Millions of true believers are convinced that the world will end on December 21, 2012, but no one is completely sure how it will happen. Some say, for instance, that a geomagnetic reversal will occur, causing Earth's magnetic north and south poles to shift positions. A reversal like this might weaken the Earth's magnetic field, leaving organic life more vulnerable to cosmic radiation.Touchstone Pictures
The anticipated biological and mechanical problems associated with geomagnetic reversal bring to mind the late Douglas Adams and his classic series "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." His science fiction stories revealed that Earth actually is a giant, organic supercomputer. For billions of years, that processor has been computing the secret to life, the universe, and everything.
In a bit of an ego-buster, Adams describes humans as merely part of some gigantic computer program. Unfortunately, just as the Earth was ready to produce an answer, it was destroyed in the original novel by the Vogons, an alien race making room for a hyperspatial express route.
Adams has been revered for the wicked sense of humor that permeates his fiction, but the late author may have been on to something with this giant supercomputer theory.
Earth's magnetic field emanates from the molten liquid surrounding the solid iron core of the planet. A geomagnetic reversal represents a change in the core, which might be disastrous. While fluctuations in the magnetic field occur over time, some theorists think that a geomagnetic reversal would lead to massive failures in global positioning systems (GPS) and other technologies that make use of satellites.
Earth's magnetic field also shields organic life from excess solar radiation. A change in the field could lead to increased exposure to that radiation. The 2003 doomsday movie "The Core" shows that happening to an unfortunate group of motorists on a bridge.
If Adams was right, the Earth's core may serve as the hard drive to his mythical organic computer. Hard drives can and do fail, making a daily data backup pretty much a necessity. Businesses and individuals lose days, even weeks, worth of work when a drive stops working. Some data is so corrupted by a computer failure that it often is irretrievable.
Adams many have been predicting this kind of failure on a global scale in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." In the author's mind, humans were part of Earth's giant operating system; births and deaths represented the ongoing evolution of computer technology. Programs written these days are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than their earlier counterparts.
Perhaps the best way to think of 2012 and the end of the world, therefore, is in computer terms. December 21 may mean the end of humanity unless the world has been backed up on some large, cosmic flash drive.