The year 2012 has, in recent years, become the subject of a great deal of excitement, fear, and controversy. Many people believe that the year 2012 will result in some sort of enormous cataclysm, perhaps the end of the world, and will signal a great shift in life as we know it. This belief is based both in an understanding of cosmological alignment of earth in relation to other celestial bodies, and to the galaxy itself, and in an esoteric Christian eschatology built on top of earlier Mayan beliefs that was formed sometime in the 16th century.
The cosmological importance of 2012 is believed to be a great alignment, occurring on 21 December of that year. Some people believe that when the sun rises on that day, it will rise directly in the middle of the Milky Way, representing an alignment of the Earth, the Sun, and the Galactic Center. This is said to cause a great shift, some say in the consciousness of life on the planet, some say on the planet itself. Skeptics, however, point out that this alignment is purely visual, and does not actually represent a true alignment with the Galactic Center. The perceptual alignment is caused simply by the 26,000 year gradual precession of the equinoxes.
Others believe that what is occurring on 21 December is not simply a perceptual alignment, but a true shift in the Earth’s alignment to the Milky Way. Our Solar System is orbiting the Galactic Center in an orbit that takes approximately 225 million years to complete, and during its orbit it moves up and down, crossing the central plane roughly every 33 million years. Believers in this theory hold that on 21 December, 2012, our solar system will be crossing this central plane for the first time in 33 million years. There is some scientific evidence, however, that suggests our solar system actually crossed this plane roughly 3 million years ago, giving us another 30 million years before we cross it again.
The other major interpretation of 2012 as a special date relates to the Mayan calendar, and a certain interpretation of it. The Mayan calendar, technically the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, is a base-20 calendar which counts forward from 11 August, 3114 BCE. The calendar can be easily represented in a base system including five major subdivisions: the k’in, the winal, the tun, the k’atun, and the b’ak’tun. A k’in is equal to 1 day, or roughly 1/365 of a year; a winal is equal to 20 days, or 20 kin, or 1/18 of a year; a tun is equal to 360 days, or 18 winal, or roughly 1 year; a k’atun is equal to 7,200 days, or 20 tun, or roughly 19.7 years; and a b’ak’tun is equal to 144,000 days, or 20 k’atun, or roughly 394 years.
These dates are usually represented with decimal places between them. So that, for example, a date 788 years into the cycle, or 2 b’ak’tuns, could be represented as 184.108.40.206.0, and the date twenty days later would be 220.127.116.11.0. According to the Popol Vuh, a book compiling creation myths of the K’iche’ Maya, we are living in a fourth world, created after the third world ended at the start of the 13th b’ak’tun. The Mayan Long Count date of 18.104.22.168.19 will occur on 20 December, 2012, making 21 December the start of the 13th b’ak’tun, or 22.214.171.124.0. It should be noted, however, that the Maya themselves never seemed to think this date represented any sort of end of the world, and there are a number of stelae that reference dates well past the beginning of the 13th b’ak’tun.