Dec. 20, 2012 at 7:37 PM ET
After years of claptrap about the Maya apocalypse on 12/21/12, the Big Day has dawned in many parts of the world. It's daytime in China, one of the world's hot spots for doomsday angst. So far, no solar flares have fried the earth, and no mountains have fallen into the sea. The sun will soon rise on Mexico's ancient Maya monuments, where thousands are gathering to greet a new era.
"I don't think there's going to be a herd of jaguars descending from the heavens," said John Henderson, an anthropologist at Cornell University who specializes in the Maya world.
Archaeologists and astronomers have thoroughly debunked everything about the doomsday myth: The Maya never expected that the world would end when their Long Count calendar rolled over to the next 144,000-day cycle in 2012. Earth's magnetic field is not going haywire. There's no threat from the Large Hadron Collider, or the sun, or unseen planets, or the galactic plane.
Not everything about the Big Day is doom and gloom: Tourists and New Age types have flocked to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza to greet Friday's dawn and the start of a new age with rituals old and new. "There is an explosion of consciousness through this," a gray-haired Californian musician named Shambala Songstar told Reuters. "We are becoming billionaires of energy. Opening to receive more light and more joy."
Minu Nair, a 27-year-old tourist from India, joked about the doomsday connection after hiking up to the top of the Maya pyramid at Coba, about an hour's drive from Chichen Itza. "At least we can die saying we saw the end of the world," he said with a laugh.
But not everything is sweetness and light, either. "We have to beware of mass psychosis," said Mexico's best-known soothsayer, Antonio Vazquez Alba. According to The Associated Press, Vazquez warned his followers to stay away from mass gatherings on Friday, out of concern about stampedes — or even mass suicides "of the kind we’ve seen before."
Elsewhere, more than 1,000 members of Church of Almighty God were reportedly detained in China for spreading doomsday rumors. Hundreds more were heading for Serbia's Mount Rtanj and the French town of Bugarach, in search of a haven from the apocalypse. Authorities in Argentina limited access to a mountain called Cerro Uritorco after rumors spread about a plan for "massive spiritual suicide." In Michigan, dozens of schools were shut down early, partly because of end-of-the-world worries stoked by the Maya hype.
What would the ancient Maya think? "The Maya thought about everything in terms of cycles," Henderson told NBC News today. "Some may have expected the gods to fine-tune their creation of humanity. But others may have taken it more as an occasion to contemplate whether they were the kind of people they ought to be. And we can take it in the same way."
Think of it as the opportunity for New Year's Resolutions — or, in this case, New Baktun's Resolutions.
The Maya Long Count calendar divides time into a series of periods, building up to a cycle called the baktun that lasts 144,000 days, or a little more than 394 years. Dec. 21 marks the completion of 13 baktuns, which the Maya saw as a full cycle of creation. In some texts, the end of the 13th baktun — 22.214.171.124.0, in numerical notation — was used to refer to a long, long time.
"It would be like you and I saying, 'George Washington was such a great leader for us that we'll still be talking about him in the year 3000,'" said Walter Witschey, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Longwood University in Virginia.
But the Maya never thought time stopped in 2012 — or the year 3000, for that matter. A recently discovered Maya workshop demonstrated that calendar-makers contemplated time frames well beyond 2012, and the longest Maya calendar cycle, the alautun, goes out about 63 million years.
The concept of a Maya apocalypse appears to date to the 1960s: That was when anthropologist Michael Coe wrote a book speculating that the Maya saw the final day of the 13th baktun as the time for an "Armageddon" that would overtake all creation. Over the years, that idea became wrapped up with Christian ideas about the end times.
"So much of this Maya calendar fascination plays to very natural human tendencies to look for sources of information about the future, right?" said Loa Traxler, an archaeologist who is the curator of a "Maya 2012" exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. "When you add to that a lot of opinions that would point us to the end of days, and events of great reckoning, and destruction as the opening chapter of great change ... those are trends that play very strongly in modern society."
Some cultures get more concerned about it than others. In May, an international public opinion survey conducted by Ipsos for Reuters found that 20 percent of the Chinese respondents agreed that the Maya calendar would mark the end of the world. About 12 percent of the U.S. respondents felt that way, compared with only 4 percent in Germany.
Traxler said she encountered several well-educated people who asked her serious questions about the 2012 Maya apocalypse during a cruise through the Mediterranean in 2009. "It caught me by surprise," she said.
Her experience on that cruise was one of the reasons why she went to work on the "Maya 2012" exhibit, which tells the full story about the ancient Maya and their attentiveness to the cycles of time. "It has been quite an amazing adventure over the last several months," she said. "People have decided to make hay out of this."
So when exactly does it stop? The consensus view among archaeologists is that the 13th baktun will end, and the 14th will begin, at sunrise Friday. "That would be sunrise in the Maya world, not in Beijing," Henderson joked.
But Witschey said there's still a bit of uncertainty about how the dates are calculated. "Most scholars would agree that we have a match within about three or four days," he said. "That means that the rollover of cycle 13 is going to hit on Dec. 21, or 23, or 24."
If past doomsday scares are any guide, it will take a while for the folks who were so worried about 12/21/12 to settle down. Some might claim that the date for the apocalypse was miscalculated, and will actually come at a later time. Others might say that the world-shifting change has actually begun, but the rest of us just can't sense it yet. Case studies abound, ranging from the Great Disappointment of 1844 to the Planet Clarion prophecy of 1954 to the Rapture of 2011.
The precise day or hour of the Maya calendar turnover doesn't matter all that much to Witschey.
"It's no big deal," he said. "Whatever day it is, I'm going to wake up the next day, going forward."
That sounds sensible to me. How's it sound to you? Even though it's no big deal, we'll be passing along updates during the Big Day and beyond. Just check in with http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/2012 for the latest.
Update for 9:15 p.m. ET: Although New Zealand hasn't had to contend with a Maya apocalypse, they might have to deal with the remnants of Cyclone Evan over the long weekend.
Update for 11:15 p.m. ET: NASA says it has been fielding hundreds of questions a day from people who are worried about 12/21/12. "We have done all we can to answer questions from the public," David Morrison, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center, told NBC News in an email. "Unfortunately, many don't believe us, like several mothers who have written to me in the last few hours asking if they should keep their children at home today."
Morrison forwarded one email message (with the sender's name removed) that he said was typical. Here's what it said: "Just like to know how I can survive the end of the world? Two friends of mine committed suicide this week because of that dreaded day, date. I just want to try to survive, and please tell me what to do!?"
It's impossible to verify the substance of that particular email, but if the sentiment is "typical," I'm hoping such folks are getting the reassurance they need. DON'T PANIC!
Update for 9:20 a.m. ET Dec. 21: I've added a video from TODAY that sounds the all-clear in the apocalypse drill.
More about 2012:
This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press. The issue of when the 13th baktun ends is addressed in depth in "Exploring the 584286 Correlation Between the Maya and European Calendars" by Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore, published in the Fall 2012 issue of The PARI Journal.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.