WASHINGTON — As moviegoers across the nation watched the end of the world with the opening of "2012" last week, news of Earth's demise spread quickly across the Web. Scientists, fed up with the misleading prophecies, quickly set the record straight with their own series of articles and a YouTube video.
In the film, the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012 — a date that marks the end of a Long Count period, or 25,000-year cycle, on the Mayan calendar. The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, who's also behind the doomsday features "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Independence Day."
In the past, the scientific community hasn't responded to apocalyptic visions and just waited for the end-of-the-world storm to pass, said Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at NASA.
For instance, the Y2K scare leading up to the year 2000 paralyzed many with fears that computers and electronic equipment couldn't make the transition to the new century. People stockpiled bottled water and canned food to prepare for what became a non-event.
With "2012," however, it quickly became evident on the Internet that there were a number of misinformed people and that the disaster scenarios were multiplying, he said.
This time, members of the scientific community decided they needed to step in and let the science do the talking. So NASA posted a series of responses on its site to the many rumors in the film, addressing the misconceptions one by one, and also posted a YouTube video.
Bob Waxman, the author of "2012: The Ultimate Meaning," said his book also attempts to dispel the myths.
"The book tells the truth about 2012," he said. "There is so much propaganda out there. The Earth's crust is going to crack and cause volcanoes and Earthquakes, and supposed solar flares that are going to heat up the inner core; a planet that no one has ever seen (is going to crash into us); every possible way to destroy the Earth is in the movie."
The release date of his book — Dec. 21, 2009 — plays into the "2012" movie theme, however. It's exactly three years before the supposed doomsday.
NASA's Yeomans said that movie producers played into the hysteria, creating an Institute for Human Continuity Web site and even allowing users to vote for the leader of the new world.
"Normally, folks would think this is nonsense, but its Internet life was building," he said.
Another popular theory explored in the movie includes a planet named Niburu crashing into the Earth.
In fact, no such planet exists, Yeomans said.
The catastrophe initially was predicted for May 2003, but when no such event occurred, the end of the world was postponed to December 2012.
Yeomans said he isn't sure that there's anything scientifically correct in the movie because he hasn't yet seen it.
He and other scientists hope, however, that accurate information from trusted experts will stop end-of-the-world rumors from spreading further.
"We are not movie critics," said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown. "Our duty is to give the science fact, not the science fiction."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Kiran Sood, a graduate student from Naperville, Ill., covers science and technology.)
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