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"Tales Of The Maya Skies" At The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

November 6, 2012 1:21 p.m.


Mark Van Stone, Ph.D., Author of "2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya", Professor of Art History, Southwestern College

Alexander Zwissler, Executive Director/CEO of Chabot Space & Science Center and the Executive Producer of "Tales of the Maya Skies".

Related Story: "Tales Of The Maya Skies" At The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Occurring how strong political passions are running in this reaction. It's a good bet that tonight someone's going to think it's the end of the world. Well, as it turns out, lots of people think that the end of the world is right around the corner. A long-count calendar assembled by the Mayans centuries ago is about to end. Popular theorists tell us this could predict the end of everything, a huge calamity, or a new beginning. A more scientific and thorough interpretation of Mayan culture is about to be unveiled at the Ruben H. Fleet science center. It's called tales of the Maya skies. My guest, Alexander Zwissler is executive producer of tales of the Maya skies. Welcome to the show.

ZWISSLER: It's a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Mark van Stone is here, professor of art history at southwestern college, and author of 2012: Science and prophecy of the ancient Maya. Thanks for coming in.

VAN STONE: Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Alexander, let me start with you. It can't be a coincidence that a show called tales of the Maya skies is here so close to the pop culture Mayan prove ski of the end of the world in December. Why did you want to create this show?

ZWISSLER: Well, actually this program goes back a number of years. It was produced in Oakland California, and we received a grant from the national science foundation to do some work on Maya astronomy, and we were able to produce a show. It was done about three years ago, but it's not being distributed around the world.

CAVANAUGH: What will people learn about the Mayans in this production?

ZWISSLER: Well, I think the professor might be better at that than I, but I'll do my best. What you'll learn is that the ancient Maya had a remarkable relationship with their natural world, and a remarkable understanding of astronomy and space. And it tells the story of how they took that knowledge and understanding and related it to their own lives. So for instance, an example would be using the planet venous to predict when to plant their corn and their crops, and weaving the stories of their mythology into the stories of what they were observing every night in the night sky. Then finally most interesting, how they were able to be so precise both in their development of their calendar but also in the development of their ancient Temples which were featured in our show. How precisely they aligned astronomical events and were able to predict things like solar eclipses and other phenomena, which is really remarkable considering the technology they had.

CAVANAUGH: The Mayan civilization that we're talking about, when did it thrive and where?

VAN STONE: The Maya people 6 million of people are still living had a great civilization right from about the time of Christ till about the year 900. They destroyed themselves by the same way we're doing, by destroying their environment. And I say they destroyed themselves. They destroyed the jungle environment, much worse than destroying a temperate environment. When things crash, they crash hard.

CAVANAUGH: And we're talking about present day Mexico.

VAN STONE: Southern Mexico, eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Beliz, Honduras.

CAVANAUGH: How did people come to believe that this long count Mayan calendar foretold the end of the world?

VAN STONE: It's a combination of misunderstood scholarly speculation and simple projection. People are always looking for some sort of end of the world date. And it was supplied in two parts by scholars. One was that German scholars about 1,900 started talking about the Dresden codex which has a picture of the snake in the sky. The world instate and sky in Mayan are the same word. And this snake is pouring water out of its mouth and eclipse symbols on its body. And it's an image that German scholars said can be interpreted in only one way. It must be the end of the world. Then in the 1920s, this is picked up by a popular writer, who wrote a book called the ancient Maya. And in then 66, Michael Coh talked about the date, 2012, as being -- the Maya write it 130000 which is simultaneous with the way they wrote the date of creation. So Michael Koh suggested they had a creation cycle suspicious and that it came and went, and it was a cycle of destruction like the Hinduical pass, and he used the word Armageddon. And that seeped out into the popular press, if you will.

CAVANAUGH: Alexander, what kind of technology is used to tell the story of the Maya in this show?

ZWISSLER: In creating the show, we actually sent a team to Chichen Itza, and they did a digital laser scan of the entire site so that was turned out to an matters and -- so that the Temples that you see in the show are actually based on actual measurements rather than just hand drawings. And then it's using modern computer graphic generation, and it's completely immersive, beautiful music, beautifully told by Leala Downs, and you'd really need to see it. It's showing in 45 planetariums around the world. It just opened in Hong Kong as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when we see images speaking of how this was created for the planetarium show, I think many of us are familiar with the way the Mayan hieroglyphs actually look. Is that an actual language or are they pictograms?

VAN STONE: It's an actual language. It's a complete writing system. When I sign copies of my book, I sign it with people's names written in hieroglyphs. The thing that makes them mysterious to us is that they look like pictures. But the pictures were there because people in ancient times were illiterate, but the people in Egypt and the Maya people used writing as a public display, so they had to make it be appealing and beautiful. And the ancient Maya who walked into town looked at these things and said wow! I wish I could read them, they're so beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: Is it difficult getting information therefore about Mayan culture?

VAN STONE: Only insofar as they destroyed their culture in 900 BC, and what was left was destroyed by the Spanish. But luckily for us, they decided to write a whole lot in stone and pottery. But the best thing being a Mayan archeologist, only 1% of Mayan country has been dug up.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think all the attention being paid to this end of the world prophecy, do you think that attention obscures the really accomplishment?

VAN STONE: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.

VAN STONE: The whole idea of describing the Maya as these prophets of doom, and really what they become, what they have become in the popular sense is projections in everyone's fantasies. The real Maya are completely obscured by everything you read on the Internet. They were a stone age people who had a very sophisticated civilization despite the fact that they were technologically in the stone age. They were -- their mythology and their astronomy was really in the service of astrology. And their mathematics as sophisticated as it was was dominated by numerology. So they were both religious and scientific in everything they did. To try and impose our viewpoint on them is really dangerous. And I think that one of the things that I try to do in my books and my lectures is to show that they are a lot more interesting than mere prophets of doom.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Alexander, do we know -- does anything in the show explain to us why the Mayan people were so obsessed with astronomy? Is this something we find in all of these ancient cultures?

ZWISSLER: I think there's elements in many ancient culture, but I think the Maya particularly excelled. Again being able to predict phenomena out into the future, to predict when a solar eclipse will occur. The professor may know, I don't know that any other ancient was able to do that. So I think also it just really speaks, what the show tries to do, is to try to speak to the richness of the Maya culture both then, and even today. We talk about the Maya today, and we also talk about the calendar and how it's going to be okay the day after.

CAVANAUGH: And let me ask the professor. Does the long count calendar really end on December 21st, 2012?

VAN STONE: There's no evidence that it does. The Maya thought of the last creation ending on a date 13000, and restarting like a clock at midnight. And many scholars as well as the ordinary nonscholarly crowd believe that that means when we get to 13000 again, that will be the end of a great cycle. But in fact there's no evidence whatever that they believed that. There's evidence to the contrary that they thought it would go to 14, 15, 16. They thought of the 13000 as being an anomaly. In this period it goes to 14 and doesn't stop at all.

CAVANAUGH: So there's nothing that the Maya left to us or even have today that says oh, by the way, the world is going to end on what you call December 21st, 2012? This is all interpretation of scholars down the years; is that right?

VAN STONE: That's correct.

CAVANAUGH: All right. What will you be talking about? You're going to be giving a lecture at the Ruben H. Fleet in connection with this new show. What's the focus of your talk?

VAN STONE: The focus of my talk is twofold. The first part is going to be telling people that they don't need to cash in their IRAs. The world is not going to end. I'm going to show them the actual Maya text that says the time would go on to 14 back tunes. And examining some of the popular craziness about it. And the other thing I want to do is brag about my digital interactive book, which uses this fabulous Ibooks technology that apple developed to embed videos and interactive touch screen pictures.

CAVANAUGH: You were just showing me. It's really quite amazing. You can see both sides of a stone monument just by flipping it over, by touching it.

VAN STONE: That's right. And I think this is a fabulous way to deliver information. Just like the fleet show is. Going to an Imax show or a show projected on the inside of the planetarium is so engaging. It really pulls you in. And in some sense, an Ibook has that capability, on a small screen of showing people almost like you can flip an object over in your hands. And I love timelines, and I really enjoy making a map that you could -- that would transform under your fingertips.

CAVANAUGH: One thing I don't want to leave without asking you, there is when you talked about hieroglyphs, and there is so much made about the ancient culture of Egypt, and I know we're talking about thousands of years before the Mayan civilization. But do you believe that we don't pay enough attention to the Mayan civilization because somehow most of it is still buried?

VAN STONE: That's a good point. Another reason of course is that the whole American continent takeover was done by people who had to diminish the power and the greatness of the people they were taking the continent away from. Of it's the holdover of the propaganda by the English, the French, and the Spanish, who wanted -- think if they said, oh, we're going to steal these continent from these great people. That's not what they want people to hear.

CAVANAUGH: One last question is rather silly, but I'll going to do it anyway. Alexander, where are you going to be on December 21st?

ZWISSLER: Planning for our big event the next day, which is called Begin the BAKTin.

VAN STONE: Fabulous. I wish I could be there. I'm going to be at Chichen Itza, which is kind of be ground zero for the craziness. And I really want a copy of that Chichen Laser scan. Is that going to be available? That's great.

ZWISSLER: If you get in touch with me, I can direct you to where we have it, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Tales of the Maya skies opens at the Ruben H. Fleet science center this Friday, November 9th.