September 21, 2020

Mayan “end of the world cruise” visiting Cayman Islands


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Douglas Duncan, director of the University of Colorado's Fiske Planetarium

After fielding yet another media call about whether the world will end on Dec. 21 of this year, Douglas Duncan, director of the University of Colorado’s Fiske Planetarium, and one of his astro-colleagues hatched a plan.

“When the world doesn’t end, we should have a great party,” Duncan remembers his colleague saying.

The suggestion took hold, and now Duncan is spearheading a “Not the End of the World Cruise” in partnership with the Roaming Buffs alumni program — though anyone is welcome to participate — which will take curious passengers to the Mayan ruins in Mexico on the winter solstice, the day of predicted global devastation.

“The idea snowballed and snowballed,” Duncan said. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to visit the Mayan ruins?’ and ‘Wouldn’t it be a little extra fun to do it on the winter solstice?'”

Duncan is an old hand at planning adventure trips with an astronomy bent, including eclipse trips to the Mediterranean in 2006 and to China in 2009. On the upcoming cruise — which runs Dec. 16 through Dec. 23 — Duncan has recruited several guest speakers, including two other CU professors, an astronaut and two science-fiction authors, to talk to cruise participants about the Mayan calendar and the real dangers that may lurk in the universe. (Hint: It’s not a rogue planet headed on a collision course toward Earth.)

The belief that the Earth will end in 2012 is rooted in the Mayan calendar, which marks time in a series of bundles. Twenty days make up a uinal, 18 uinals make up a tun, 20 tuns make up a katun and 20 katuns — or 144,000 days — make up a baktun. Dec. 21, 2012, on the commonly used Gregorian calendar coincides with the end of the 13th baktun.

Some people have argued that the Mayans predicted the world would end at the close of the 13th baktun, though many scholars and Mayan elders say the end of one cycle only marks the beginning of another, just as the Gregorian calendar starts a new cycle each Jan. 1.

One of the common doomsday predictions about how the world will end claims that the planet Nibiru — allegedly discovered by ancient Sumerians — will crash into the Earth on Dec. 21, destroying it. NASA is adamant that no such planet exists and that, certainly, no such planet is headed toward Earth.

Many Guatemalan scientists are just as adamant that the myths surrounding Dec. 21 are unfounded. Later this month, the government of Guatemala — where many of the descendents of the Maya now live — is hosting a conference in Guatemala City, where archaeoastronomers (those who study ancient skywatchers) will gather to talk about what Mayans really understood, or didn’t understand, about the sky and the calendar.

“All through the Americas — not just where the Mayans lived, but up through the American Southwest — there was a lot of archaeological evidence that a thousand years ago, people were observing the sky very carefully,” said Duncan, who has been invited to the conference. “Astronomy had more of a practical importance then because you couldn’t get a calendar at the corner drug store and because many people were farmers. It was really important to know when to plant your crops.”

And while the calendar crafted by the Mayans is impressive given the tools the people had to work with at the time, scientists do not believe that ancient people would have been able to identify the mythical Nibiru or any planet like it.

These are some of the topics likely to be discussed on December’s cruise, as well as what a more possible end to the universe might look like.

CU professor Erica Ellingson, who has joined Duncan on a couple of his other adventure-science trips, said she may discuss her own research with cruise passengers, which relates to dark energy and the theory known as the Big Rip. The idea is that dark energy — a name scientists have given to the force that appears to be driving the continued acceleration of the universe’s expansion — could eventually (think 20 billion years) cause the universe to shred apart. That’s because, as the acceleration continues, dark energy could become strong enough to seep into smaller spaces, including our solar system and the spaces with atoms, ripping them apart.

“We’re taking an idea — a new idea that we’re still discovering — and extrapolating it into the future,” Ellingson said. “It’s wild extrapolation, and we’re enjoying the idea of, ‘Gee, this would be a really, really interesting and totally unexpected thing that could happen in the far future.'”

Whether or not the Big Rip will end up spelling the universe’s demise, the scientists onboard the cruise feel confident that they’ll wake up Dec. 22 to another day — and a pretty good day, at that.

“(Duncan’s trips) have always been really fun, interesting trips,” Ellingson said.

But if the world were to end Dec. 21, she said there are probably worse places to be.

“If it’s going to happen, you might as well be someplace warm and sunny,” she said.

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