The (irrational) fears can be traced to a Mayan calendar cycle called the 13th b'ak'tun, which ends on the winter solstice. In recent years, related rumors have spread like mushrooms on a rotting log, warning us that on Dec. 21 there will be a cosmic, extinction-level event.
"While this is a joke to some people and a mystery to others, there is a core group of people who are truly concerned," NASA astrobiologist David Morrison told Space.com senior writer Stephanie Pappas for an article about the space agency's efforts to combat the "manufactured fantasy" Mayan scholars say is based on misinterpretations of the ancient calendar.
Because of the effect these rumors have had on children and the scientifically illiterate in a society that loves to speculate on apocalyptic scenarios - from movie plots to sermon topics - NASA set up a Web page to debunk Mayan doomsday myths.
If you follow this stuff, as I do, you are aware of the stunningly accurate knowledge astronomers now have to detect near-Earth objects and whether they will collide with our planet, making dinosaurs of us all.
Yet there seems to be something about the very notion of entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) that manifests itself in nonscientists not merely as a fear of individual death but as dread about cosmic death, even though entropy refers to an isolated physical system. It's as if a big chunk of humanity is saying, "yeah but, what if ...?"
Peter Ubertaccio, of Sandwich, who also happens to be a political scientist and director of the Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College, got an up-close look at Mayan culture earlier this year, leading a class studying the indigenous people of Central and South America.
"We went to the heart of Mayan civilization, Tikal (in northern Guatemala), which was like the Manhattan of the Mayan world," he said.
What was remarkable about the trip, Ubertaccio said, was how quickly fascination with doomsday prophecies faded into the background once students actually came face to face with the art, history, language and music of the Mayan people.
"Once you are there and getting the history, you see this issue as being almost cartoonish. It reduces a whole empire and its current descendants to this one prophecy, which is not, I think, how they would define themselves," he said.
Only a fraction of the ancient civilization has been excavated, Ubertaccio said. And even with the little bit that's been uncovered, "it boggles the mind that such an ancient society could be so forward-looking and then the whole thing just close up shop and be lost to history for a long time."
In fact, Ubertaccio said, even though Guatemala has a long history of widespread, crushing poverty, when his students visited the busiest traditional Mayan marketplace in the country (imagine a gigantic flea market), they saw the latest DVD's from Hollywood, knockoff bags and coats.
"But we didn't see any end-of-the-world T-shirts," he said.
Returning to Cape Cod after that trip, Ubertaccio said, left him not with a sense of impending doom but rather with a sense of perspective.
"In Sandwich, we have the oldest house on Cape Cod. And it's impressive. But after you've walked by pyramids that house royal families, ancient courtyards and sports fields, it gives you a real sense of how young we are as a nation," he said.
From a scientific perspective, it makes more sense to concern ourselves with more slow-moving doomsday scenarios - from climate change to nuclear winter.
Of course, as a point of mathematically verifiable fact - as improbable as death by black hole and as distant as the 5-billion-year lifespan of the sun may be - it makes more sense to worry about those truly apocalyptic scenarios than to fret over Mayan prophecies.
Now, being firmly rooted in a religious tradition that takes end times seriously and that also says "no man knoweth the hour," I don't thumb my nose at the possibility of cosmic death. But instead of living by the creed of what-if, I choose to live as-if.
Or, as the late great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, "The great thing is to be found at one's post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though the world might last a hundred years."