⇒ See also: "The world ends again in Roland Emmerich's 2012"
So what's up with this 2012 date? After the Harmonic Convergence and Y2K and the Millennium didn't pan out as The End of the World, doomsayers latched onto the next thing to come along—the Mayan Long Count—a 5,000-year-long calendar that "ends" on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2012.
But how did we get from a cultural artifact of a long-gone civilization to "RUN FOR THE HILLS!"?
The Maya were a calendar-happy people. During their prominence in central America (from the first century B.C. to around A.D. 900), they developed highly advanced forms of mathematics and astronomy, and had no less than six different calendars to keep track of the seasons, sacred holidays and celestial movements. Their most ambitious calendar was the Long Count, which was comprised of 13 Baktuns of 144,000 days each (394.26 years), for a grand total of 5,125.36 years, or one "era" or World Age.
(Interestingly, the Maya didn't start the Long Count when they came on the scene, but backdated it to 3114 B.C., placing themselves firmly in the middle of the chronology.)
The 13-Baktun cycle was first mentioned in The Maya, a 1966 book by historian Michael Coe, who put the end date in 2011. Amateur historian and Maya enthusiast John Major Jenkins later recalculated it to Dec. 21, 2012.
If Jenkins, author of the recently published The 2012 Story, is to be believed, the latter date marks the prediction by Mayan astronomers of when the solstice sun would align with the dark rift, a starless strip in the bright band of the Milky Way that is visible across the night sky. The dark rift was a prominent part of Mayan cosmology and "had a profound meaning for the ancient Maya calendar makers," according to Jenkins. "The Maya believed that galactic alignments are involved in a potential awakening experienced by human consciousness."
Various New Age movements have glommed onto Jenkins' theories, along with other books on the Mesoamerican calendars, and mixed them into their gobbledygook until, in some cases, the results have little resemblance to Mayan tradition. (It doesn't help that books and articles often run a photo of the giant circular stone Aztec calendar when discussing the Maya Long Count, further confusing the issue.)
Bottom line: The world is as likely to end when the Long Count resets as the likelihood of your car exploding when the odometer rolls over.