End of the World, Predictions of

views updated

End of the World, Predictions of

Keeping track of time has been an integral activity of every civilization, no matter how primitive. There are ample indications that even civilizations in pre-historic times made concerted attempts to measure time. Many civilizations, including the Mayan, and individuals, such as Stifel in sixteenth-century Germany, used measurements of time to predict the end of the world.

Keeping Track of Time

For early civilizations, keeping track of time involved two distinct pursuits: food and religion. The cycles for planting and harvesting could be anticipated and planned for with a calendar. Primitive societies could also plan for bird and animal migrations in advance of their arrival. In both cases, even a primitive calendar could help communities grow crops and hunt game in a better, more organized manner.

The religious aspect of keeping time was tied to the worship of the heavens. Ancient peoples viewed the motions of heavenly bodies and related phenomena, such as an eclipse of the moon, as acts of the gods that were important to predict. Archeologists think the standing stones of Stonehenge in England were a massive observatory that ancient peoples used to track the rising and setting of the sun on the summer and winter solstice. It also appears that they used Stonehenge to keep track of lunar eclipses. The ability to keep time and predict heavenly phenomena strengthened the hold that the religious class had over its followers.

Today's calendar is derived, in part, from the calendar used by ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. In approximately 3000 to 4000 b.c.e., these Middle Eastern peoples invented a written alphabet and a fairly accurate calendar. The Babylonians used a lunar calendar, which consisted of twelve lunar months of 29 or 30 days each, depending on the motion of the moon. The total number of days in their year was only 354 days. Religious feast days were added to some of the months to bring the total to 360 days.

This total of 360 days fit in well with the Babylonian mathematics of the times. Their number system was based on the number 60, in contrast to the modern-day number system, which is a decimal, or base-10 , system. The 360-day year also accommodated Babylonian astrology.

In Babylonian astrology, the year was divided into twelve parts, each devoted to a god who was personified by the movement of various constellations in the heavens. The 360-day year was still 5 days shorter than the actual length of a year, so the Babylonians added a festival of 5 days at the end of the year to bring the total to 365 days.

Many cultures that followed the Babylonians adopted their 365-day year. This was still incorrect because a year is now known to be 365.2422 days. As a result, calendars descended from the Babylonian calendar required frequent adjustments, and the calendar for many cultures was constantly being revised to make up for lost or gained days.

The present calendar went through several refinements from its beginning during the Roman Empire. It was not until 1582 that a commission under Pope Gregory IX developed our present-day calendar, with an accuracy that will not need any revision for at least 3,000 years.

Around the year 500 c.e. the Mayas of Central America were using a calendar that is still more accurate than our calendar of today. The Mayan calendar* was used exclusively by the priestly classes and consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 individually named days and a yearly calendar of 365 days. The ritual cycle lasted 20 months, each month containing 13 days (20 × 13 = 260). The yearly calendar, or tun, contained 18 months of 20 days each (18 × 20 = 360), with a final month of 5 days added at the end of the year.

*The last month in the Mayan calendar was a special month of bad luck and danger.

The Mayas also adjusted their calendar periodically, according to solar eclipses and observations of Venus. The two Mayan calendar cycles ran at the same time, and a named day would fall on the same day of the year every 18,980 days or every 52 years. This 52-year cycle is called a calendar round.

The calendar round was not used to indicate the specific year during which an event took place. Instead, the event was placed in a "long count." A long count consists of 20 tuns making a katun, in turn 20 katuns make a baktun, and finally 13 baktuns make a "Great Cycle" of 1,872,000 days, or about 5,130 years.

According to Mayan tradition, the present creation is the fifth such creation of the gods. The gods were dissatisfied with their first four attempts to create mankind and destroyed each of the first four creations after a period of time called a long count. The fifth creation took place in 3133 b.c.e., and the present long count started at that time. This long count will expire on December 24, 2011. At that time, the gods will declare themselves either pleased with mankind or will destroy the world and begin again, starting the clock for a new long count.

Predicting the End of the World

Since the time of the ancient Babylonians, many individuals and cultures have looked to the heavens and to astrology to predict the future. Many mathematicians earned their living by casting horoscopes, including Jerome Cardano (15011576) and Johann Kepler (15711630).

During the sixteenth century, several mathematicians applied their knowledge of mathematics to questionable Bible scholarship and dubious Biblical interpretation to predict the exact date for the end of the world. After a careful study of the Bible and mathematics, German mathematician Michael Stifel (14861567) predicted a date for the end of the world.

Stifel was an educated man, who graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of Wittenberg. He was a monk at a Catholic monastery for a time after graduation but eventually joined Protestant leader Martin Luther, even staying at Luther's house in Wittenberg. Soon after joining with Luther, Stifel began to apply his mathematics to the Bible. After some careful study, Stifel determined that a hidden message in the Bible revealed that the world would end on October 3, 1533.

When the fateful day arrived, Stifel gathered his small group of believers from the town of Lochau to the top of a hill to await the end of the world and their deliverance into heaven. As the morning wore on and nothing happened, some of the believers began to get worried. Soon most of the believers were anxiously questioning Stifel. At about midday, Stifel excused himself and hurried to town where he was put into a jail cell for protection against his now angry believers, many of whom sold houses and farms in expectation of the world's end. Eventually Stifel was able to leave town safely. In time, he gained Luther's forgiveness in return for a promise to never again apply mathematics to Biblical matters.

A more famous mathematician from the same time period also predicted a date for the world's end. Scottish mathematician John Napier (15501617) was a nobleman who spent nearly all his life in Scotland. Napier was an able mathematician, who was also active in religious controversies of the times. In fact, he devoted more time to his religious studies than to his mathematics. He was a zealous supporter of the Protestant cause.

After 27 years of writing, Napier published The Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John. In it, he identified the Pope as the Antichrist. In Discovery, he also predicted that the end of the world would happen between 1688 and 1700. In this prediction, Napier had the good fortune to select a day far beyond his life span. When his prediction failed to come true, he avoided the humiliation that had come to Stifel some 75 years earlier.

More recently, William Miller predicted the world would end on October 22, 1844. Thousands of believers were disappointed when the prophesied end did not come, but many shifted their belief to a future, unspecified time when the end would come.

While most predictions of the world's end today come from religious groups, there are scientists who are making such predictions about the world's end. Their predictions are based on our present knowledge of stars, such as the Sun. Our Sun has a finite life and eventually will burn out. When might such an event occur? The best estimates are that the core of the Sun will collapse in approximately 5 billion years. The resulting increase in temperature of the Sun's core will ultimately end all life on Earth. However, like Napier, the scientists making these estimates will not live to see whether their predictions come true.

see also Calendar, Numbers in the; Time, Measurement of.

Arthur V. Johnson II


Burton, David. The History of Mathematics: An Introduction. New York: Allyn and Bacon, 1985.

Eves, Howard. In Mathematical Circles. Boston: Pridle, Webber & Schmidt, Inc., 1969.

James, Peter, and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Johnson, Art. Famous Problems and Their Mathematicians. Englewood, CO: Teacher's Ideas Press, 1999.

McLeish, John. The Story of Numbers: How Mathematics Shaped Civilization. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991.

Internet Resources

MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. University of St Andrews. <http://wwwgroups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians.html>.