As I mentioned in my last post, I have just taken part in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here, a project that connects scientists and school students over two weeks of intensive chatting and Q&As. There are several questions that keep coming up, including the perennial favourite “Have you ever been to the Moon?”, but in the last few days, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of students asking “When will the world end?” I imagine that this is in part driven by the movie 2012 and stories on the internet about the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world on December 21, 2012.
I’m not going to go into detail about it, except to say that it’s not true. I’ll also point out that the particular calendar which has received all the attention does not even end at all! The Mayans actually had a system of calendars, not just the one Gregorian calendar we use*. For some reason people have latched onto one of them, and then misunderstood how it works.
Anyway, it seems that students, and especially younger students, are fixated by the idea of the end of the world. The younger the class, the more likely someone is to raise it. I’ve also been asked by students in various classrooms around Sydney. Luckily, by asking the question, the situation is (usually) cleared up. I worry a little bit about students who don’t have access to someone who can set them straight; hopefully most do! The internet is a complex place, and a lot of dubious ideas get posted and reposted, digested and re-digested. Once these ideas get a foothold, it’s difficult to dislodge them. The 2012 Doomsday scenario is a bit like that.
I’d like to think that adults have the tools to discern fact from fiction.** School students are still acquiring these skills, but they have an inherent curiosity and a thirst for information. Learning to filter the wheat from the chaff takes time. Obviously the end of the world is an alarming thought, especially if a lot of people keep saying it will be in three months time. Happily though clarification is easy!
Next time someone asks you about the end of the world, regardless of how old they are, remember that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and set them straight. The real answer is that the world will end in 4 billion years, when the Sun expands to become a Red Giant and swallows up the Earth. We’ve got plenty of time!