Theories that the Earth will be swallowed up by a black hole, zapped by some cosmic ray, disintegrated by a collision with a previously unknown planet named Nibiru or that the poles would suddenly shift and cause us all to be flung off into space have been popular since the discovery of an ancient Mayan calendar that supposedly ends suddenly on Dec. 12, 2012.
But apparently the Mayans weren't done yet. Archaeologists studying a Mayan ruin in Guatemala dating back to around the ninth century have discovered a room where ancient Mayan astronomers kept track of the sky, charting lunar phases, the sun and planetary alignments both for time-keeping purposes and to mark important ritual dates.
A recent article in Time magazine describes the walls of the room as sort of a primitive blackboard where the astronomers of the time would make calculations then erase them and start over again. Judging from what's been found, those calculations were extremely accurate given that there were no calculators, computers or telescopes at the time. And the good news is, some of those ancient calculations go beyond the year 3500. So much for apocalypse now.
But what those ancient Mayan astronomers probably could have predicted will happen this year will take place late this Sunday afternoon, a partial solar eclipse, the first for us since 1994. Folks on the West Coast will get to see an almost total eclipse as the moon covers all but the outer edges of the sun forming what is known as an annular eclipse where a bright ring of fire will surround the moon.
For us here in Mississippi, we'll only see a partial eclipse where about half the sun will be blotted out before it sets. The next total eclipse here in North America won't occur until 2017.
As always, astronomers are warning people not to attempt to watch Sunday's eclipse with the naked eye. Special filters are required to stare directly into the sun and simple sunglasses won't do. As your mother used to warn you, you can go blind doing that. You can find tips for safe eclipse viewing on Sky and Telescope magazine's web site.
Sunday's eclipse will occur just before sunset here in Mississippi and, of course, happens whenever the moon comes directly between the Earth and the sun and can only occur when there's a new moon, meaning no visible moon in the night sky.
So whip out your welder's glasses and cue up the Pink Floyd. For at least a few moments Sunday, we'll all be on the dark side of the moon.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.