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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 17 August 2022

Explainer: Why the world isn’t going to end – an astronomer reveals all

Worried about solar flares? The Mayan calendar? The planet Nibiru? Astronomer Conor Farrell answers all your wildest questions.

A view from the Hubble Telescope
A view from the Hubble Telescope
Image: NASA ESA Hubble/PA Archive/Press Association Images

IN RECENT YEARS, 2012 has gained some notoriety as being something of a harbinger of doom. This stance has been fortified by various astronomical events – normal events which have only gained publicity because of 2012 – as well as the overwhelming abundance of pseudoscience online.

Many of these myths have an astronomical basis. Astronomy is seen as an esoteric topic, full of infinities, billions, and forevers. It fills people with wonder and awe, which is great for getting people interested in it, but unfortunately it’s that esoteric aspect that makes people think they don’t understand what’s ‘out there’.

People with a passing interest in space often ask me where in the sky they’ll be able to see the planet Nibiru, or what effects various “alignments” will have on earthquakes on Earth, and so on. What’s annoying for scientists is that such myths are taken as fact, simply because they were read online somewhere or seen on a video on YouTube: thanks to the overabundance of pseudoscience and growing publicity of real astronomical events, some things are becoming muddled. Fewer and fewer people seem to be asking themselves “Is this information actually true, or is it just nonsense?”

Here’s the short answer: it’s nonsense. And it’s not a harmless bit of fun either.

But as for a longer answer, I’m going to address a few of these myths and hopefully make things a bit clearer, as well as show how stuff like this can cause real harm.

How can you say it’s nonsense? The Mayan calendar ends this year!

And guess what? The calendar on my wall also ends this year. But that doesn’t mean the world will end!

To put it simply, that Mayan calendar is a cyclical one: when you reach the end of the calendar, you simply go back to the start and continue as normal. It works differently to and is more complicated than ours, however, as it’s strongly astronomically based. You can read about it on Wikipedia and on my mate Dave’s blog.

The various prophecies included in inscriptions relating to this calendar talk about new beginnings and starting things all over again. While the believers see this as our current world being destroyed, it is simply analogous to us celebrating the new year and taking on new year resolutions. Again, it doesn’t mean the world is going to end.

Okay, but what about Nibiru? That’s on its way and it’s going to disrupt our gravitational fields and cause earthquakes!

Nibiru doesn’t exist. If it was due to pass by (or collide with, depending on which myth you read) Earth this year, it would already be extremely close to us. That means that it would be visible if you went outside at night and looked up. But there’s nothing there.

Our skies and solar system are monitored very well by satellites and telescopes, too. They also don’t see anything up there.

The Nibiru myth popped up in the mid-90s and was supposed to herald Doomsday in 2003. Unsurprisingly, this never happened. Kinda says it all, really.

Telescopes and satellites? They’re controlled by NASA! They can just censor the information and hide the truth from the people.

More nonsense. A huge amount (if not the vast majority) of astronomical data is freely available to the public. NASA also only control a fraction of the telescopes and satellites in use on and around our planet. There’s also ESAESOJAXA, and many more, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of semi-professional astronomers around the world who monitor the skies themselves.

Here, take a look at some of the satellite information yourself. Click on any of the image links on the LASCO real-time image database. The ones near the bottom are the most recent. LASCO is an instrument on board the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and is monitored very closely by people all over the world – including me – for unusual objects. You can get ground-based observations of the Sun here, and you can even make your very own observations of the skies by using one of the many robotic telescopes, such as the Bradford Robotic Telescope.

View of the Milky Way galaxy from Australia in 1986 (AP Photo)

Right, fine. Maybe there’s no Nibiru coming our way. But what about the Sun aligning with the galactic centre? That’ll increase gravity and cause havoc!

To have an alignment you need three points. In the case of just the Sun and the galactic core there are two points, and they’re always in a line as you can draw a line between them.

But let’s assume the third object is a planet such as Earth.

First of all, there is no amplification of gravity, as gravity does not work like that. There will be no effect on Earth.

Secondly, why would gravity be suddenly increased by the galactic core which is 27,000 light years away and not the abundance of tens and hundreds of millions of stars much closer to us?

Thirdly and probably most importantly, the Earth, Sun, and the galactic core form a line with each other twice a year, and have done so for millions of years. We’re still here.

Considering the vast size of the galaxy and our solar system’s orientation, I’m not sure if we’ve ever not been aligned twice a year. But I know your next question is going to be about…

… The galactic plane! We’ll cross that this year and that’s bound to cause trouble!

Wrong again. All stars and solar systems in the galaxy orbit the galactic core on roughly a flat plane. However, orbits aren’t perfectly in line with this plane, and as a result things “wobble” up and down, sometimes above the plane, sometimes below.

In reality, this plane is more of a general region. We’ve been passing through the galactic plane for a long, long time now, and we will continue to do so for billions of years, as we’ve done so for billions of years in the past.

Passing through the galactic plane is something that takes millions of years, not something that will take place on a certain date in 2012.

I read that we’ll become more connected with our sister star, Sirius, in a universal context. How will that affect life on Earth?

Unfortunately, this is a nonsensical statement.

“Connecting in a universal context” means nothing, and is an example of the words people use to try to add weight to their unscientific claims in the hope that people will believe them.

The Sun doesn’t have a “sister star”, although it may have had a companion in the past, as many stars in the galaxy are actually paired up to form binary star systems. By measuring the motion of the stars, we can tell that Sirius was most definitely not our Sun’s companion. However, Sirius is a binary star, and if you look at it through a telescope you’ll see its little companion glowing beside it. Lovely!

Sirius: or rather, Sirius A and Sirius B (Wikimedia Commons)

Hmm, okay then, but what about our own Sun? What about all the solar flares? Couldn’t they wipe out life on Earth?

The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, and it looks like it is due to peak in 2013. All this really means is that on average it will have more sunspots at any given time compared to other times.

Sunspots also give rise to solar flares, but these occur on a regular basis (sometimes daily). There is no single big solar flare due to happen in 2012, and anyway, they can’t be predicted. So if someone tells you “omg the solar flare is coming omg in 2012!!!!1″, you can safely assume that either they’re lying or they don’t know what they’re talking about.

In fact, we had the strongest solar flare in recent years in January of this year. Did you notice it? Didn’t think so. It was barely noticeable to people on the ground other than the fact that there were particularly bright northern lights.

Solar flares can affect satellites in orbit, and cause some disruption to communications systems and GPS, etc. But the Sun is monitored well enough (using the same SOHO images I linked to above) that we can see when a solar flare happens, and we know when to switch off satellites before and damage occurs.

In short, solar flares are a very normal thing for the Sun to do. Earth’s magnetic field protects us enough that flares cause no damage to life on the ground – or rather, it protects us from the coronal mass ejections that result from flares, as flares have barely any effect on things this far away from the Sun. We can see our magnetic field in action when it channels energetic particles to the poles to trigger the northern lights (that’s basically those particles losing energy and becoming harmless).

What about a comet or asteroid? What if one of those hits us?

Earth could get hit at any time. There is just as much chance of it happening in 2012 as there is any other year. A couple of tonnes of debris falls on Earth every day. Most of this is small fragments of rock, often the size of a grain of sand or up to the size of a beachball.

Sooner or later Earth will get hit by something very big, and it will cause widespread destruction. But an asteroid or comet strike like this is just something that happens (and has happened lots of times in the past) and has nothing to do with 2012 or any doomsday scenario.

I’ve seen photos of comets/planets/aliens coming our way, and those photos were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope! How can you deny it now?!?

Astronomical images are full of objects: stars, galaxies, comets, planets, asteroids, clusters, supernovae… The list goes on. They also contain artifacts such as cosmic rays and errors due to bad pixels on the camera.

People sometimes see these objects and artifacts and purport that they’re proof of some apocalypse. The fact is that they’re misreading and misunderstanding the images they see.

Sometimes, people will take genuine photographs of a celestial object and call it something that it’s not. I found a memorable example of this once when I saw two images of an expanding shell of gas as a result of a supernova. Because they were taken at two different dates, the expanding shell in one image was bigger than in the other. Apparently this was the planet Nibiru “getting closer” to Earth. I had a chuckle, but again, this is an example of how scientific data will often be completely misused by people to back up 2012 myths, purposely or not.

The expanding shell of supernova 1993J

Okay, maybe I’ll start asking if these things are real when I see them. I guess people saying this stuff aren’t scientists, right? But one last question: if there was nothing going to happen, then why all the hype all of a sudden? Surely something could happen.

Sure. Something could happen. But it won’t be anything out of the ordinary and it won’t have anything to do with the year 2012 or any Mayan prophecies; it will be pure coincidence. 2012 is no more special than any other year.

There is a hype about it now because it’s now effectively a feedback system: the more people talk about it the more it grows, and the more it grows the more people talk about it. You’ll find that many of the 'believers' on the internet have written books or something and ask you to buy their products so you can get more information. They will push this nonsense in order to make money, and because of the scientific-sounding words, people will believe it and feed back into that system, making it grow even more.

Unfortunately this isn’t harmless. As well as being detrimental to real scientific work, people can really believe it, especially if they’re not scientifically-inclined and are exposed to too much pseudoscience.

Look at the Heaven’s Gate cult, where 39 people committed suicide thinking they would get to an alien spacecraft accompanying the wonderful Comet Hale-Bopp, which was visible in the sky in 1997.

Look, too, at the 16-year old Indian girl who, believing that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN would destroy Earth, committed suicide out of fear.

We shouldn’t be afraid of 2012 or any of the so-called prophecies relating to it. We should be afraid of the damage that these myths are causing to real people, and how they are taking lives.

Don’t buy into this 2012 doomsday nonsense. And don’t panic!

Conor Farrell is an astronomer with Astronomy Ireland. He writes about science at, where this post first appeared.

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