MODESTO -- You're probably going to have to buy a Christmas gift for that relative you can't stand. That's the bad news. The good news is that the world isn't going to end just before the holiday, contrary to what some researchers believe is predicted in a Mayan calendar.
Bryan Mendez, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, will discuss interpretations of the Mayan calendar at a Modesto Area Partners in Science presentation Friday night.
"My take-home message is going to be to plan for 2013," Mendez said. Though Dec. 21 or 23 the exact date depends on who's doing the interpreting does have significance on the Mayan calendar, it has little more meaning than turning the page on the "Word of the Day" calendar sitting on your desk.
Mendez likened the system to a clock, which has no zero. The Mayans used a unit called a "Baktun," which is roughly 394 years. Thirteen Baktuns, or 5,125, years, made up an age.
But the Mayans, who prospered in what's now South America between A.D. 300 and 900, weren't in the business of predicting the end of the world. They were far more interested, Mendez said, in marking important dates in their history.
"They were trying to place events in kind of a cosmic context, if you will," he said. The December dates are similar to the end of a millennium, although when 2000 rolled around there were those who felt something catastrophic would happen.
Also, Mendez pointed out, other Mayan calendars have been unearthed that make reference to dates beyond this year.
But every age has its people who predict the end of the world, and this is one is no different.
"It's hard to pinpoint how it got started, but then the rumor just spread," Mendez said. "Some people heard what they wanted to, and it just gathered legs of its own."
Getting on the bandwagon
Every age also has a savvy population that will use such predictions as a marketing tool.
According to USA Today, travel agents are taking advantage of the opportunity to book Mayan-themed trips in South America. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says that city's NBA team, the Cavaliers, plans a "Mayan Calendar Survivors Night."
For Mendez and his fellow scientists, the rumors around the prediction present a chance. It gets people asking questions, and opens the door to teach them about science that might not otherwise interest them.
"It's an opportunity to teach people some of what is really going on in the universe," he said.
If you're still looking for a doomsday scenario past this December, you might seek out the Aztecs, who thought that each age ended with destruction, followed by new creation. The next one of those, Mendez said, comes our way in 2027.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.