Wednesday, March 7, 2012

School visit: The End of the World in 2012?

For the second part of my school visit a couple of weeks ago I spoke with the Springfield School Junior Cafe Scientifique group (an after school club) about "End of the World" myths surrounding 21st December 2012. I've previously written about my involvement with debunking 2012 myths online (2012 tag on this blog).

Image from the Movie 2012 which imagines what would happen if the myths were true. 

I started by showing a clip of the 2012 movie trailer.

Then I talked through the myths, the science behind them. This allowed me to cover basic things like the motion of the Sun across the sky, the solstices, precession, what the Milky Way looks like, but also talk about the life cycle of the Sun and other stars, the solar activity cycle, what the other planets look like in the sky (ie. if there were a massive planet about to hit Earth you'd be able to see it) and of course comets. You can use this theme to get a lot of astronomy in!

I used a couple more movies in my talk - one of the excellent clips made by Andrew Pontzen for BBC Stargazing LIVE which illustrates what our Galaxy looks like:

and this beautiful timelapse of the Milky Way over ALMA.

I also had fun with a "Keep Calm and Do Science" theme (aiming this at 14 year olds after all!).

(you can actually buy that T-shirt - nothing to do with me, and I haven't got one!).

So I was interested to notice the recent web meme for "Keep Calm, the Mayans were simply counting down to the Hobbit Movie!" (noticed it just yesterday so too late to include in the talk!).

I ended with what I throught was a great quote from this website which makes fun of all the end of the world myths

"People who have survived the end of the world of 2000 (or 2003) are 95% more likely than others to survive the end of the world in December 2012. (These figures are not  official)"
It turned out that the students coming to Cafe Sci weren't really at all worried, but hopefully I've now given them some ammunition to help explain it to others if necessary. Less good I think I worried them a bit about comet impacts. I talked about the NASA list of potentially hazardous objects - mentioning Apophis, which is the closest approach known about through 2178. It will pass at about the distance of the Moon (which I demoed with a scale model) in 2029. Now it turns out there is a computer game based on the idea that Apophis will actually hit (according to Wikipedia this is "Rage") so one of the kids knew a lot about Apophis. And following that they didn't seem very reassured by the vast distance to the Moon and the argument that it's very unlikely to hit us! I think if I did this again I might talk more about probability and how unlikely such things are. Problem is of course that a big comet will hit the Earth at some point - although clearly not in 2012.... , and probably not for hundreds if thousands of years.... but still.

Anyway if you want you can download the (ppt) slides I used from Dropbox.

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