Friday, December 21, 2012

Not the End of the World After All

Sun Dagger, Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon

Today is December 21, Winter Solstice. If you stand atop Fajada Butte in northwest New Mexico at noon and look through the slits created by three slabs of stone, you will see the sun daggers bracket a spiral chiseled into a sandstone cliff.

Winter Solstice may be just another Friday on our calendar, but for many ancient people it marked a beginning – the return of longer days and a “reset” of the agricultural calendar for the year. This year’s Winter Solstice also marks a new beginning to the “long count” Mayan calendar. Kind of like when you hit Dec. 31 and take the old calendar down and hang a new one. Or like moving into the new millennium which, despite the Y2K scares, seemed to transition well enough.

Still, for the past few weeks NASA scientists have been trying to calm fears about the predicted “end of the world” which, according to some folks, should be happening any time now.

“Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years,” says NASA, “and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.” Asteroids plummeting towards the earth? Nope – though one did pass by pretty close a couple weeks ago.

What about planet alignments? Nope, says NASA. No planetaryalignments scheduled for the next few decades… “and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible.” Major planetary alignments occurred in 1962, 1982, and 2000, and nothing happened then. No Dark Rift, solar flares, or magnetic field reversals either.

As for the Mayan Calendar… chalk it up to a cosmic confusion between the Aztec and Mayan cultures that lived 500 years apart and far from each other.  Dates on the Maya Calendar combine at least two calendars - one covering 365 days and the other 260 days – and reset every 52 years. It also uses a "long count" system that adds a numeral at the end of a cycle to keep a constant count of years.

For the Maya, today is just another Friday. It just so happens to also be a year when several of their calendars reset.Check out more STEM Friday resources here.


  1. I love the photo, Sue. Is that in your neck of the woods?

    1. I wish... that's from Chaco Canyon - in New Mexico. I'm in not-sunny-today upstate NY.