Last week, the mischievous eggheads of Improbable Research — which publishes the mock journal Annals of Improbable Research, among other activities — gathered at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater to award the annual Ig Nobel Prizes in honor of scientific achievement that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.
It’s kind of a dubious honor to receive an Ig Nobel: some scientists are tickled by the prospect, like physicist Andre Geim, who won in 2000 for his research on levitating frogs. Others? Not so much. But a few recipients always show up for the ceremony to accept their prizes, regardless. Such was not the case for the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Mathematics Prize, awarded to:
Making predictions about the end of the world as we know it is pretty much a stock in trade for crackpots; expect to hear a rising chorus of panicked doomsday prophets next year as we move inevitably towards Dec. 21, 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar — plus a nifty planetary alignment (the Earth, the sun and the center of the Milky Way galaxy) that, as Neil de Grasse Tyson is more than happy to tell you, occurs every year:
Unusual planetary alignments are a common culprit when it comes to doomsday prophecies (along with comets or asteroids). The technical term is syzgy, and it narrowly refers to a three-body system — usually the sun, the earth, and either the moon or another planet in the solar system that is either in conjunction or opposition to the other bodies.
But in the broader sense, it’s applied to any unusual conjunction of planets. The term might be familiar to fans of The X-Files; it was the title of an early episode in the series, where a key plot rested on an unusual planetary alighment.
So these kinds of predictions are common; they’re also usually wrong, and this year’s motley collection of Ig Nobel doomsday prophets is no exception. I suppose they can take comfort in the fact that they’re in very good company. Here’s just a sampling of famous failed Doomsday predictions from eras past, most of which sought to place the blame squarely on the cosmos.
. One of the earliest known Doomsday Predictions was inscribed on an acient Assyrian clay tablet. Loosely translated, it read, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”
February 1, 1524. London astrologers were convinced that odd planetary activity would give rise to a second Great Flood, causing 20,000 residents to panic and flee to higher ground.
1881. A 16th-century British prophetess named Mother Shipton supposedly wrote that the world would end in 1881, although the publisher of said prophecy, one Charles Hindley, later admitted he made the whole thing up to sell more books. That didn’t stop Scottish astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth from finding “clues” in the Great Pyramids of Giza indicating the world would indeed end in 1881.
May 18, 1910. This date marked the return of Halley’s Comet, along with the usual doomsday fears — in this case, the suspicion that the human race would be wiped out by noxious gases in the comet’s tail. When Halley’s comet swung by Earth on April 29, 1987, doomsday prophet Leland Jensen predicted a collision between it and the Earth that would lead to mass extinction. He, too, was wrong. Coincidental side note: author Mark Twain — born in 1835, another Halley’s Comet year — correctly “predicted” he would die when the comet returned in 1910. Sometimes the universe just likes to mess with you.
. A meteorologist named Albert Porta raised the specter again of a rare conjunction of planets that would “cause magnetic current that would pierce the sun, cause great explosions of flaming gas and eventually engulf the earth.” It caused a few suicides, alas, before Porta was proven wrong.
March 10, 1982. It was like 1919 all over again with the publication of The Jupiter Effect, predicting that a rare planetary alignment would give rise to earthquakes, or possibly a deadly solar flare.
March – May 1997. Another comet struck fear in the hearts of doomsday disciples in 1997 when Comet Hale-Bopp passed close to Earth. An amateur astronomer mistakenly believed the comet was trailing a mysterious “companion object” and the rumor quickly spread over the fledgling Internet (remember Usenet?). This and a few other rumors combined to the tragic mass suicide of the Heavens Gate cult members.
2060 and Beyond.The great Sir Isaac Newton, in his later years, exasperated by the phonies that abounded in his era, decided to comb through the Bible himself for mathematical proof of the end times. A letter he wrote in 1704 contained his calculations indicating we’ll be fine until, oh, at least 2060.