By now, you’ve probably heard about this 2012 thing. If not from something on the Discovery or History channel, then maybe from promos for the hollywood movie. On the off-chance you aren’t up to speed on the thing, here’s the short version. The Mayan civilization were very good with numbers and calendars and stuff, and their calendar showed a definite end – in other words, their calendar had a day that was the ‘last day’. Converting the Mayan calendar into our own system, the ‘last day’ translated to the Winter Solstace (December 21), 2012.
Now, the Mayans knew how long a year was with more accuracy than anyone else up until the last hundred years or so, and for whatever reason, people seem to think that this means they knew something that we don’t. In other words, since the Mayans didn’t bother to make a calendar that lasted beyond Dec. 21, 2012, that meant that the world would end that day and there was no point in having further days on the calendar.
Consequently, there’s lots of doom-and-gloom predictions.
I, however, propose a different theory.
Do any of you remember the doom-and-gloom predictions, that accompanied “Y2K”? And that turned out to be nothing? Well in fact, it wasn’t entirely nothing – so, now it’s time for a history lesson.
In the 70’s and 80’s, the young IT industry was creating computer code that would run all the big important things; financial stuff, big industry, that kind of thing. In the early days of computing, memory was very expensive, so any opportunity to save some space was taken. Plus, humans are lazy. So instead of four digits for the year, they used two digits. The ’19’ was taken for granted, and any year from ’00’ to ’99’ was assumed to be ‘1900’ to ‘1999’. Undoubtedly, they assumed that long before the year 2000 someone would come along and rewrite their software.
Well, the year 2000 suddenly was looming and people realized that noone quite knew what code was still running that assumed the ’19’ for the century. Hence, a bit of panic, and a lot of work. The reason that ‘nothing happened’ was that about 2 or 3 years of intensive work and testing were done, to ensure that when the new century dawned, the computer systems would be ready.
Now fast-forward to 2012 (or fast-rewind to the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization). So far we haven’t discovered any Mayan computers, but I’m going to explain why 2012 is just another Y2K. Brace yourselves for another history lesson, with some math involved.
The Mayan number system is a base-20 system. Where we use base-10. (And for comparison, computers use base-2 aka binary.) So as you learned in school, in any given number, we have a ones-column at the right, then a tens-column to the left of that, then a hundreds-column to the left of that, then a thousands-column to the left of that, and so on. Every column is one exponant higher than the last. So the number 2012 breaks down into two thousands, zero hundreds, one tens, and two ones. So we get two thousand, and twelve.
If we just use one digit, we can count from 0 to 9. With two digits, we can go from 0 to 99. With three digits, from 0 to 999. With four digits, from 0 to 9999.
Now remember the issue with Y2K? The problem was that the ‘thousands’ and the ‘hundreds’ columns were taken for granted, so that programmers could save space and only worry about the ‘tens’ and the ‘ones’ columns? Hence, the computers could count from 0 to 99, and the 19 at the front was assumed.
In Mayan math, being a base-20 system, that means that every ‘column’ is based on an exponant of the number 20. So you start with the ones-column, then you have the twenties-column, then the four-hundreds-column, then then the eight-thousands-column, then the hundred-and-sixty-thousands-column, and so forth.
This means that with one digit, they can count from 0 to 19. With two digits, they can count from 0 to 399. With three digits, they can count from 0 to 7999. (Remember, I’m using our familiar base-10 number system to illustrate what they could do with their base-20 system.)
Now imagine, you are carving your calendar into solid rock. If you just use, say, two digits, you can count the next 399 years. With three digits, you can count 7999 years. Add a fourth digit and you can count 159,999 years. How many digits do you really need? If you consider how long history goes backwards (including mythology etc.) and how long they can reasonably expect the calendar to be useful, do you suppose it might be tempting to leave off extra digits? Surely in the next, say, 400 years, someone will come along and carve a new calendar-rock?
I don’t think the Mayans expected the world to come to an end. I think they simply didn’t bother adding extra digits to their calendar, to save some space, and they reckoned that some time in the subsequent centuries, someone would carve a new calendar-rock that would pick up where the old one left off.
I mean – every year my calendars end at December 31st, but that doesn’t mean the calendar-makers expect the world would end on new-years eve. Right? I mean, every autumn you see new calendars on the store shelves, so the calendar makers must assume the world’s not going to end. I bet if they made a 400-year calendar, then around the 399th year they’d be making new 400 year calendars.
I know, I know. Where’s the fun in that? You can’t make a hollywood blockbuster movie about life continuing on as normal and nothing happening. That doesn’t sell books. And crackpot theories don’t get any coverage if their crazy theory is that “nothing’s about to happen and everything’s ok!” OMG! Head for the hills!