Apocalyptic thought is intrinsic to monotheistic religions, of course, but the 2012 movement's cosmic/Mayan aspects lend it a wider appeal, says Landes. "It's a new-age date, so it can appeal to a secular audience. You don't have to be Christian. You don't have to be accused of being some weirdo evangelical fundamentalist right-wing nut in order to find this interesting."
All apocalyptic prophesies are Rorschach tests, says Landes. "People project onto [them]. They project their fears and they project their hopes." And whether people are fearing the end of time, or hoping for massive rejuvenation for a very sickly planet, the "moment of huge convulsion" that 2012 portends is inextricably bound up with our times.
Things are bad. People are looking for change.
"There's no question," says Landes, "that periods when things break down and people feel insecure feed apocalyptic prophesies."
One of the appeals of apocalyptic thought is that, one way or another, it offers an ending. "There is an interesting psychology at work here," says Landes. "I know people who, because they're uncertain about the future, would rather have failure than live in uncertainty."
The hairier things get, the "more we seek a sense of closure," Landes argues. "Psychologically, many people adopt the language of apocalypticism to sort of go cosmic with [their] own personal anxieties."
And, he says, Oswalt's apocalypse routine is spot-on. "The attraction people have to apocalyptic beliefs is megalomaniacal. When you believe that the apocalypse is going to happen in your day, essentially what you're saying is that 'I am one of the people that is privileged to live at the climax of history.' If you take one more step and say 'I have an active part in this,' then you step up on stage. You're on stage in the greatest drama in the history of the human race. That's pretty heady stuff."
So just imagine how many people will be sorely disappointed when the paroxysms of 2012 — like those of 2000 and of every projected date before that — fail to materialize.
But fear not! The end may be coming soon enough. If Weiss doesn't lay awake at night dreading the intrusion of Planet Nibiru in 2012, he does fret over another potential deep-impact event.
"The biggest thing to worry about is an asteroid or comet impact," he says. "All you have to do is look at the moon and see what happens. It caused the dinosaurs to go extinct 65 million years ago. It's happened many times, and it will happen again. The consequences are pretty clear. There's definitely going to be mass extinction."
There's one asteroid Weiss and other scientists are watching warily. It's called Apophis. "There is some concern it might strike the Earth in 2029."
For the next three years or so, Mike Miliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.