Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a talk at the University of Cape Town on the 12 April 2011 on this topic, discussing the astronomy-based evidence and scientific predictions for the end of the world in 2012, and whether they hold any weight.
Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell has an exceptionally long list of credentials, the most recent of which include being awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University in 2007 and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Durham in the same year.
Professor Burnell was the first to observe and document a pulsar on 28th November 1967, proving the existence of previously theorised neutron stars. She was a research student at the time and her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery, although this does not seem to be something she has ever expressed any bitterness about, saying the following in an after-dinner speech in 1977:
There are several comments that I would like to make on this: First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it — after all, I am in good company, am I not?
Pulsars are highly magnetised, rotating neutron stars which emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation. A neutron star is a type of stellar remnant that can result from the gravitational collapse of a massive star during a supernova. Such stars are composed nearly entirely of neutrons. They have a very small radius and a very high density
In a recent talk Professor Burnell gave on CapeTalk567 [download the mp3], she expressed her opinion that pulsars may have a practical application one day, acting as interstellar lighthouses to assist in space travel.
She is particularly concerned with the recent spike in interest in the end of the world in 2012, noting that people know enough science to exaggerate a kernel of truth, but not enough to realise that they are being misled.
The Mayan’s operated on cyclical time frames rather than the linear ones we understand. For this reason their calendar was based on cycles, but at the end of one of this specific long count, which last 5000 years, beginning 11th August 3114 BCE and ending on the 21st December 2012, the Mayans are unfortunately no longer around to switch the calendar to the following cycle.
The predictions stemming from this have resulted in the popular belief that the world will end on 21st December 2012 as people misguidedly imposed the idea that the end of the Mayan calendar did not signal the end of a cycle, but rather the end of the world.
The focus of this article is on the astronomical causes that have been suggested for this end, of which there are many, from hazards from space to earthquakes, tidal wave, and volcanoes, all caused by astronomy-based forces.
There have been many predictions made about the end of the world during mankind’s existence. Visit this website, Many Endings.com, for a list of them. If I click on 1987, the year of my birth, these are the predictions I find that were made about the end of the world in that year:
That’s not even mentioned the Biblical book of Revelations, Nostradamus, crop circles etc. NASA has named the movie, 2012, the most unscientific, ridiculous film ever made, expressing their annoyance at having to set up a helpline specifically for people anxious about the end of the world in 2012.
Prof Burnell said she Googled “end of the world in 2012” and found 56 million search results, which is a big number even to an astronomer, especially when you consider that the majority of them are scary, panicky sites.
The end is predicted to occur at 11:11am GMT (or 11:11pm UT). What’s a 12 hour difference at the end of the world in any case? Coincidentally, the Sun reaches it’s southernmost position that year at 11:12am GMT of 21 December, which is the Summer solstice.
There are a lot of fluffy theories out there around the end of the world prediction and they are hard to get a grip on in order to analyse, but some of the astronomical ones are easier to consider.
Prediction: The Sun’s magnetic field will reverse. Solar storms will destroy the Earth.
The scientific truth: The Sun has an eleven year cycle, which means that not only does the magnetic field reverse every eleven years but the number of sunspots and solar storms also comes and goes.
The Sun’s magnetic field reversal and the number of sunspots go hand in hand. We have seen many reversals so far since we’ve been observing the Sun for centuries.
As you can see, cycles can be quite variable in length, with eleven years being an approximate.
In 2009 the magnetic field reversed but the sunspots didn’t appears and the sunspots cycle didn’t start. Based on estimates by NASA astronomers, the solar maxim is expected to peak in 2013, not 2012, and not only that but it will also be half the height/strength of the last one, the lowest its been in over a century. This will also mean we can expect fewer solar storms. Find the official study of the solar cycle prediction here.
A solar storm is when the Sun emits a blast of charged particles (protons and electrons). These can be quite hazardous, particularly to astronauts in space at the time who will receive a very strong dose of radiation. It is also quite bad for satellites, potentially knocking out satellite communication. Satellites outside of the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field are particularly susceptible. The chance is low and predicting it is a bit like predicting the weather. The storms might not be more severe, but since mankind is becoming more dependent on satellites this is something NASA is taking seriously. Think about it: every time you swipe your card at a petrol station a satellite communication takes place.
Furthermore, Earth’s magnetic field can be altered during a strong storm. It would be a nuisance, but would not be the end of the Earth.
Prediction: The magnetic field will reverse. The Earth will stop spinning and then start spinning the other way.
The scientific truth: The magnetic field does flip over on occasion.
This graph represents the entire traceable history of the Earth’s magnetic field. Black lines show when it is the same as it is now, white space represent the reversed polarity. This shows the last 3 million years of Earth’s history. Reversals happen at approximately 300 000 year intervals. The last one was 750 000 years ago, so in some senses we are ‘overdue’ for a shift. However, tool -using homo habilis appeared around 2.5 million years ago and there have been no obvious mass extinctions at the key reversal times, indicating a very low to no threat to our existence. The flip takes approximately 5000 years to complete and is not an instant change.
The magnetic field gets weaker before the reversal, and the Earth’s magnetic field is currently weakening by about 5% every 100 years, indicating that we are possibly heading towards another reversal. This weak fluctuation could just be what the magnetic field does, or it could be prior to a reversal. We don’t know yet. These reversals are caused by small changes in the field amplified by the rotation of the Earth, so the Earth’s spin certainly won’t be effected by the reversal to such an extent that it will stop all together, let alone change direction.
Prediction: The alignment of the planets could pull Earth away from the Sun or rip Earth apart.
The scientific truth: The image below represents an alignment of the planets which occurred May 5th 2000 as viewed from the North Pole. From bottom to top they are the Earth, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.
The effect of gravity on the Earth is crucial to all living things, especially with regards to the tides. We all know the effect the gravitational pull of the Moon has on tides. Do all of the planets ‘ganging up’ on one side of the Earth pose a real threat?
The primary gravitational pulls on the Earth are from the Sun and the Moon, with all of the planets combined contributing 1/200 of the Moon’s gravity. When considering the tides that figure decreases even more, with the Moon having the most effect on the tides, the Sun having a moderate effect, and the planets adding 64 millionths maximum of the Moon’s effect.
We have seen many planetary alignments in the night sky since we began observing the stars, and not a single one has resulted in catastrophic results for Earth.
Prediction: Comet, asteroid, Nibiru
The scientific truth: Nibiru is the supposed planet discovered by Sumerians circa 2500 BCE that orbits the Sun every 3600 years and is due to hit Earth in December 2012. Also known as Planet X, it supposedly has a very eccentric orbit.
1AU (astronomical unit) is 90 million miles or 150 million kilometers. The long direction of Nibiru’s orbit is said to be 470 AU. It must come within 1 AU to the Sun in order to potentially collide with Earth. The above ellipse is grossly inflated. It’s actually much flatter than it is represented there, essentially going backwards and forward along the same path. Unfortunately for the Sumerians, the path it takes faces directly towards the galactic core. People used to identify planets as they moved across a starfield, but not only did the Sumerians have to identify it as it came towards them without changing position of brightness, but they also had to identify it against the vast background of stars at the galactic centre.
Today Nibiru would be 7.5 AU away, between the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter. It was it’s furthest away in 200 AD and the closest in 1588BCE. However, there have been no sightings or records of disturbances by any of NASAs equipment, and many amateur astronomers would have sighted this planet by now if it did indeed exist. In 2500 BCE, at the time when the Sumerians claim to have observed it, Nibiru was 400 AU away (10x the distance of Pluto), yet they had no telescopes to observe it and we can not see Pluto with the naked eye.
Planets are like big dirty mirrors reflecting sunlight and do not produce their own light. In order for Nibiru to be visible to the Sumerians at 400 AU away it must be 150x the brightness of the Sun and 3.3 million masses of the Sun. Such planets are physically impossible to exist, and such stars do not even exist.
Could it possibly be a small star – a brown dwarf? A brown dwarf is basically a star that has failed to ignite. At around 400 AU a brown dwarf would look bright like any other of the planets to us. However, a brown dwarf at 7.5 AY, Nibiru’s supposed position today, would be as bright as the full moon and easily visible in daylight.
Conclusion: Nibiru is fiction. It is also the only 2012 prediction that seems to be purely fiction. All of the other theories have a seed of science beneath it, which has simply been misunderstood and abused.
As for the possibility of an asteroid collision, this is never entirely ruled out. An asteroid is left over from planet formation and most of them lie in the asteroid (or Kuiper) belt between Mars and Jupiter. Some are nudged by gravity into orbits that crass Earth’s orbit. An asteroid can cross our orbit with no collision, but there is some probability of a collision.
Small asteroids hit the earth’s atmosphere frequently, creating a meteor or a fireball. A lot land in the ocean or countryside.
This is the Barringer crater, or meteor crater, in Arizona. It was created by a 50 meter sized object. There are one of these every 1000 years. This crater is 1 km across and is much older than 1000 years.
Once every 50 – 100 million years a body over 1 km in size hits Earth. 65 million years ago the Chicxulub crater was formed. This is possibly the impact that could have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
It would have kicked a phenomenal amount of dust into the atmosphere. That, combined with the subsequent tsunami, would have been devastating. The Lord Byron poem, Darkness, was written in the Summer of 1816, also known as the year without Summer, and is an interesting take on how people behave when they think the world is ending. Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall is another interesting perspective on people’s reactions to darkness.
In actual fact, in 1816 a volcano in the Philippines had erupted. That large eruption combined with smaller eruptions to push enough ash and dust into the atmosphere to cause serious problems. It will effect warmth, agriculture, and prevent people from traveling by air.
We are due for the next large impact and this is a serious problem. We do at least have the Near Earth Object monitoring program. One of the telescopes on the program is the Pan Starrs telescope based in Hawaii. It looks for objects 200 m wide and coming within 4.5 million miles of the Earth (20x the Moon’s distance). 1000s of objects are currently being watched by this program.
How NASA would move an asteroid would be to paint it’s solar side white so the asteroid will move. A robot could also be launched to erect a solar sail on it. The sunlight bouncing off of the sail will push the asteroid aside by the same principle. A shock wave from a nearby exploding rocket could move it, but the movies are horribly exaggerated when they direct a rocket straight at it, which in reality would result in the disastrous situation of breaking the asteroid up into many large chunks.
By now we would have seen an asteroid lethal enough to wipe out Earth approaching. The next big one if expected in March 2880, so we can set our watches for that instead.
Prediction: The Earth will fall into the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.
The scientific truth: The Sun is very far from the centre of the galaxy. However, this rumour was born because the Earth’s orbit takes it along the pane of the galaxy towards the black hole. On the 21st of December 2012 this annual alignment at the point closest to the centre of the galaxy will occur, as it always does.
We are 250 000 million million miles away from it. If the Earth was wrenched off it’s axis right now and started hurtling towards the black hole at literally the speed of light, it would take us 26 000 years to get there.
The unfortunate thing about all of these predictions is that whenever a prophesy such as this fails, it only strengthens people’s beliefs. There are some areas where rational argument will not reach, and for this reason we often play straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists who say we are all involved in covering up information.
The question-and-answers session which followed Professor Burnell’s speech was quite interesting. She mentioned that in 1 billion years the Sun will heat up and boil the oceans. In 3 billion years the Andromeda galaxy will collide with ours, possibly splitting the Earth from the Sun and in 4.5-5 billion years the Sun will run out of Hydrogen gas and undergo a sequence of changes, swelling to 100x its size and possibly engulfing Mercury, Venus, and Earth.
There is a book called The Jupiter Effect which tried to suggest that the sunspot cycle could effect events on Earth such as earthquakes and volcanoes. According to Prof Burnell it has been “thoroughly rubbished” and is no longer taken seriously.
The solar system moving through colder patches in the galaxy will not effect Earth since our heat is derived from the Sun, not from surrounding areas. This will not trigger an ice age.
One man brought up the Gospel of Luke and Revelations in the Bible. At this stage I was quite pleased that Prof Burnell is a religious person (she was raised a Quaker) because she mentioned her religious beliefs but that she does not treat the Bible as a scientific text. In a South African space I think her response to this was excellent since people would be adverse to accepting things she told them if she had mentioned she had no belief whatsoever, possibly seeing it as “atheist science” rather than simply a secular approach to reality.