In his day job, Dr. David Morrison is the senior scientist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute in the Ames Research Center in California. There he specializes in asteroid impact, terrestrial defense from same, planetary exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. The asteroid 2410 Morrison was named in his honor because "his research into the infrared radiometric properties of asteroids has been fundamental in revealing the diversity of asteroid surface albedos and compositions."
In an extracurricular capacity, though, he's the closest thing that NASA has to an expert on the apocalypse.
For the past eight years Morrison has run the Ask an Astrobiologist feature on the institute's website. Started by a civic-minded intern, the column has become the go-to place for concerned citizens to write to NASA and ask if, as they'd heard on the internet, the world will truly end on December 21, 2012. Before he took the helm on Ask an Astrobiologist, Dr. Morrison hadn't heard anything about such theories. Now he can't escape them.
"I don't know why they write to NASA at all," he told me over the phone recently. "Probably because there's nowhere else to write."
Before coming to NASA in 1988, Morrison, who is 72, was an astronomer at the University of Hawaii for 17 years. He did his Ph.D on "Temperatures of the Terrestrial Planets" at Harvard under Carl Sagan, and still regards Sagan's television series "Cosmos" as the standard for teaching the public about how the universe works.
The emails started filtering in at a trickle, but after a few years of what he called “relative peace,” it’s become a deluge. He estimated that over the past four years, he's gotten over 5,000 emails related to doomsday. Lately, the column has been receiving about 50 emails a week, most of them about the apocalypse. Though Morrison's email outreach could be classified as a hobby—he operates largely on his own, outside the occasional "go get 'em" pep talks from NASA higher-ups—he truly goes above and beyond to engage and inform the people who write to him. Last year, 17,000 people signed an online petition asking to see all the information that the White House has about extraterrestrial life; the response? "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet" (the subtext: get a life). By contrast, Dr. Morrison spends about an hour every day on the apocalypse, either through one-on-one correspondence with the fretful—or in exchanges with other experts, such as Mayan historians, for information for his replies.
"I have become somewhat obsessed with it," he said. Even if the interactions don't usually go beyond two emails, he never tires of hearing the responses. "It's the depths of their commitment that's so amazing, that they will go to such mental contortions to try to think of a way to preserve their beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary."
Because all he can see is an email address, Dr. Morrison doesn't know anything about his questioners that they don't volunteer. He can’t guess a geographic breakdown, though he has noticed a large number come from India and Pakistan. Spelling proficiency and grammar are not reliable indicators of sanity (Dr. Morrison said it's not uncommon for an email to begin along the lines of "Dear sir, I know you work for the government and cannot be trusted since Congress has passed a law making it illegal for anyone to tell the public about an incoming near-Earth object, but…"); nor is use of Yahoo vs. Gmail. When Americans volunteer their age, they tend to be in middle school and are more polite than the ones who don't. He doesn't bother with questioners who quote the Bible, since that's not his area of expertise, but he does find that Muslim apocalypitics tend to agree with him that December 21 won't be our communal eviction date, not because they don't think the world will soon end but because the Koran says no man may know when it's going to happen. Still, you take your friends where you can get them in this business.
"I sometimes ask myself what Carl would do in this modern world," he said. "I mean, would he be making YouTube videos and things? He was in the days when broadcast video was still the standard by which you judge these things and he was a master of it."
Are You There, NASA? It's Me, Nibiru
The belief that the world will end in 2012 has many different adherents who constitute different apocalypse-theory subsets. One source for the idea stems from new Neo Agers like Daniel Pinchbeck, who claim that the end will be more spiritual than literal, the psychic equivalent of the workers' revolution forecast in The Communist Manifesto: an inevitable unification that decimates the previous egocentric processes of thought to embrace a common plane of consciousness—or something like that. When you step back it doesn’t sound very apocalyptic, or even all that bad. In a conversation with Pinchbeck last year, the comedian Reggie Watts said he'll be spending New Years Eve 2012 at a friend’s ranch in Idaho because, “I don’t know, why not? If nothing happens, or something subtle happens, at least it’s cool to be with friends that you love.” Then there are the Mayan purists, who don't care how or why but know that on December 21 the word will flick off like a light switch, and this group tends to email, if anyone, sociology professors who specialize in Central America, the same professors that Dr. Morrison often consults.
"Some people would certainly like to think they live in special times," he said. What makes the people who email him unique is that they seek a rational cause for the end of the world. "If they’re Orthodox Christians they may think in terms of the Rapture or the return of Jesus or something, but these people mostly don’t use that terminology. They’re not connecting it with a religious end of days. But it’s surely a similar motivation."
The questions that Dr. Morrison receives circle around a surprisingly cohesive set of theories, each grounded in some kind of real science that then veers off in a wild direction. The most popular idea has it that a hidden planet called Nibiru, supposedly discovered by the ancient Sumerians and long lost due to its wide orbit—slightly believable, if in a sci-fi way—that will circle back to our sector of the Milky Way to smash into Earth knocking it off its own orbit, like two golf balls somehow colliding mid-air. There is the theory that an upcoming increase in solar flare activity (real) will consume us all (they don't affect anything more than radio waves, on Earth). There's also the idea that the planet will switch its magnetic poles, which does happen every few hundred thousand years, but all that would mean for us is that our compasses would point south instead of north. The emailers worry that this will cause tidal waves, riots in the streets, John Cusack becoming a believable action-movie protagonist, etc.
Dr. Morrison knows more about the theories than most of his correspondents and does his best to stem the flow of misinformation. A special section of Ask an Astrobiologist acts as an FAQ for these theories (Q: "All my school friends are telling me that we are all going to die in the year 2012 due to a meteor hitting earth. Is this true?" A: "Your friends are wrong. The Earth has always…"). He tackles each theory, one by one. The Nibiru theory, he writes, goes back to the writer Zecharia Sitchin, who named this theoretical planet after a Sumerian god. The Sumerians didn't call it that themselves. And Sitchin's theory had more to do with the Nibiruans starting human society, a bit like the plot of Prometheus. Ask an Astrobiologist has also addressed the movie 2012, which, Morrison notes, was written as a by-the-numbers disaster movie until someone on the writing staff heard of the 2012 doomsday theory and suggested that they tack it on. That point Morrison picked up during a recent panel organized by SETI, the organization devoted to the search for extraterrestrial life. There, a little surreally, Morrison appeared on the panel with his fictional foil, the actor who played the scientist warning everyone about the 2012 danger in that movie.
The proactive approach has not gone terribly well. Sometimes he wonders if, by hanging out his rhetorical shingle, his public responses have only fueled a debate that shouldn’t even exist. He's made YouTube videos that painstakingly explain why the world will not end in 2012 only to see the NASA logo at the beginning of the film chopped off and the footage added to other response videos with titles like "NASA CONFIRMS THE EXISTENCE OF NIBIRU." And then there are the comments.
"My video 'The truth about Nibiru' has generated, oh, more than 6,000 comments," he said. "And a lot of them are really, really disgustingly nasty. They comment on the size of my penis and say I'm an old bag and nobody can believe anyone from NASA. They can tell from the look in my eyes that I'm lying and because I stick my tongue out sometimes, I'm actually an alien, I'm a Reptilian, etcetera, etcetera. Oh, it actually doesn't do much harm to me. It's all new to me, though. Maybe this goes on all the time, but I find it just amazing. I never would have dreamed it."
If Dr. Morrison has gotten anything out of his search for intelligent life on the internet, it's been a profound understanding of the flip-side to knowledge and rationality. Before he became a proponent of our planet's post-2012 existence, his main interaction with such people involved UFO watchers and conspiracy theorists who thought the moon landing was faked, and he's never had an interest in engaging those people. A company man, Dr. Morrison finds the suggestion that NASA killed astronauts as part of its moon landing cover-up deeply offensive, and in both cases the facts tend to shut those people down. Tell 2012ers that if Nibiru were going to crash into us in December we'd see it in the sky right now and they will shoot back that Nibiru only exists in the fifth dimension, or is an invisible brown dwarf, which, again, raises the question as to why they would write someone to ask for objective proof of something that cannot be observed. It's very difficult to convince them of otherwise, though.
Dr. Morrison believes that their faith might come from an increasingly virulent "conspiracy meme" he's seen come into play since President Obama's election. His evidence, he noted, is strictly anecdotal, but over the past four years he's noticed an uptick in the number of people eager to believe that 1) bad things are going to happen and 2) that the current government will do anything it can to facilitate them. What's inexplicable to him is the ferocity of their conviction.
"With global warming there's a well-funded group of people and organizations that are denying global warming," he said. "I don't think there's any well-funded group or organization here. It's a self-generated situation."
THE TEENAGERS WHO THINK THE WORLD WILL END
It's possible that many of the people who write to Dr. Morrison are trolls, or have Kindle books to sell, or want to garner enough YouTube views to merit an ad before their videos (some of the "Nibiru exposed" videos now feature a pre-roll for the conspiracy movie Branded). But his younger questioners certainly aren't faking it. He read me some of the more serious emails over the phone:
"I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I'm scared because I'm in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION."
"I am really scared about the end of the world on 21 December. I'm headed into 7th grade and I am very scared. I hear you work for the government and I don't know what to do. Can someone help me? I can't sleep, I am crying every day, I can't eat, I stay in my room, I go to a councilor, it helps, but not with this problem. Can someone help me?"
Dr. Morrison isn't always sure how to respond to emails like these. He doesn't have children himself and while he tries to keep his responses conciliatory, he also knows he has to keep his communications to the point, rational. A teacher once wrote him to say that she'd had two sets of parents tell her they intended to kill the whole family before December 21. After calling the teacher to make sure it wasn't a prank, they agreed that she should contact protective services, which she did.
Part of the problem facing Dr. Morrison comes from the general degradation of authority. "All I can do is claim authority," he said. "Say, 'Hey, I'm a real scientist, I have a real PhD from Harvard, I'm a NASA space scientist,' but if they choose to disbelieve that or to believe that this is all a government cover-up, how can I say they should believe what I say any more than any of these other people?"
He still views the internet as a valuable learning tool but he's daunted by the fact that people seem to view it as a numbers game, pointing out to him the sheer volume of 2012 conspiracy websites as an argument for their accuracy. This is especially true of the younger emailers. "It doesn't seem to make an impression on anyone when I point out that these stories have never been in any of the newspapers or news magazines or broadcast news stations," he said. "That's of no significance to them."
And in the meantime he remains one of a handful of scientists trying to set the record straight about these theories. Two others are Neil de Grasse Tyson and Don Yeomans, a NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who's made similar videos. He certainly hasn't found any allies at the Discovery Channel or the History Channel. "About ten percent of their programming is about UFOs or aliens or zombies or Nostradamus or the end of the world, or whatever," he said.
Dr. Morrison thinks that many in the scientific community don't want to dignify these theories with a response. And the internet's a murky place—it's difficult to even gauge how widespread the 2012 hysterics are. Maybe Dr. Morrison is enough.
He intends to keep answering the doomsday questions until December 23. He's fully aware that in the apocalyptic mindset, the arbitrary date can come and go without anyone's faith having been shaken. But should a new countdown begin—to, say, sometime in 2014—he won't be fielding the questions.
"My plans may change," he said, "but, you know, there's only so much you can do."
Dan Duray is a journalist working in New York City.