About Carolyn L

Carolyn coordinates the Science on Stage outreach program at HMNS and will blog about science toys and experiments, logic puzzles, and whatever else seems interesting at the time.

2012: Did the Maya Predict an Apocalypse?

For the last 2 years, the Astronomy Department of the Houston Museum of Natural Science has searched and researched Maya ruins and writings for connections between the Mayan calendar and the ability of Maya astronomers to predict future events.

To record the passage of time, the Maya developed a 260-day ritual cycle, made up of thirteen numbers and twenty names. With this continuous running cycle, they could predict future events like the harvesting of crops and the birth of children. The Maya kept a second 365-day solar calendar of 18 months, each lasting 20 days, plus 5 extra days to complete the year. This calendar determined the growing season and the annual return of the rains. For longer time periods the Maya used a 5-number Long Count. On December 21st, 2012, for instance, this Long Count has a new beginning as the date changes from to This is similar to the change from 1999 to 2000 in our modern calendar and is the cause of much 2012 speculation.

Great Temples
The homeland of the Maya stretches from southern Mexico to northern Central America. Our new planetarium show, 2012: Mayan Prophecies (Now Showing!), explores the great Maya cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque. For survival, the Maya created these great urban centers to store rainwater through the dry season and built observatories to determine when the annual rains would begin.

The Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza is a temple to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Each of its 4 staircases has 91 steps for 364 steps in all with a top step into the temple – one step for each day of the year.  According to legend, Kukulcan returns to his pyramid on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, descending the staircase in an undulating shadow.

In the nearby Caracol observatory, astronomers watched Kukulcan, who appeared in the heavens as the planet Venus. Through motions of the brilliant Venus, they determined the will of Kukulcan and the time for human sacrifices to honor this sky god and give thanks for the rains he would soon send.

photo courtesy of Raymond Ostertag

The Maya carved the great city of Tikal out of the rain forest in the lowlands of modern Guatemala. In this city of up to 100,000, all water came from the sky. Tikal’s rulers cleared the rain forest, channeled the water in swamps to grow crops, and built cisterns and catch basins to store water during the rainy season. Tikal’s power depended on storing enough water to last until the rains returned each spring.

Five giant pyramids helped astronomers predict when the rainy season would begin. On December 21, for instance, astronomers on Temple 4 could watch the sun rise farthest to the south, over the Pyramid of the Jaguar Priest. From this date forward, they knew that the sun would rise a little more to the north each day. At the vernal equinox, the sun would always rise over Temple 1, an event that must happen before the rains could begin.

In the foothills of Mexico’s southern mountains, lies the Maya city of Palenque. Blessed with abundant rain and flowing rivers, the artisans of Palenque had time to create some of the most elaborate and exquisite Mayan art and the most delicate of buildings. Here inscriptions describe the beginning of the Maya long count cycle and chronicle events far into the future, but no mention of 2012.

There has been a subtle change in the sky in the 1,300 years since the time of the classic Maya. Due to the wobble of Earth’s spin axis, different stars rise with the sun in each season.

For instance, at the time of the Maya, the glowing Milky Way band was above the sun at sunrise on the winter solstice.  Now in December, the sun reaches its lowest point at noon in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way, near the direction of the galaxy’s center.

Does this mean that galactic forces are now aligned? Did the Maya predict this alignment? We have no data to indicate that the Maya recognized the 26,000-year cycle that caused this alignment. There is no documented connection between the Earth-centered Maya cosmos and our modern universe.

Classic Maya civilization did experience a great apocalypse, but it occurred long before the Spanish Conquest.

For over a millennium, the major cities of the Maya have stood abandoned – deserted by their citizens, conquered by weather and reclaimed by the rainforest. At their culture’s height, many of the Maya faced the worst drought in thousands of years. It devastated a civilization that had cut down the rainforest to grow crops and destroyed urban centers that could not store enough water for their people. In less than a hundred years, over a hundred thousand Maya disappeared, leaving their parched cities and their withered fields, rejecting the divine right and Earthly power of their kings. By the thousands they returned to the rainforest and mountains to a sustainable population and way of life.

As we sense the fragility of our own culture today, we may discover a warning for 2012 in the ruins of these great Maya cities — silent sentinels, witnesses of the apocalypse of the Maya.

Explore pyramids towering above the rainforest, designed as observatories to follow the sun. Experience the apocalypse of the Maya and discover how our fate in 2012 may be foretold in our new planetarium show 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Check out the extended preview below!

Can’t see the video? 2012: Mayan Prophecies from HMNS on Vimeo.

Snow? In Houston? Really?

On Wednesday, four days after the HMNS Snow Flurry event, it was chilly and wet outside. I was snug in my office with a mug of cocoa and a toasty warm computer monitor when I heard a ridiculous story that we were supposed to see naturally falling snow by that evening. I naturally accused the bearer of this news of hopeful invention, if not outright lying, then checked a weather website and saw indications for ‘rain or snow showers’ that evening, but still I didn’t believe we would see anything interesting. “It will all melt on the way down — it’s not even supposed to get below freezing tonight!”

But of course I was wrong and we had the first snow Houston has had this early in the season since 1944! Allison took these pictures:

So what conditions do you need to form snow? Well, if you have the right lab and a research budget, you could grow snow crystals indoors! (‘Snowflakes’ can refer to individual crystals or (often) to agglomerations or clumps of many, many snow crystals.) If you need larger quantities, you can always create your own snow like ski resorts, but you still need much colder conditions than we usually have. Most of us, however, must wait for suitable weather conditions.

Need immediate gratification? You can always resort to making decorative paper snowflakes, or try a more high-tech option.

We may not see snow again this year, but if you’re curious about who else might be getting it soon, check out this 24-hour snow forecast map. Or see if your holiday travels will bring you a White Christmas.

I can’t find my reading glasses, but I’ll manage.

You’ve probably noticed the magnifying effect of a glass of water or any other clear beverage (the black text to the right of the glass is the same size as the black text behind the glass):

And you probably have some idea that the magnification has to do with the curved shape of the glass and the water it contains: The water in the glass bends light so it appears to us to be coming from an object that is bigger or closer than it really is.

To explore this more, try making differently sized water drops on top of a sheet of waxed paper (the waxed paper helps the water ‘bead up,’ which improves the effect):

You’re aiming for a large drop about 2 centimeters or 1 inch across, and medium and small drops that are, well, smaller.  If you don’t have an eyedropper to help you, you can either pour extremely carefully or dip a pencil or spoon in water and let the water drip off of it.

Look at a page with words through the drops (don’t use your first editions of The Old Man and the Sea or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, because the water will eventually seep through the waxed paper and make you very, very sad).  Do you see any differences between the larger and smaller drops?

This looks much clearer if you try it yourself, so go do it! 

You may be thinking “My large drops (possibly puddles) don’t seem to change anything; why do the small drops work so much better?”  To explain this, try looking at your drops from the side (your eyes should be level with the surface of your table:

The shapes are different: The largest drop looks almost flat across the top, while the smallest drop makes a very tidy little dome shape.  Another way to say this is that the smallest drop’s surface is more sharply curved, or is more convex than the larger drops (convex surfaces bulge out, concave surfaces “cave in.” And it turns out that the less convex the surface of the drop, the less it magnifies.  If you want a more in depth explanation with diagrams, check out this site.

Convex and concave lenses are used in all kinds of cool equipment. For more information on lenses and the anatomy of your eyeballs, check out The Anatomy of the Eye. 

Sharky-Locks and the Three Gummi Bears

Need another excuse to buy candy this October?  Like cheap entertainment? Of course you do! How about some do-it-yourself grow-animals? For a buck or two, you can have a hundred edible expanding critters of your very own.

You need a few gummi bears or other gummi snacks (I grant you they are of questionable nutritional value, but they have their uses) and water. That’s pretty much it — see what we mean about cheap? 

I started with three gummi bears and one much larger gummi shark which had a disturbing layer of opaque white gummi on the bottom. 

If you want to know how much your gummi critters grow, you might want to trace around them or measure them, or just set some of your gummy snacks aside for comparison later. I had an electronic balance handy, so I used it, but that’s definitely not necessary:

The growing:  You need a container that can hold your gummi animals with a little room for expansion, and enough water to keep them covered:

And now we wait.  You may notice some expansion an hour after you begin, but your animals will look significantly bigger after 12-24 hours in water.  A few things to note: If you plan to eat your critters once they expand, please refrigerate them during the soaking process (this may slow their expansion somewhat, but you will also slow the growth of not-so-delicious bacteria). Whether you are refrigerating or not, set your critters somewhere and leave them alone as much as possible; if they jostle around too much, they may just dissolve and leave you with an unimpressive pool of colored sugar-water.

After a 20-hour soak, one of the bears intimidates his dry brother:

The “after” measurements:

This bear grew about three times as large as it was originally, and the shark about twice as large (it might have expanded further if given more time but it fell apart after being handled.)

Here’s a brief explanationof growing gummi snacks.

Extensions to try:  Soak your critters in distilled water, salt water, soda or juice, or try soaking an expanded critter in salt water.  Do some brands of bears hold up better or expand more?

(In case you were curious: Yes, you can spell it either way: gummi or gummy.)