Galileo meets the Mayan apocalypse

Far and away my favorite headline of Friday was the one that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Experts almost certain world not ending today

How great is that? And I say that as someone who was not quite as impressed as Romenesko with this front-page folio line from the Omaha World-Herald yesterday.

The story is well done, with a nice look at calendars and apocalyptic thinking. It begins:

A previously undiscovered zombie planet will not crash into the Earth today, obliterating all human life and leaving the cockroaches to roam the desolate landscape, a drove of authorities said.

These authorities, ranging from rocket scientists to anthropologists to religious leaders, also said that the sun will not spout a flare 100 million miles wide that will char the Earth like a marshmallow dropped into a campfire.

Nor, the experts confidently claim, will a distant supernova send a concentrated laser beam of gamma radiation hurtling toward our homes at near light speed, annihilating any trace of our ever having existed.


They cannot say for sure because the future is by its nature uncertain, despite science, despite our desires, despite what we may or may not have marked on next week’s calendar.

What I wanted to highlight was the excellent way the story briefly explained why the Mayans were not predicting the end of the world when a calendar ended:

The ancient Mayan civilization, for example, used a calendar system that ran in cycles, like a car’s odometer. When one cycle ended, that calendar ended, and another one began.

I keep being reminded of something Amy Sullivan mentioned at the Religion Newswriters Association conference earlier this year. She said that when you find religion news mistakes, these are typically mistakes being made by people off the Godbeat. The corollary to that is that there are reporters who are on the Godbeat or otherwise in tune with religion news and that they do a good job of telling religion news and explaining it. For all of the bad reporting on the Mayan calendar, we did see some good stuff, too.

The story did have a religion passage that might be worth discussing:

The Vatican weighed in, too.

The Rev. Jose Funes, the Vatican’s top astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote in the Vatican’s newspaper this month that the end of the world nonsense is “not even worth discussing.”

The Vatican, you may remember, has not always found itself on the side of science. It condemned Galileo in 1633, for example, for correctly arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun. An apology came 359 years later.

Oh, we remember. But is what we remember what actually happened? It reminds me of one of my favorite comment threads to a GetReligion post headlined “King of Night Vision.” The entire back and forth is worth re-reading if you don’t have time to read an actual history of Galileo. One commenter put it:

We need to be more careful with the myths that we create, especially those myths which are somehow supposed to be about our casting aside of myths.

I just put that out as a reminder since the culture seems to have rewritten the Galileo story a little bit.

It might be nice to see a story with a bit more reflection on the theological implications of why society celebrates (before condemning) precise predictions of the end of the world. There are probably quite a few areas to explore about what this cultural obsession says, what it signifies and what various religious bodies might say about the culture’s engagement with doomsday scenarios. Or maybe I’m just saying that because my pastor preached a great Advent sermon today about just this.

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  • “for correctly arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun”

    Actually, Galileo couldn’t even refute Aristotle’s main arguments and was roundly rejected by the scientists of his time.

    • Kate

      Which is fair, since he roundly rejected everyone else’s theories – including the ones that worked out better than his. One of the ironies of the Galileo affair is that, although his heliocentric thesis was correct, his math was crap – but it could have been improved if he hadn’t rejected Grassi’s observations years earlier (and alienated almost the entire community of astronomers, most of whom were Jesuits like Grassi).

  • Dave

    As far as I have seen the press has dealt responsibly with this doomsday kerfuffle. It’s also improving over the years in the way it deals with the far more likely tribulation when a newly discovered asteroid will pass near Earth; application of more data always (so far) resolves this into a near miss. What I would like to see covered better is the real-life, no-foolin’ doomsday scenario of climate change; I’d like to see more interviews of talking heads who connect the dots between wild weather and greenhouse gases.