Category Archives: Science

The Real Live True Not-Fake Prophecies for December 21, 2012

So what exactly’s gonna happen on December 21, 2012?

Haven’t you heard? THE WORLD’S GOING TO END.

Stop reading this and go buy batteries, for crying out loud!

Seriously, this kit needs some batteries. And board games.

Seriously, this kit needs some batteries. And Mad Libs.

Mayan calendarOnly kidding, folks. It’s just the end of a super-long Mayan calendar cycle. Well, actually it’s a cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Calendar, but this is widely associated with the Mayan civilization.

See, the Mayans believed that the gods had created three worlds before ours, but they’d all failed. The fourth one was a success, presumably related to the fact that the Mayans were in it. According to a commonly accepted conversion from the Mayan calendar to our Gregorian calendar, this fourth world, or cycle, began August 11, 3114 BC, and lasts 13 b’ak’tuns (a unit of time), and we’re coming up on the end of it this month.

December 21, as a matter of fact.

The pessimists will tell you this marks the literal end of all creation, the apocalypse. But I’m pretty sure they’re the same folks who bought cave real estate in 1999. The rest of us woke up on time and went to work the morning Y2K rolled around, just like we will on December 22 this year. In the same way your house doesn’t explode when you flip over your last calendar page of the year or decade or century (despite how much fun that would be), it’s likely that our planet will keep on existing at the end of this Mayan calendar cycle.

A map of the 13 b'ak'tun cycle that's about to end.

A map of the 13 b’ak’tun cycle that’s about to end. (Click for larger version.)

It makes sense to assume that since the Mayans believed in cycles previous to this one, they also believed that another cycle would begin after this one is through.

Ask an optimist (or a Mayan scholar), and they’ll tell you the more likely story: the end of a cycle would be a time of great celebration for the Mayans. After all, 13 b’ak’tuns is a long time – probably somewhat comparable to the amount of time you would wait in line at the DMV on an average day. Getting to the end of that calls for a major party.

What luck to be alive for it!

Yeah, but just in case the world does end, how will it happen?

All the theories I’ve seen involve astronomical anomalies which, were they actually impending, would probably have been on the NASA radar for quite some time now.

Of course, there is the possibility that it’s not on NASA’s radar because it’s sneaking up on us from behind.

That’s silly, though. There’s probably just a massive government cover-up.

But I know you like to be prepared, so here’s a smattering of doomsday predictions the government doesn’t want you to know about but the discerning users of the world wide web have been diligent enough to sniff out (ahem, completely fabricate) and publicize.

Thanks to the movie 2012, we know exactly what it'll look like when...well, when whatever is going to happen happens.

Thanks to the movie 2012, we know exactly what it’ll look like when…well, when whatever is going to happen happens.

  • Planet X, or Nibiru, may be heading our way and collide with us. Or some other rogue planet. Or a big asteroid. Basically, something huge might hit us. (You can thank self-declared psychic Nancy Leider for the Nibiru thing, although she originally predicted it for May 2003. She had to change it to December 2012 when June 2003 arrived as usual.)
  • Sudden and intense solar storms could burn us to a crispy little ball of ash.
  • The north and south poles could reverse (in an instant!). I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to happen in one day or specifically how it would destroy the world (especially since it’s happened before and we’re still here); but it’s clear that it would not be a positive development.
  • We could get caught in a gravitational tug-of-war between the sun and a black hole called Sagittarius A.

There are more various and disastrous galactic alignments that might spell our doom, but the ones above are the most commonly expressed online, and therefore the most likely.

Pardon me, but you’ve said nothing so far about Nostradamus…?

To be honest, I think you might be a little disappointed if I tell you about this guy.

What's with the pouty face? Perhaps this is his old MySpace profile picture...?

Nosty’s old MySpace profile picture (see emo pout)

No, you still want to hear?

Okay then, Nostradamus (or Nosty, as I like to call him, because it sounds like “nasty” with a British accent and that’s funny) was a prophet way back in the 16th century. He made, like, a zillion prophecies, mostly because he lost his wife and kids to the plague and didn’t know what else to do with himself. (After all, when you’re trying to make a living as a healer, which he was, and then your whole family succumbs to the bubonic plague, which they did…might as well throw yourself headlong onto another career path. Which he did.) Most of his predictions are so vague that they could be adequately applied to a whole slew of events that have happened since. Among the events people claim Nostradamus foresaw are the French Revolution, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the assassination of JFK, and the September 11 bombings.

But did he prophesy the end of the world in 2012?

About as much as he prophesied any of those other things. I was going to give you the actual prophecy of his that people are claiming predicts the 2012 armageddon…but I could not, in fact, find any two sources that agreed.

Hey, I warned you this would be a let-down, but you wanted to press on.

To see if you can guess which of Nosty’s prophecies foretold which events, try this quiz. Good luck.

In conclusion, I’m really not that worried about the end of the world. I figure the TARDIS will probably arrive just in time to save us all. And if not…well, it’s been fun.

P.S. If you’re still around on December 22nd, be sure to check back in for the third installment of the Celebrity Babe of the Month series.

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The Dirt on Geophagy

Remember those cozy days on the playground when you patted and poked and cooked up a real nice mudpie…and then ate it?

Most of you grew up and left your dirt-eating days behind, but not all of you. Do I have any readers out there with lingering mud mustaches? Raise a hand (er, a comment?) and let us see who you are. As it turns out, you’re not alone.

Kids who eat dirt are called kids. But when adults eat dirt (or clay, or chalk), it’s called geophagy. (Actually, it’s technically called geophagy for kids, too.)

If you just said, “No, that’s called pica,” hear me out. Pica is classified as an eating disorder in which people feel like they really need to eat things that aren’t food. But geophagy is specific to earthy substances, and it’s often more like a hobby than a craving.

Who eats dirt?

Anybody can catch the geophagy bug. Among animals, dirt is no delicacy; it’s in the diet of mammals, reptiles, and especially birds (many species of parrot, specifically). In people, dirt-eating is most common among children and pregnant women. It’s also associated with people who live in poverty and who adhere to traditional medical practices over modern ones.


Geophagy is going on all over the world, especially if you’re talking about animals. (I’m pretty sure it’s happening in my backyard right now, actually.) Human dirt-eaters may be more common in parts of Africa than in westernized countries, but the practice is still alive and well in the rural American South.

What kind of dirt?

Clay, mostly. Georgia white clay (kaolin) is apparently particularly pleasing to the palate and is available for purchase online. Some small stores in rural areas keep clay in stock. According to Wikipedia, if you go all the way to Haiti you can get a real farm-to-table experience: you can buy fresh, local mudpies from women who just baked them on their roofs.

But really…why?

Well, the main reason people eat clay may be that it’s good for you. It includes minerals and nutrients that can fight pathogens, and there is evidence that birds eat clay because it neutralizes toxins in other foods they ingest, allowing them to get nutrients from the other foods without becoming sick. In fact, a few types of clay may work like Kaopectate (which, until 2003, actually included kaolin – Georgia white clay – as an ingredient). And some dirt-eating is likely the remnant of traditional medicinal practices. Great-granny may not have called her natural remedies “geophagy,” but they sure did taste a lot like dirt…

It’s possible that some people eat dirt because they don’t have anything else to eat. The fact that geophagy is more common in impoverished populations than it is among people who have enough to eat lends credence to this theory. Another consideration is that geophagy may be a part of tribal or religious ceremonies and rituals in some cultures.

And of course, some people just like the taste of dirt.

World’s Most Famous Geophage?


For a truly insightful essay paralleling a foray into geophagy with a spiritual journey, read Beth Ann Fennelly’s piece in the Oxford American.

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Levitation is for L’hovers

When you hear the word levitation, maybe you think of something like this:

I’m not saying that’s not real. (But it would not be inaccurate to say that it isn’t not unreal.)

Let’s leave magical powers out of this, though. I want to talk about the sort of levitation achieved by science.

Humans have found a handful of ways to force objects to defy gravity, and I’m going to tell you about one: magnetic levitation.

Ever heard of a maglev train? It uses electromagnets to run without touching the tracks, cutting down on friction (allowing for faster starts and stops) and wear-n-tear (theoretically making it less expensive to maintain). In order for this to work, the train has to hover at exactly the right distance from the track: 15 mm. That’s about the width of a woman’s thumb. The downside? No more nostalgic penny-smushing (possibly outweighed by the cool factor of a LEVITATING TRAIN).

Some maglevs actually use electrodynamic levitation, which involves superconducting electromagnets.


Whoops, sorry…looks like the Too Many Fancy Scientific Words (TMFSW) alarm just went off. Let’s break this down a bit.

What’s an electromagnet?

It’s a magnet that uses electricity to produce its magnetic field.

What is a superconducting electromagnet?

An uber-strong electromagnet produced by electric current from superconducting wire.

Superconducting wire?

Yeah. It just means the wire, when brought to extremely low temperatures, can carry a bunch more electrical current than regular wires. This allows it to create really strong magnetic fields.

Is everybody good? Can we turn the TMFSW alarm off now?


Excellent. Now, where was I?

Ah, yes. Some maglevs use superconducting magnets for levitation and propulsion. You know how when you put two magnets together at the wrong ends, they’ll push apart? A much stronger version of that force is what makes these maglevs hover and go. Here’s a basic view of how that works (remember, opposites attract, so North will push apart from North):

When you think about how heavy a train is, it makes sense that these magnets would have to be outrageously strong to levitate one. Thus, superconducting electromagnets instead of, say, Magna-Doodle dust.

Are you impressed yet?


Fine. Just watch this video. If you’re not in awe of levitation after that, we’ll see about resurrecting Kellar for one last show.

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