Terence McKenna was into magic mushrooms in a big way and whilst under their influence he gained some truly bizarre insights. He claimed to have met self-transforming machine elves and came to know something he referred to as “the glittering object in hyperspace” or “the glittering object at the end of time”. He also developed an interest in the I Ching and based upon the King Wen Sequence derived something he called the Timewave which is a sort of fractal description of history which turns conventional notions on their head.
In standard cosmology the Universe started at a singularity called the Big Bang about 13.75 billion years ago and as it expanded and cooled it went though a series of changes, many of the interesting ones happening within the first few minutes. But what about the end? The standard view is that there will be no definite end – things will just keep expanding and cooling forever. Terence however saw the Universe ending at a singularity, and in the not too distant future.
In the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine, mathematician and author Vernor Vinge wrote:
We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding. This singularity, I believe, already haunts a number of science-fiction writers. It makes realistic extrapolation to an interstellar future impossible. To write a story set more than a century hence, one needs a nuclear war in between … so that the world remains intelligible.
Could this Technological Singularity correspond to the glittering object Terence had seen in his visions? And when might it be expected to occur? Timewave theory suggested that history would effectively repeat itself at shorter and shorter overlapping timescales, all ending in a sort of explosion of complexity and connectedness. By analysing the pattern of significant historical events, ranging from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the bombing of Hiroshima he was able to come up with a date for the singularity and an early calculation suggested November 2012.
I now have to introduce the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, often referred to as the Mayan calendar. The Long Count subdivisions start with the day (k’in), the winal (20 k’in), the tun (18 winal), the k’atun (20 tun) and the b’ak’tun (20 k’atun). Dates can be converted using Fourmilab’s excellent calendar converter, for example today (13 June) is 126.96.36.199.9 in the Long Count (12 b’ak’tun, 19 k’atun, 19 tun, 8 winal and 9 days). We are living in the 13th b’ak’tun (just as nineteen fifty was a date in the twentieth century).
The 13th b’ak’tun began on 188.8.131.52.0 which corresponds to 18 September 1618 (the year in which Johannes Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion). It will end on 184.108.40.206.0 (21 December 2012) and an idea somehow developed that this is when the Maya believed the world would also end. There is scant evidence for this but it caught the imagination of many (partly because the date happens to coincide with the northern winter solstice) and prompted Terence to revise his prediction to match.
Terence died on 3 April 2000, but not before dramatically stating that “The twentieth century is the shudder that announces the approaching cataracts of time over which our species and the destiny of this planet is about to be swept”.
I have been interested in all this stuff for at least six years but what prompted me to blog about it now was a piece by John Horgan from his regular column at Scientific American which asked Was Psychedelic Guru Terence McKenna Goofing About 2012 Prophesy?