Sunday, August 26, 2012
Sky destroys credibility of doomsday talk
John Goss is chairman of the Mid-East Region of the Astronomical League and a former president of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society.
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Credibility. This word has become lost in the rhetoric associated with the major issues of our day.
That's bad because it is an important quality demonstrated by someone who we regard as an authority on a particular subject.
We rely on reputable people who are more experienced and more knowledgeable than we to keep us informed so we can make rational decisions on complex topics.
What makes someone credible? The credible person has extensive knowledge and training in his or her field, and is adept at accurately and clearly explaining the issue.
The credible person has earned the respect of his or her peers. The credible person has a history of presenting truthful information. The credible person understands the full scope of the subject at hand and is familiar with its associated disciplines.
The credible person does not use emotional buzzwords nor states vague generalities. The credible person speaks to the point using verifiable information, and does not hide possible conflicts of interest.
The issue of credibility quickly becomes important when discussing science related topics. While it certainly isn't a major issue, the December 2012 Mayan Calendar doomsday prediction is just such an example.
According to some purveyors of doom — whose credibility is suspect — the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012, because, according to them, that is when the ancient Mayan Calendar ends.
On or around that date, Earth's demise may result from any one of these frightening events:
nThe sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy, causing it and Earth to be pulled in that direction. Massive earthquakes and a flipping of our planet's magnetic field result.
nA large body, possibly a comet or the mythical planet Nibiru, approaches too closely to Earth, perhaps colliding with it.
nAn undisclosed planetary alignment occurs, igniting massive solar flares which create mayhem on our home world.
No astronomer would make statements like those. The facts fortunately don't match what the doomsayers proclaim:
nThe sun does not align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy on Dec. 21, or on any other day. While they are located in the same general area of the sky, they are separated on the celestial dome by 13 apparent moon diameters and, in three dimensional space, by 27,000 light-years.
nThere is no rogue planet "Nibiru." Any planet set to collide with Earth this December could easily be seen in the sky tonight. There is no new planet in our night sky.
nThere is no comet on a collision course with Earth. A new comet is headed toward the inner solar system in March, but it will not come close to our planet.
nNo planetary alignment occurs in December. While Mercury, Venus and Mars lie in the general area of the sun, none is near it. The four largest planets are found nowhere near the sun.
Professional archeologists do not all agree on the nuances of the Mayan calendar. They do agree that the calendar does not end on Dec. 21, although one of its very long counting cycles — the 144,000-day-long Baktun — might end on that day.
However, the next Baktun begins the following day, just as our week ends on Saturday and the next one begins on Sunday.
The sky on early September evenings resembles the sky in the early afternoon on Dec. 21, minus the sun and planets.
On Sept. 22, the first quarter moon hovers where the sun moves on Dec. 21. To the moon's lower right, near the spout of the Sagittarius "Teapot," lies the direction of our galaxy's center.
On Dec. 21, Mercury will be sitting between Antares and where the moon lies on Sept. 22, while Venus will be glowing above Antares. Mars will have moved from its current position near the double star Zubenelgenubi to the far left of the "Teapot."
Look at the sky, then ask yourself, "How credible are the people who make the ridiculous claims of the world ending on Dec. 21?"