Phil Plait recalled the last time he was in Harrisonburg, playing the tuba in his high school marching band at a football game here.
“It’s a shame that in a couple months all this is going to be destroyed,” Plait said.
Plait is an astronomer and alumnus of the University of Virginia. He now tours the country under the name “The Bad Astronomer,” debunking theories about the world ending based on what he considers false science.
About 400 students came to Wilson Hall to listen to Plait Thursday night.
“The universe is on my side,” Plait said. “If you want somebody on your side, it’s the whole freaking universe. Astronomy is a lot of things, but it shouldn’t be scary.”
Plait’s presentation “2012: We’re All (Not) Gonna Die!” focused on the apocalyptic theory predicting the end of the world on Dec. 21 2012.
Plait discussed the concept of the Mayan calendar and how it’s often misinterpreted. He said B’ak’Tun, or “calendar year,” equals about 400 years and next B’ak’Tun ends on Dec. 21, 2012.
Plait, who hosted the Discovery Channel’s “Bad Universe,” a TV documentary series, has also written two books, “Bad Astronomy” and “Death from the Skies.” Plait now works as a blogger for Discover Magazine.
“He’s kind of like a stand-up comedian for science,” Virani said. “Plait’s presentation is designed to show how science is done, and it’s great not just for science geeks, but for anyone.”
Peter Strickland, a sophomore international affairs major, doesn’t believe the world will end in December but was still curious about the theories.
“It was cool that people were able to actually establish facts and figure out that this theory was actually not true,” Strickland said. It “has always seemed to me to be like a Hollywood movie.”
Plait thinks the Hollywood hype is nonsense. The combination of the movie 2012 by Columbia Pictures, the projected date that the world will end and the effects of a viral marketing scare campaign for the movie.
“Websites were created all over the Internet to suggest that this impending doom was a reality,” Plait added. “It was only at the very bottom of these websites that you would see in a tiny, tiny font, ‘Columbia Pictures.’ It’s these people’s career[s] to lie to the public.”
Plait also joked about other popular theories from the last decade about how the world could end, referencing planetary alignment on May 5, 2000; Planet X on May 15, 2003; Asteroid TU-24 on January 19, 2008; and Harold Camping’s Judgment “Rapture” Day on either May 21, 2011, or October 21, 2011.
Planetary alignment is a shift in the earth’s gravitational pull when all of the planets in the solar system align. Planet X and Asteroid TU-24 are theories that an orbiting planet or space rock would collide with Earth in a catastrophic manner. Camping was an evangelist who predicted that Christians would go to Heaven while nonbelievers would be left on Earth.
“Well, we’re all still here,” Plait said. “Once May rolled around, [Camping] simply said, ‘Oops, I meant October.’ ”
Plait tried to debunk four other apocalyptic theories not based on the Mayan calendar, including solar flares, asteroid impacts, planetary collision and the black hole theory.
“The black hole that makes up the center of the galaxy is going to line up with the sun and cause a gravitational shift that would rip the earth apart,” Plait explained. “The sun only gets close to lining up with the center of the Milky Way and even still, it does this every single year.”
Plait’s main reason for debunking these theories is so misinformed people won’t do anything drastic, like commit suicide.
“Smart people get fooled,” Plait said. “They get distracted by nonsense. My associate Stewart Robbins and I will get emails on a daily basis from people asking why they should go on if the world is going to end. It’s maddening.”
Plait’s main point was that the world will not end, at least not for millions of years.
“The main walkaway point I want people to take from this talk is that the world is not going to end in 2012,” Plait said. “What happens next? 2013.”
Contact Eric Graves and Evi Fuelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.