But rest assured, says Francisco Estrada-Belli, a visiting professor teaching in BU's archaeology department, if you visit present-day Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala, "I don't think any of them are thinking about the apocalypse."
In the minds of many, the notion that massive cosmological disturbances are forecast for 2012 lends credence to the idea that the end is nigh.
Chief among them is that a rogue planet — called Nibiru, or Planet X — is currently coursing on a 3600-year elliptical orbit that's kept it out of our sight since the time of the Mesopotamians but will play havoc with Spaceship Earth when it once again crosses paths with the solar system in three years' time.
Benjamin Weiss, a professor in the department of Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at MIT, doesn't buy it. "The probability of a planet coming from outside our solar system is extremely low," he says. "Negligibly low, for the rest of history of our solar system."
Another much-bruited theory concerns the so-called Galactic Alignment — that, on that winter solstice of 2012, for the first time in 25,800 years, the Earth will be aligned directly with the sun and the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. (It's an event many are expecting to herald a new-agey "awakening" across the globe).
"I've never heard of that," says Weiss. "The Earth's distance from the sun varies a little bit, but they're not going to be much closer to the galactic center than they were the year before, or even a hundred years before that."
But, but, but . . . what about the predicted switching of the Earth's magnetic axis? A jarring reversal of north and south poles which, according to one YouTube doc, could result in a "coriolis flip" that, in 72 hours, would unleash a "global superstorm," with winds of 300 miles per hour strafing the face of the planet?
"The Earth's magnetic poles reverse every few hundred thousand years, that's for sure," says Weiss. "But it takes place over a few thousand years. We don't think that the poles have ever reversed while humans have been in existence as a species, but it has reversed while there were humanoids. The last reversal was 780,000 years ago. But there's never been any mass extinctions associated with these reversals. Somehow life has figured out a way to deal with that."
What gives? Why do so many people keep hanging their hopes and fears on junk science and bogus archaeological exegesis?
It's nothing new, says Richard Landes, director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. End-time movements have been around since the beginning of time: apocalyptic terror in the wake of the Black Death, a rash of evangelical millenarian movements in the 19th century, the Heaven's Gate cult rapturing themselves to the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997, worldwide unease leading up to Y2K.
"Every time there's a famine, a plague, a this, a that, people are saying this is the end of the world," says Landes. "And 2012 is your next handy apocalyptic hook. The nice things about dates are that they help you prepare. This is the first one since 2000."