the government does not keep track of these things, so I have to guess from context. Most of them are from the U.S. About a third of them are from young people. A lot of them come from India and Pakistan and the U.K. Of course these are English-speaking countries, so that would be natural to send questions to me.

CONAN: And to send questions to NASA. And I guess in a way it's a sign of respect.

MORRISON: It is. And it's interesting because often the same questioner says, I know the government is keeping this secret. You work for the government. You won't tell me the truth. I have people say the Congress passed a law saying anyone that told about this incoming object would be killed. So it's a two-sided thing. They wrote to NASA. They wrote to the government. And yet they have this fundamental suspicion or distrust of the government at the same time.

CONAN: And it's not just the object that's going to strike the Earth and cause the cataclysm. The magnetic shift of the poles, I've read.

MORRISON: That's one of these threads. The Earth, of course, has a north and south magnetic pole. They are not aligned with the rotation pole exactly, so your compass doesn't really point at due north. And those magnetic poles shift. And about every million years or so, they actually reverse. So north and south magnetic poles change. As far as we know that, that has no bad effect except your compasses will point the wrong way.

But people convolve that with a change in the rotation axis. So the Earth, we're going to reverse its direction of rotation. They have nothing to do with each other. That's never happened, it never will. But that is what people are afraid of, not the changed in the magnetic field but some cataclysmic change in the rotation of the Earth.

CONAN: And there are, of course, those who are worried about some unusual alignment of the planets, foretelling terrible events.

MORRISON: Right. This is really a kind of astrological thinking that the position of the planets determines what happens on Earth. It's a little crazy because if you actually look at where the planets will be on December 21, they're scattered all over the sky. There's about as far from being a planet alignment as I can imagine. But by sheer repetition, mostly on the Internet, these things are said over and over, where friends of mine, smart people come and say, well, I know that Nibiru thing is junk, but what about the alignment? What is that going to do? There is no alignment.

CONAN: The Nibiru thing, of course, it is junk. But what is it?

MORRISON: Well, it's supposedly a planet, a rogue planet that is headed into the solar system. The original source was a woman who claims to be a psychic and have a chip in her brain so that she gets messages directly from aliens that warned us. Some people attribute this to the ideas of ancient Sumer, but that isn't right either. But one way or another, they think there's a planet coming in that will strike the Earth and destroy us.

The counter-argument is pretty simple. If there were anything out there like a planet headed for Earth, it would already be the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. Everybody on Earth could see it. Go out and look. It's not there. You don't need to ask the government or me, just use your eyes. There's no interloper out there headed into the solar system.

CONAN: David Morrison writes the Ask An Astrobiologist blog on NASA's website. He is an astrobiologist and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Institute. And we'd like to hear from those of you who also get questions about the end of the world: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Patrick. Patrick on the line with us from Niagara Falls.

PATRICK: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PATRICK: I'm a middle school science teacher, and we just happen to be in the very tail end of our astronomy unit. And kind of as a hook at the beginning of the unit, since I have had students kind of asking me here and there about the Mayan calendar and, you know, the predicted apocalypse and so on, I decided to find two videos online and then show them both. And I kind of - I did it pretty deadpan and I showed them the first one that was clearly made by a conspiracy, you know, driven group and, you know, they had, you know, a quote-unquote expert that they were, you know, asking about, you know, about all of this stuff.

And he had pictures of, you know, galaxies whirling behind him, and he looked very authoritative and basically said, you know, oh, we really think that this might be the end. And there were over a million hits, a million views on YouTube. And so, you know, I said, oh my gosh, guys, what do you think? And they're like, oh, I don't know. You know, and I said, well, I've got one more video to show you. And I happened to show you one that I believe your guest made for NASA.

And I showed them that, and he dispelled all of the, you know, the information that was on the prior video. And you know, and then unfortunately only 300,000 views on YouTube. And so I said to the, you know, my students afterward, well, guys, I mean who are we going to believe? And we had a discussion about it, and we came to the conclusion, kind of as a group, that it would be better to trust the authority and not just some guy or people on - that made a video and put it up on YouTube.

And I think it was a valuable lesson not just to put their fears at rest about, you know, December 21, but also who are you going to trust in getting information from in your life, and I think especially because kids are particularly susceptible to conspiracies.

CONAN: Well, David Morrison, congratulations on that vote of confidence from the Niagara Falls Middle School.

MORRISON: I think that is a terrific thing to have done. And of course it was helped by the fact that you just showed one video on each side. If a person simply goes to the Internet and looks at YouTube videos, there are more than a hundred of these conspiracy disaster ones for every correct one. And so you might wonder, without a teacher to help them, how many people are going to find out the truth or believe it against this background noise clamoring for destruction and apocalypse.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the call. Good story.

PATRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: And again, we're talking with David Morrison, an astrobiologist, author of Ask an Astrobiologist. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Michael, Michael on the line with us from Athens, Ohio.

MICHAEL: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: Yes. I'm a schoolteacher. I teach elementary school. And just this morning I was asked by a 10-year-old whether the world was going to end on December 21. And I told her that no, the world is not going to end. That came from the story of a Mayan calendar that was on a 5,000-year cycle and that the cycle was coming to a close, but that it just started again at the top and went around for another 5,000 years. So that...

CONAN: And was she reassured?

MICHAEL: Yes. That seemed to reassure her, and she was like OK with that. So I think if others - if she's asking that, I know that, you know, there's a whole lot of kids from high school that have this on their mind.

CONAN: I'm glad you had the data right at your fingertips there.

MICHAEL: Well, thank you. And I appreciate your show. I listen to it all the time.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that. And, David Morrison, do you suspect that come December 22, all of this is going to go away?

MORRISON: Don't I wish. I think I'm going to stop answering questions about it. I'm going to drink a bottle of champagne and say that somebody else should take it up. I sometimes tell people who are really adamant, will you write me back on December 22 and apologize? I bet most of them won't, and some of them will just think it's going to happen next year or the year after. There's always people who want there to be an apocalypse.

By the way, I hope you'll tell your viewers that there will be an open email discussion this Wednesday, in two days at 2:00 p.m., that NASA is sponsoring on the NASA Google Plus page. And they would be welcome to send in written questions then to me and three other NASA scientists.

CONAN: And where should they go for that?

MORRISON: Go to the nasa.gov and look for the NASA Google Plus. I haven't actually done this, but if you want to put it on your website, I can send you the details.

CONAN: And if you want to balance the value of discussion about the apocalypse or the Political Junkie, well, the apocalypse sounds a little more appealing, doesn't it?

MORRISON: Actually, I would rather hear the Political Junkie. But then I'm tired of the apocalypse.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, as you say, you do have a day job as an astrobiologist. What are you going to after the 22nd?

MORRISON: I'm going to go back to worrying about little things like life in the universe and searching for life on Mars. How dull compared to the end of the world.

CONAN: Here's an email question from April: I get these questions from my 10-year-old and simply say that as a Christian we know that Jesus may come back at any time, so the world as we know it may end at any time. No one knows, including the Mayans. We don't seem to be bothered with it, and I think the media is what prompts him to ask more than anything. I know heaven will be better than this world so I'm not concerned about it. And in fact I should go so I could finish my cyber-shopping for Christmas gifts.

So there's another answer. And as you talk to these - as you say, some people are quiet vehement about this. But are they the majority of your correspondents?

MORRISON: The majority of my correspondents are people who are afraid. Sometimes they ask, you know, reasonable scientific-type questions that I can give a straightforward answer to. But it's so much influenced by the Internet and YouTube in particular, plus these apocalyptic shows that have been on several TV channels.

And now to add to it, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, there are a lot of people out there saying everybody should be prepared, you should have a survival kit. And if you're tuned in to this coming apocalypse, they say, ah, this is a coded government warning that we're really supposed to worry about a catastrophe on December 21.

CONAN: Superstorm Sandy was a coded government warning?

MORRISON: The follow-up, the place where people keep telling people get a generator, get food, be prepared for a disaster, you know, meaning an earthquake or another storm. If you're into this 2012 doomsday, you interpret that as a warning from the government to you, a coded warning because of course the government has all this information and won't release it directly.

CONAN: I'm not much of a physicist, but if another planet crashed into the Earth, I'm not sure a generator's going to help you much.

MORRISON: You're absolutely right. And you know, one of the things that is in common to so many of these questions is the phrase the end of the world. But then they don't really mean that. If the end of the world is, you know, like Sandy, it's going to be some disaster. But if they go into an air raid shelter in their backyard or something, they will survive. So the end of the world doesn't mean the same thing to them it does to me.

CONAN: Not the end of the world necessarily; dystopia perhaps. David Morrison, thanks very much for your time today, and I will talk to you on the 22nd maybe.

MORRISON: OK. And please, all you teachers out there, tell your kids that Christmas is coming this year.

CONAN: David Morrison, an astrobiologist, space scientist at NASA. He answers questions for the Ask an Astrobiologist blog on NASA's website and joined us from the Ames Research Center at NASA. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program