10 things you might not know about doomsday
Either the world will end on Dec. 21, or it won't. Your view depends on whether you believe in a much-publicized but debunked interpretation of the Mayan calendar, or you don't. Here are 10 facts so amazing they may crack the time-space continuum:
1 One in five Americans believes the world will end in his or her lifetime, according to an Ipsos survey conducted earlier this year. In the poll of more than 16,000 adults in 21 countries, only Turkey and South Africa are similarly pessimistic about the future. As for the Mayan calendar issue, 12 percent of Americans believe it does indeed mark the end of the world. Interestingly, just 9 percent report being anxious about that.
2 A phenomenon known as "New England's Dark Day" occurred May 19, 1780. Blackened skies prevailed, with no sign of normal daylight, causing people to fear the world was ending. Some historians attribute the phenomenon to forest fires combined with fog. Connecticut legislator Abraham Davenport famously insisted lawmakers meet by candlelight. If it was not Judgment Day, he said, there was work to be done. But "if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty."
3 The Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, went into operation in 2008, accelerating atomic particles and agitating people who were worried it could create a black hole that would swallow the Earth. Scientists downplay such concerns but, as Amherst College physicist Kannan Jagannathan explained, they are opposed to saying there's zero chance. Jagannathan did say the odds of the collider ending life on this planet were no better than the odds of his college president opening a kitchen faucet and a dragon popping out.
4 Possibly the oldest doomsday prediction is found on an Assyrian clay tablet dated to 2800 B.C. While it's nearly 5,000 years old, it sounds amazingly current: "Our Earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common. Children no longer obey their parents. Every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching."
5 The apocalyptic lyrics of the R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" cite composer Leonard Bernstein, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, comedian Lenny Bruce and rock critic Lester Bangs. Singer Michael Stipe says people with the initials L.B. were included after he had a dream in which he was the only guest at a party without those initials. (Bonus trivia: The song was once played for 24 hours by the Cleveland radio station WENZ when it changed format to alt-rock and called itself "107.9 The End.")
6 German astrologer Johannes Stoeffler predicted in 1499 that the world would be engulfed in a great flood on Feb. 20, 1524. Many people believed him. One of those was German Count von Iggleheim, who made like Noah and built a three-story ark. On the big day, crowds gathered at the riverbank to mock the good count. Then it started to rain. People panicked and stormed the ark. The count protested, so he was stoned to death. Afterward, Stoeffler said he miscalculated and meant 1528. The correction came too late for the count.
7 Some Christians anticipate a series of cataclysmic events that will lead to the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it. A website called raptureready.com attempts to show how close we are to "end times" by maintaining a Rapture Index, which puts numerical ratings on the weather, immorality and geopolitics. The index, described as a "prophetic speedometer," stands at 186, tied for its record high.
8 Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s novel "Cat's Cradle" features a substance called ice-nine that can turn water into ice at room temperature, thereby threatening all life on Earth. Vonnegut said General Electric researcher Irving Langmuir suggested the concept to science fiction writer H.G. Wells in the 1930s. But Wells was uninterested, and Vonnegut later heard about the idea when he worked as a GE publicist. "I thought to myself, 'Finders, keepers -- the idea is mine,'" Vonnegut said. (Other finders were the Grateful Dead, who named their music publishing company Ice Nine in reference to the Vonnegut novel.)
9 It is easy to mock the hysteria caused centuries past by doomsday prophecies, but consider that Hal Lindsey, the grandfather of modern prophecy and author of the 1970 best-selling book "The Late Great Planet Earth," was invited to speak at the Pentagon and Air War College.
10 Will the Earth suffer a death by comet or asteroid? NASA is concerned enough that it tracks "near Earth objects" and plans a mission to investigate asteroid 1999 RQ36, which poses a remote threat around 2170. A century ago, Halley's Comet caused a public uproar, especially after The New York Times reported a scientist's view that toxic gas in the comet's tail could "possibly snuff out all life on the planet." Sales of bottled air and "comet pills" climbed, but Halley passed harmlessly in 1910. A Chicago Tribune headline announced "We're still here," with a subhead reading "World is just the same."