JOPLIN, Mo. — The classic Maya were gifted scientists with a keen sense of the heavens, says astronomer Mark Claussen. They understood the moon's phases and detected a slight wobble of the Earth's axis.
But these days the Maya are more commonly known for predicting the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012. Its a piece of apocalyptic lore dismissed by Claussen, of National Radio Astronomy Observatory near Socorro, N.M., as well as his brother, Sam, who teaches a class in Mayan civilization at Missouri Southern State University.
“The Mayans never predicted such a thing,” said Sam Claussen. The doomsday date, he said, merely marks the end of the 20th cycle of a long-count calendar associated with the Maya.
“Think of it like an odometer in your car turning to zero,” he said. “When that happens, does the car explode or quit running? Of course not.”
Mark Claussen visited his brother's class this week to talk about the Maya, their astronomy and apocalyptic visions.
Among the latter theories: A rogue planet called "Nibiru" - which scientists have not actually seen - will soon smash into the Earth.
"A planet-sized chunk of rock can't stay hidden," said Mark Claussen. "It couldn't have escaped our attention."
Then there's the notion the Earth's poles will switch, throwing life as we know it into chaos. Evidence exists of polar switching, said Claussen, but it's a 10,000-year phenomenon, not something that occurs with four shopping days left until Christmas.
Also slow to form, he said, are solar flares, with some fear will spew from the sun come Dec. 21 and cause problems here on Earth.
A final theory, “galactic alignment," sounds like vintage science fiction and posits the sun's passage across something called the "Great Rift," a slash down the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The sun is to blot out a massive black hole, the theory holds, which will cause untold havoc here at home.
That rift, said Claussen, is actually a cloud of dust and gas.
“It bothers me a little bit that all the cool stuff about the Mayans is being upstaged by the world-ending talk,” said Sam Claussen, a retired member of the Southern theater faculty who now co-teaches the Mayan civilization class with sociologist Conrad Gubera. “Maybe on Jan. 1, all the people will start looking at the fascinating things the Mayans (accomplished).”
Details for this story were reported by the Joplin, Mo., Globe