By Nick Pope

The world will end in 2012. At least, that’s what a growing number of people believe.

On 21 December 2012, the Mayan calendar comes to an end. Or, to be more precise, the date marks the end of a 5125-year cycle of this ancient calendar.

Little is known of the Mayans – a Central American civilisation skilled in mathematics and astronomy – but many people believe this ancient culture had secret knowledge that somehow enabled them to predict exactly when the world would end. Google the phrase “2012 end of the world” and you will find millions of references to this belief.

There are many different and bizarre theories about what exactly might happen. Some people believe that a mysterious celestial object known as Planet X, or Nibiru, is returning to our solar system and will bring about some cosmic catastrophe. Others think that a rapid polar shift – a sudden reversal of the Earth’s rotation – will bring global destruction. Some theories talk about planetary or galactic alignments while others say there will be a reversal of the magnetic polarity of the Earth.

Andrew Gough, editor of Mindscape, a magazine devoted to ancient mysteries, said "I've studied the various myths about this and it's troubling. Most ancient cultures believed the world was coming to the end of its final cycle".

There are some other weird theories doing the rounds about what might happen in 2012. As reported in The Sun earlier this summer, former oilfield executive Ian R Crane has predicted that a “false flag alien invasion” will be staged at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games – a faked event that will enable the authorities to declare martial law and usher in a New World Order.

The New Age community takes a different view of the 2012 predictions. They don’t think the world will end in a literal sense, but believe there will be some sort of spiritual transformation. The language is woolly and the science decidedly dodgy, but there’s talk of a shift in consciousness and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Whatever you think, it sounds far more fun than fire and brimstone!

Academics and sceptics think the whole thing is rubbish. They believe that a combination of conspiracy theorists, charlatans and New Age mystics have misrepresented the Mayan writings or misunderstood how this ancient culture thought. They point out that just because your calendar ends, it doesn’t follow that the next day is doomsday. If you have a 2011 calendar, you simply start using a 2012 one at the beginning of next year!

The idea that 2012 will see the end of the world goes far wider than internet forums. It’s firmly embedded in popular culture. The Hollywood blockbuster movie 2012 told the story of a small group of survivors trying to survive global catastrophe. The film included references to the Mayan prophesies and taglines for the movie included “We were warned” and “Find out the truth – search 2012”.

The most amazing example of how widespread beliefs about 2012 have become involves NASA. The space agency was getting so many questions about the subject that they put extensive material on 2012 onto the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website. Entitled “Beginning of the end or why the world won’t end?” the feature begins by assuring readers that “nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012”.

NASA goes on to debunk the claims about Nibiru and Planet X as “an internet hoax” and quash theories about planetary and galactic alignment. NASA say no planetary alignments will occur for the next few decades and point out that Earth will not cross the galactic plane, stating that even if these events were to take place, “their effects on the Earth would be negligible”. NASA explains that while the Earth and sun align with the approximate centre of our galaxy – the Milky Way – every December, this is “an annual event of no consequence”.

The polar shift theory is dismissed as being “impossible” but intriguingly, the point about the reversal of magnetic polarity is actually true. NASA acknowledges that this happens around every 400,000 years but they go on to state “As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal doesn’t cause any harm to life on Earth”.

Such denials are unlikely to convince conspiracy theorists, many of whom believe NASA faked the moon landings and routinely hide evidence of UFOs and alien visitation.

There is nothing new about predictions that the world will end. The idea is central to most world religions, where words and phrases such as “Armageddon”, “Judgement Day” and “The End of Days” are often used. Many Christians believed that the world would end in 1000, a millennium after the birth of Christ.

More recently, there was a surge of interest in the French mystic Nostradamus, who had predicted that the world would end in 1999. Some people linked this with the Y2K problem – the so-called Millennium Bug which some experts thought would crash computers all around the world when 1999 rolled over into 2000.

Earlier this year, Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted “The Rapture” – when the righteous would be taken up to heaven, with everyone else left behind to face death and destruction. When the predicted day – 21 May – passed without incident, Camping simply picked another day, 21 October. As readers will have noticed, the world didn’t end then either!

The good news is that all previous predictions of the end of the world have proved to be false. So whatever you believe, the odds are in our favour. But that won’t stop people preparing for Armageddon. Whether it’s out of fear or fun, on Facebook and elsewhere, people are beginning to plan end of the world parties for 21 December 2012. I may organise one myself. If the world doesn’t end, we can raise our glasses and drink some Champagne. And if it does, at least I won’t have to do the washing up!

A slightly edited version of this article was published in The Sun on 28th December 2011