From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 4, 1996, pp. 46-54.
The following article is copyright ©1996 by the Skeptics
Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119.
Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation
of this article in its entirety, including this notice.
The Millennium is Coming!
Cosmic Disaster in 2000 or Another Failed
By John Mosley
As we approach the year 2000 we will hear from all quarters-psychics,
astrologers, pyramid experts, prophesiers of the apocalypse, and
good old Nostradamus-in books, in videos, and on TV, that civilization,
and perhaps the world itself, will end at the end of the millennium.
The broadcast media have a strong sensationalist element and may
do more harm than good; at the very least they spread cries of
doom quickly and widely. Like it or not, skeptics will have to
deal with the public and the media at yet another end-of-the-world
scare. I am no prophet or psychic, but I predict that a unique
planetary alignment in May of the year 2000 will generate a firestorm
of activity amonst those who do claim to be prophets and psychics.
The thought that the world will end with the alignment of the
five planets dates back to at least 300 B.C.E. Despite all we've
learned about the mechanics of the solar system in the last 23
centuries, ancient superstitions remain in full force. This time
a planetary alignment accompanies a change of millennium-a double
whammy for those who believe that such coincidences are turning
points in a Master Plan for human history.
Hillel Schwartz in Century's End (1990), documents the
stories of past fins de siècles and comments at
length on the coming century rollover. Interestingly, and contrary
to what most skeptics believe, Schwartz shows that fantastic accounts
of terror that supposedly spread throughout Europe as the year
1000 approached are in fact relatively recent fabrications. What
will be different this time is mass marketing. The millennium
will be big business, involving everyone from hard-core apocalyptic
doomsayers to clever entrepreneurs trying to make a quick buck.
Even a consulting firm has been established specifically to help
others market the millennium.
Deja Vu All Over Again
We've been through this before. As an astronomer at the Griffith
Observatory, I survived two occasions when Los Angeles was to
have been destroyed by earthquakes triggered by planetary alignments,
and people only a few years older than me remember a third. All
were major media events. Although the latter two of these were
specific to Los Angeles, or at least to California, the May, 2000,
events will effect the entire world.
Let's recall what happened in Los Angeles in 1962, 1982, and 1988
to remind ourselves of what it will be like in a few short years
when history repeats itself.
1962: The Planets Align. On February 4, 1962, all five
naked-eye planets plus the sun and moon were massed within a circle
17° in diameter, and at the same time there was an eclipse
of the sun! Robert S. Richardson, astronomer at Griffith Observatory,
described in the May, 1962, issue of the Griffith Observer
what happened in Los Angeles:
Weeks beforehand we began getting inquiries from people wanting
to know, "What was going to happen on February 4th?"
"What does it mean?" was the next question....Then they
wanted to know, "When was the last time it happened?"...This
was one of those things an astronomer was supposed to have at
his finger tips...Answering questions of this kind for hours can
become quite a strain on the nervous system...
Sunday, February 4...[the crowd at the Observatory] must have
been the largest since it was opened to the public in 1935. By
two o'clock...the road leading to and from the observatory was
a solid mass of cars lined up bumper-to-bumper for half a mile....
Another woman was weeping so badly it was hard to understand her.
She was practically on the verge of collapse. "I know it's
silly to carry on this way," she gasped between sobs, "but
I can't help myself."...In talking to these 'Alarmed' individuals,
one gets the impression very strongly of an insecure personality,
torn this way and that by vague doubts and fears. When confronted
by a problem, they seem incapable of forming an independent opinion
concerning it, but tend to rely on the judgment of others. They
are so highly susceptible to suggestion that it would be very
easy for anyone who has gained their confidence to take advantage
of them. The barest hint that there might be something wrong could
drive them to suicide or hysterics.
1982: The Jupiter Effect. The last time the planets were
supposed to align and trigger mass destruction in Los Angeles
was in 1982, the year of the "Jupiter Effect." According
to the tabloid Midnight, "Astronomers and scientists
are desperately worried that one of the most terrible disasters
in the history of mankind may hit the United States...killing
untold millions and reducing the American West Coast to rubble
...." The public was told that "all the planets in our
solar system will be in line" and the Earth "will pass
daily through the energy fields." I was not "desperately
worried," but I was alerted.
The planets were not to work their magic directly on the Earth,
and as seen from Earth there was no alignment. It was a heliocentric
alignment. At their closest, on March 10, 1982, as seen from the
sun, the planets spanned 95°, which is more than a quarter
of the sky. As seen from the Earth the naked-eye planets were
spread across 130° of the sky. The "Jupiter Effect"
was subtle. In a circuitous sequence of events, we were told that
a rare heliocentric alignment of planets that occurs only once
every 179 years exerts a strong tidal effect on the sun, which
increases solar activity, which causes more sunspots, which propel
more atomic particles towards Earth, which disturb the normal
circulation of Earth's atmosphere, which causes sudden major storms,
which cause abrupt changes in the Earth's rotation, which triggers
a major quake along faults (specifically the San Andreas) already
subject to strain. No chain is stronger than its weakest link,
and this chain had some links that were very weak indeed.
A salient feature of the "Jupiter Effect" was that it
was promoted by scientists, and this gave it extra validity. A
local feature for those of us who live in California is that the
specific fault that was supposed to fail was the San Andreas,
a major fault that extends nearly the length of our state. The
authors referred repeatedly to "the next great California
earthquake," and this was even the title of one chapter.
My immediate predecessor at Griffith, Edward Upton, recognized
early what was going on, and in the January 1975 issue of the
Griffith Observer he wrote:
But The Jupiter Effect has not been written to appeal to
the scientific mind. It is written for those who are more impressed
by dramatic language than by precise reasoning...it is truly a
novelty to receive it from the hand of two scientists whose training
and education, if not entirely wasted, should have taught them
better. It is difficult, indeed, to resist the suspicion that
they do know better and that The Jupiter Effect is a gigantic
deception directed at the ever-present gullibles....On page after
page we find repeated the warning that great earthquakes are going
to occur in 1982 along the San Andreas Fault. Why this
one-track emphasis on impending disaster in California, as if
it were the only place on earth subject to major quakes? Why are
there no similar predictions concerning Chile, Alaska, Japan,
Indonesia, or a hundred other places? Could it be because in California,
better than any other place on earth, one finds a fear of earthquakes
combined with a proven market for sensational books?
Untold millions did not die in 1982, but a lot of people were
scared. Despite the focus of the book, concern was not limited
to California. The San Diego Vista Press reported on March
10, 1982: "We've literally had people ask, 'Should I sell
my house and move away?'" said Kevin Atkins of Gates Planetarium
[in Denver, Colorado]....The institute reported 130 phone calls
in five hours Monday....One small Christian sect in the Philippines
is building a maze of padded cubicles and trying out padded suits
in readiness for disasters their leader, Casiano Nasair, predicts."
According to the book this planetary alignment was directed specifically
to California and little mention was made of other places. Yet
it made the national news.
1988: Nostradamus. The last great planet-causing earthquake
flap came six years ago. We at Griffith Observatory learned about
it when we received a rash of phone calls asking, "Can you
tell me when the planets are going to line up and cause that big
earthquake?" Puzzled, we asked the callers the source of
their (mis)information. It came from a 1981 movie about Nostradamus,
called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that had just been shown
on cable TV. As far as I could tell, it was this so-so movie suitable
only for late-night TV that brought Nostradamus into the popular
eye and initiated concern and fear over the "alignment."
It's no surprise that the modern American public receives its
information on many vital matters via day-time talk shows and
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow referred to an earthquake that
was supposed to happen in California in 1988, but it also referred
specifically to more dramatic events that are supposed to happen
at the end of the millennium and that will affect the entire globe.
Filmed in a docudrama format it presents predictions of the future
that are less than comforting. Narrated by Orson Welles, it tells
the story of Nostradamus in a sympathetic way that cannot fail
to convince someone who is unfamiliar with the subject that here
was a man with supernatural powers who could indeed see the future
and who wrote his quatrains to warn future generations of troubles
to come. It is full of archival footage of horrors of the past
(World War II atrocities, for example) and scenes of disasters
lifted from old science fiction films. Because it appears to be
a documentary, many who see it are genuinely alarmed.
Not surprisingly for a film produced by David Wolper, the movie
is full of exaggerations and outright fabrications. In one example
of the movie's manipulation of facts, a dramatic scene which is
presented as a true historical incident shows looters opening
the grave of Nostradamus during the French Revolution. To their
dread and amazement, the looters find a plaque on the body inscribed
with the month and year they opened the grave! One looter mockingly
recalls a curse upon whoever disturbs the prophet's bones-and
is promptly shot dead by a stray bullet. Narrator Welles looks
you in the eye and asks you to be the judge if this can only be
coincidence. The reality is that the tomb of Nostradamus, like
so many others, was indeed looted during the Revolution, but no
dated plaque was found. A local French priest created the legend
that a soldier who helped open the tomb died in battle the next
day in an effort to scare off future looters.
Following the late-night showing of the film, astrologers, psychics,
and doomsayers of all persuasions crawled out of the woodwork
and added their own spin on Nostradamus' predictions. We were
assured that, yes, the Master had predicted earthquakes for Los
Angeles or San Francisco for May, 1988. We were told this despite
the fact that the quatrain quoted in the movie was a fabrication
created by joining two lines of one quatrain with two lines of
another (Century I, #87 atop Century X, #67), and that the actual
warning was that "hailstones would fall larger than an egg."
A curious aspect of the 1988 flap was that the movie did not claim
that the planets would align. The quake would happen when the
planets would be in specific, but very ambiguous, positions ("Mars
in zero"). There was no question of tidal or other unknown
forces acting on the Earth; it was pure astrology. Yet the impact
was strong, and the news media ate it up. If all this could come
from a bad video that didn't even quote Nostradamus correctly
and at a time when there were no planetary alignments, I shudder
in fear of what will happen at the turn of the century/millennium.
In a curious coincidence, at the height of the Nostradamus scare
it was revealed to the nation that the First Lady used an astrologer
to plan Ronald Reagan's presidential calendar. Her astrologer,
Joan Quigley, boasted, "I got heavily into the relationship
between the superpowers and the ending of the Cold War" (L.A.
Times, Jan. 4, 1996).
Most news coverage was rational and balanced, but we were appalled
by some investigative-reporting programs (one of which was filmed
on our roof without our permission) that ranked with the most
shameful examples of tabloid journalism. They fanned the flames
during prime time, and I lamented that they reached more people
with their nonsense in one half-hour broadcast than I will in
the planetarium theater in my entire career. What follows are
examples of honest (as opposed to shameful) reporting that reminds
us of what to expect next time:
Associated Press, April 24: Videocassettes of The Man
Who Saw Tomorrow are causing...hundreds of calls from nervous
Californians to therapists and seismic officials. "This has
gone beyond fun speculation. People are close to panic,"
said Santa Clara County geologist Jim Berkland. "Some are
even selling their homes and moving away." Jittery residents
also are keeping their doctors' lines busy. "People are suffering
from everything from mild panic attacks to acute anxiety of this,"
said Dr. Donald Dossey of the Phobia Institute in Westwood.
Evening Outlook, Santa Monica, CA May 3: The Red Cross
has been busy fielding calls from frightened residents, said Peggy
Brutsche, a specialist in earthquake preparedness there. "We've
had a number of calls from people clearly inquiring because of
the Nostradamus thing," she said. "Some of the public
seem to be genuinely frightened from what they've heard."
Los Angeles Times, May 6: Travel agents, moving company
workers, bottled-water suppliers, real estate agents and earthquake
preparedness specialists say they're observing a small but significant
minority of Southern Californians either getting out of the area
or getting prepared to survive the Big One. Stand-up comic/weatherman
Fritz Coleman...found his station's phones "ringing off the
hook"..."A lot of people are taking this real seriously,"
says Coleman..."The thing that makes me mad is that we have
satellites and all this technology and people would rather believe
this guy with a beret from the 16th Century."
Earthquake jitters are translating into sales for companies specializing
in bottled water and other disaster rations. Extend-A-Life, a
Pasadena firm that calls itself "the largest purveyor of
disaster supplies in America," claims that the Nostradamus
prediction has triggered a 10-fold increase in sales that week
of pouches of purified water, 1,200-calorie survival cookie bars,
first-aid kits, thermal blankets and "hand-cranked"AM-FM
Herald Examiner, Los Angeles May 9: "We have people
taking amphetamines to stay awake so that when the quake hits
they will be at their best," said Robert R. Butterworth,
a psychologist who has been taking calls from people who are anxiety-ridden
because of the predictions. "There is one man who is building
a stainless steel top on his bed to protect him from the earthquake.
It is the only way he can sleep soundly," Butterworth said.
Associated Press, May 8: "The phones are ringing pretty
steadily," said Brenda Searcy, a nurse who was answering
crisis line phones at Charter Hospital in Long Beach Friday night.
"They're really panicking. Some of them are shaky and crying,"
Ms. Searcy said. "I've had a lot of parents call and say
their children can't sleep at night because of the predictions."
Butterworth has told some who were so distraught as to be inconsolable
to simply leave town for the month of May.
Interest on the part of the news media and the public peaked the
day before the supposed catastrophe, with many of the Hollywood
rich and famous arranging to be out of town "just to be safe."
When nothing had happened by the late afternoon of the fateful
day, media interest evaporated so quickly you could hear the loud
POP as air rushed into the vacuum it left behind. I stood on the
Observatory steps waiting to be interviewed about the earthquake
that hadn't happened and the prediction that failed, but "that
was not news" and I stood alone.
There seems to be a special fascination with the 16th-century
physician, astrologer, mystic, and social commentator (disguised
as a prophet-see Randi, 1990) Michel de Nostredame. Although the
quatrain that we were told predicted an earthquake was a fabrication
as presented in the popular press (and it could be referenced
to no identifiable year), the situation is quite different this
time. The fact is that Nostradamus did predict big trouble
>From 1550 to 1567 Nostradamus published a series of 942 predictions
in rhyme about future world events. His followers credit him with
predicting the European influenza epidemic of 1918-19, the 1956
Hungarian revolution, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and
an impressive list of other events. It would appear he had a fascination
for the second half of the 20th century! Nostradamus looked into
the future by gazing into a bowl of water on a brass tripod, much
the same way that a fortune-teller gazes into a crystal ball.
He wrote his predictions in verse, obscuring them by using a bewildering
mixture of anagrams, symbols, puns, Old French, and Latin. He
also invented a number of words and place names. Of course, if
you write a thousand nonsense verses and wait a few centuries,
inventive people will eventually find events to fit to some of
them. Nostradamus himself said that the quatrains' were unclear
so that "they could not possibly be understood 'till they
were interpreted after the event." How convenient!
Nostradamus wrote for a contemporary French audience and most
of the places he mentions are in or near France. He referred frequently
to noble French families, and although he specifically mentioned
numerous obscure French towns and rivers, he ignored the New World.
Most significantly, although he made up plenty of words, he never
wrote "bombe atomique," "Kennedy," or "Los
Angeles." Quatrain 10-72 is the only quatrain with a date
still in the future, and as such it is unique. This is the last
opportunity for his followers to score a direct hit by stating
explicitly what their master predicted and then reaping all the
glory that comes with successfully predicting the future. According
to the translation by Edgar Leoni in his monumental Nostradamus
and His Prophecies, quatrain 10-72 reads:
L'an mil neuf cent nonante neuf sept mois,
Du ciel viendra grand Roy deffrayeur
Resusciter la grand Roy d'Angolmois.
Aunt après Mars regner par bonheur.
The year 1999, seventh month,
>From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.
(Angolmois can be interpreted as an anagram for Mongolois; it
could also refer to the French royal House of Angouleme. Or maybe
it will only make sense after the fact.)
Today this widely quoted quatrain is variously thought to refer
to a tyrant from Libya (guess who) or Persia, but not necessarily
China or Mongolia. The Man Who Saw Tomorrow dramatizes
the ultimate Middle East act of terrorism as a blue-turbaned despot
lets the missiles fly, initiating World War III. This is followed
by earthquakes (starting in California), followed by world-wide
natural disasters. The war becomes nuclear in 1999 when an Antichrist
from the "Kingdom of Mohammed" invades the west. Fortunately,
after 27 years, the good guys eventually win and a thousand years
of peace follow. Sadly, the world ends in 3797 C.E.
Since the world survived the predicted disasters of 1962, 1982,
and 1988, a new prediction had to be constructed. In 1994 5/5/2000,
subtitled Ice: the Ultimate Disaster, by Richard Noone,
hit the bookstores. Although the book is an unorganized mish-mash
compared to the ostensibly authoritative The Jupiter Effect,
it does make dramatic predictions that some people will find scary.
Like the authors of The Jupiter Effect, Noone suggests
a chain of events culminating in catastrophe.
Noone's chain is extraordinarily shy on details about precisely
how things will happen, but the gist is that Mercury, Venus,
Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will align with the Earth for the first
time in 6,000 years, and that will cause the ice that has been
building up at the South Pole to upset the Earth's axis, initiating
sudden and catastrophic floods and earthquakes. The ancient Egyptians
warned us about this 6,000 years ago (it happened to them, too;
that's why they built the Great Pyramid), and Nostradamus simply
confirmed the warning.
Unfortunately Noone never hints at how the planetary alignments
will cause the Earth to self-destruct, and this arm-waving contrasts
dramatically with the vector calculus he quotes in depth to quantize
the Great Pyramid's shape. He is, however, certain that the interval
is exactly 6,000 years, no more and no less. To Noone, the alignment
will be exact: "for the first time in 6,000 years all the
planets of our solar system will be arrayed in practically a straight
line in space" (p. 53).
I've not been able to make much sense of his book or to discover
its organization, if any. Most of it, however, is devoted to the
"dreaded date embodied in the Great Pyramid's mathematical
symbolism" (p. 213), but it ties together otherwise unrelated
topics such as the Book of Mormon, dinosaurs that lived
contemporaneously with humans, Inca fortresses, the lost continent
of Mu, the Ark of the Covenant, Velikovsky, Atlantis, to name
a few. All of his arguments are derivative. The assertion that
too much ice at the South Pole will cause the Earth to tip over
dates to Charles Hapgood who elaborated on earlier ideas that
too much ice at a pole would unbalance the Earth.
The alignments seem to be a definite afterthought in a book that
is really about secrets of the Ancients. The alignments give the
book its title and dramatic cover illustration and they provide
a date in the alarmingly near future to focus on, but they are
entirely incidental to the book. The book devotes a total of less
than half a page out of more than 300 to the planetary
alignments in the year 2000. (Incidentally, recent studies indicate
that the Antarctic ice sheet is among "the most stable geologic
features on the planet" and unlikely to change suddenly-"Preservation
of Miocene Glacier Ice in East Antarctica," Nature,
pp. 412-414, Aug. 3, 1995. Its present trend is to contract at
1.4% per decade.)
Planetary Alignments in 2000
In contrast to the "Jupiter Effect" and Nostradamus'
1988 prediction of doom - where there were no planetary
alignments - in May 2000 there is a nice series of alignments.
They were first pointed out by Jean Meeus in 1961 and they figure
into Charles Berlitz's 1981 book Doomsday 1999 A.D. Astrologers
and other doomsayers know of these alignments, which are common
knowledge among people who keep track of such things. There is
even a discussion board in the Astronomy section of America Online
devoted just to this topic. With sky simulation programs on everyone's
personal computer, the cat is out of the bag. Here is a narrative
description of what will happen astronomically in 2000.
The year begins with the planets dispersed over 160° of sky
and all but Mercury visible. Venus is prominent in the morning
sky while Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are in the evening sky. Mercury
moves to the evening sky and becomes visible early in February.
All planets are then moving eastward (none are in retrograde)
and their spread is decreasing. On February 28 their span has
decreased to 90°. A few days later Mercury swings back to
the morning sky.
The first conjunction of many occurs when Venus passes Mercury
on March 15, and the two inner planets are 2.1° apart at
their closest at 22:44 UT, or Universal Time. (Times here are
of closest approach, not conjunction in Right Ascension or ecliptic
longitude, and are computed by the Voyager II program for
the Macintosh. Times are accurate to within a few minutes.) At
the same time Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars span 20° in the evening
sky. These three outer planets continue to converge (Mars is overtaking
Jupiter which in turn is overtaking Saturn), and on April 6 Mars
passes Jupiter (they are 1.0° apart at 6:24 UT) with Saturn
6° to the east. This conjunction happens while Mars and Jupiter
are 30° from the sun and it is easily visible. The prettiest
evening sight of the suite of planetary groupings comes at about
7 p.m. local time on Saturday night, April 6, (for middle latitudes
in the United States), when the thin crescent moon is near Saturn
and the moon and four planets fit within a circle about 9°
in diameter. Daylight Saving Time begins the following morning
in the United States.
A week later Mars is roughly midway between Jupiter and Saturn
and the three planets fit within a circle 5° in diameter.
Mars is closest to Saturn (2.2°) at 14:24 UT on April 15.
Mars then leaves Saturn and Jupiter behind and the three planets
slowly become strung out in line.
Meanwhile, Mercury and Venus have been approaching superior conjunction
and their separation with the sun (and with the other planets)
has been decreasing. On April 20 the five planets (and sun) span
39°, with Venus and Mercury in the morning sky and Mars,
Jupiter, and Saturn in the evening. Weather permitting, the five
planets should be visible, although not simultaneously, to people
with binoculars and clear eastern and western horizons.
On April 28 at 14:56 UT Mercury passes 0.3° from Venus, but
the two are less than 12° from the sun. The five planets
and sun now span 30°.
The moon joins the five planets a few days later, and it remains
between Venus, which is the westernmost planet, and Mars, which
is the easternmost, from 9:37 UT on May 3 until 8:08 UT on May
5 as measured in ecliptic longitude and as determined by Meeus.
The moon is new at 4:12 UT on May 4. Because Venus is moving eastward
faster than Mars, the grouping of the five planets plus moon and
sun continues to compress during the time it takes the moon to
move eastward and reach the longitude of Mars. All seven classical
solar system bodies span their smallest geocentric arc in ecliptic
longitude - 25° 53' - at 8:08 UT on May 5, as determined
by Meeus. This moment is the focus of the book 5/5/2000
and is the culmination of the celestial massings. The sun is near
the center of the massing, so all that will be visible will be
Mars and the crescent moon, both 16° east of the sun in the
evening sky, and perhaps Venus, 10° west of the sun in the
This is as seen from Earth. As seen from the sun, the five planets,
which in order from left to right are Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury,
and Venus, span 50°. The Earth is in the opposite direction.
As seen from far above the sun they do indeed look aligned - as
they actually are.
After passing Mars at 8:08 UT on the 5th, the moon leaves the
sun and planets behind, but the five planets continue to converge
(and to become even less easily visible). In sequence, Jupiter
is in superior conjunction, Mercury passes Jupiter, Mercury is
in superior conjunction, Saturn is in superior conjunction, and
Venus passes Jupiter. This last conjunction, which takes place
at 10:30 UT on May 17, determines the smallest geocentric spread
in longitude of the five classical planets (and the sun, but not
the moon), which span 19° 25'. The moon is in a kind of alignment
by being 170° opposite the sun and 21 hours before full.
This is a second instant for astrologers and psychics to focus
on. All planets are too close to the sun to be seen. After this
moment, Jupiter's slower eastward motion causes it to lag behind
the others and the planets begin to spread out.
A notable feature of the May 17 minimum span is that Venus and
Jupiter are separated by only 42 arcseconds! Venus almost occults
Jupiter. It would be a wonderful sight were they not less than
7° from the sun. This close conjunction has already been
compared to the 2 B.C.E. conjunction of the same planets that
is often identified as the Star of the Magi in the Book of Matthew.
Conjunctions continue as Mercury passes Mars with a minimum true
angular separation of 1.1° at 9:04 on May 19 (as determined
by Voyager II). They are 12° from the sun and possibly
visible. Jupiter passes 1.1° from Saturn at 13:20 on May
27. Venus is in superior conjunction with the sun on June 11 (and
literally behind it), by which time both Jupiter and Saturn have
become visible in the morning sky, where they rise 2° apart.
Venus passes 0.2° from Mars at 17:04 on June 21 (both are
far too close to the sun to see).
Another interesting massing (and a last chance for astrologers
whose earlier predictions were not fulfilled) comes on July 1
and 2 when, for 11 hours, the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, and Mars
fit within a circle 8° in diameter. The massing will not
be visible, of course.
Every astrologer and psychic will put his own spin on these alignments.
They occur over so a wide a span of time that there should be
plenty of opportunities to link at least a few natural and political
disasters to planetary positions.
Other Alignments. The two main groupings of multiple objects
that will draw the greatest attention are the minimum separation
of all seven classical solar system bodies on May 5 and the even
smaller minimum separation of five planets plus the moon on May
17. However, within this time frame there are other alignments
that involve fewer objects but that are also interesting both
astronomically and astrologically. From past experience we know
that astrologers feel free to attach significance to whatever
dates are available. In 1988 so many alternative dates were proposed
that, by the time May rolled around, someone had picked almost
every day of the month for the earthquake.
|Venus - Mercury||March 15
|Mars - Jupiter||April 6
|Mars - Saturn||April 15
|Mercury - Venus||April 28
|Mercury - Jupiter||May 8
|Venus - Jupiter||May 17
|Mercury - Mars||May 19
|Jupiter - Saturn||May 27
|Venus - Mars||June 21||17:04
|Minimum Span in Longitude of Sun, Moon, and Five Planets: May 5, 8:08 UT, 25° 53'
|Minimum Span in Longitude of Five Planets (Plus Sun): May 17, 10:30 UT, 19° 25'
How Often Do the Planets Align?
Inevitably when discussing a planetary alignment, someone asks,
"How often does this happen?" or "When will it
It is hard to give a short and satisfying answer if more than
two objects are involved. Of course, no series of alignments repeats
exactly, but simply saying it that way is interpreted as avoiding
answering the question. People have the instinctive feeling that
even if a particular alignment doesn't repeat exactly, it repeats
in a general way and there must be a way of putting a number to
its rarity. This is certainly true of eclipses (the most interesting
alignments), and it is true of planetary alignments too. If the
alignment is a simple conjunction of two planets, the answer is
easy. But if it is several planets massed together, perhaps with
the moon, and if they need to be in one of the "water"
signs of the zodiac, for example, the answer is not obvious.
An analogy I like to use is to compare a complex series of alignments
to a baseball game. Many games end with the same score, but no
game is ever repeated-just as no alignment is ever repeated. The
Belgian astronomer Jean Meeus has looked into planetary alignments
and compact groupings, and his several publications are invaluable
resources. The information in the two sections below is taken
from his work.
Heliocentric: All Planets (except Pluto). Meeus (1961)
published dates when all planets except Pluto fit within a sector
of less than 90° as seen from the sun between the years 0
to 3000. He lists 25 dates, which work out to one every 120 years,
although of course they do not occur periodically. The minimum
heliocentric spread of the planets during these 30 centuries occurred
on April 11, 1128 (Julian), when the eight planets spanned 40°
(Pluto was outside the sector). The last two dates when the eight
planets spanned less than 90° were September 19, 1666 (85°)
and June 9, 1817 (83°). The next two times will be May 19,
2161 (69°) and November 7, 2176 (78°). In none of these
four cases is Pluto within the sector. The last time all nine
planets lay within a 90° sector was on February 1, 949 (Julian);
80° and the next will be on May 6, 2492 (90°).
Geocentric: Naked-Eye Planets. In 1994, De Meis and Meeus
published a list of 102 groupings between the years -3101 and
+2735 where the five naked-eye planets fit within a circle 25°
or less in diameter, which is an average of once every 57 years.
(This expands on Meeus' earlier 1961 list which spanned the years
1000 to 2400.) Of these 102 groupings, on 10 occasions the five
planets fit within a circle 10° in diameter (an average of
one every 584 years). The minimum separation of the naked-eye
planets within this long time span, which includes all of recorded
history, was 4.3° on February 27, 1953 B.C.E. (Apparently
the Chinese calendar began with the following new moon on March
5). The last two close groupings were on April 30, 1821 (19.7°)
and February 5, 1962 (15.8°). The next two will occur on
May 17, 2000 (19.5°) and September 8, 2040 (9.3°).
The short answer to the question "when will this (the May,
2000 alignments) happen again" depends on the parameters.
If you mean "when will the naked-eye planets and the moon
fit within a span of 19.5° or less," as they do on May
17, the answer is "September 8, 2040-and then the planets
will span less than half as wide an arc as in 2000." If the
question is "when will all five planets plus the moon and
sun fit within a span of 26° or less, as they do on May
5, the answer is March 20, 2675, when these seven bodies will
span 22.6°. They are almost as close (and still less than
25.9°) one lunar month later. (On November 25, 2516 they
span 26.5°, which is almost as close as in 2000.)
The short answer to the question, "when was the last time
the five planets plus sun and moon were this close," is "1962,
when there was a solar eclipse to boot-and nothing happened."
The following chart is a handy reference:
|Minimum Separation of 5 Planets + Moon
|Last||February 5, 1962
|Present||May 17, 2000
|Next||September 8, 2040
|Minimum Separation of 5 Planets + Moon + Sun
|Last||February 5, 1962
|Present||May 5, 2000
|Next||March 20, 2675
Planetary Alignments and Earthquakes
Many people believe that when the planets align there is some
dramatic effect on the Earth. People assume that somehow gravity
is focused and magnified, increasing tidal forces and triggering
an earthquake. To a person who doesn't understand tides (or gravity),
it is easy to imagine that this is so.
Usually the closeness of the alignment is overstated. In 1982,
the year of the "Jupiter Effect," the tabloid Midnight
reported that "all the planets in our solar system will be
in line" and the Earth "will pass daily through the
energy fields." The covers of the books The Jupiter Effect
and 5/5/2000 both show the planets perfectly aligned. This
is common imagery and is the public perception. It is wrong, as
is the assumption about the tidal forces.
First, it is supposedly gravitational tidal forces that trigger
earthquakes. We can calculate the tidal force that each planet
has on the Earth, and this is shown below. The sun has 1 unit
of tidal force on the Earth; the moon has a little more than twice
the effect of the sun because, though much less massive, it's
much closer; the other nine planets together with all their moons
add only another one five-thousandth as much. If all the planets
were to align perfectly, their gravity would raise the ocean tides
by one twenty-fifth of one millimeter. Clearly, the contribution
of the planets is negligible, and it makes no difference to the
Earth whether they are aligned or not. The tidal force depends
on distance and mass, especially distance. A book you hold in
your hands exerts a billion times as much tidal force as the planet
Mars when Mars is at its closest.
Tidal Forces of the Sun, Moon, and Planets
With the sun's tidal force equal to 1.00, the following
values are given in Thompson (1981):
Second, we can make lists of past earthquakes and of planetary
alignments and compare them to see if there is a correlation.
This is a very simple thing to do that requires no theory and
almost no knowledge-just pads of paper and lots of time. There
are 11,000 earthquakes each year in the Los Angeles area alone
that are strong enough to be recorded, which is more than enough
to do a proper statistical sample.
One study published in Nature (Kilston and Knopoff, 1983)
claimed to find a weak correlation between large earthquakes on
strike-slip faults in California and daily and semi-daily tidal
stresses. That appears to have been the last word on the subject,
however. From conversations with seismologists in the preparation
for this article, it appears that the study has been either ignored
or forgotten (or both). The feeling seems to be that a very weak
correlation for a certain type of fault in a certain geographic
area is not something to be excited about, and there appears to
be no interest in repeating the study.
However, the basis of the claims in The Jupiter Effect
is that the tidal forces act on the sun, not on the Earth,
and that changes in the sun trigger seismic activity on the Earth.
This certainly didn't work in 1982, and it probably hasn't worked
in the past.
In an attempt to correlate Chinese earthquakes with heliocentric
planetary alignments since 1000 C.E., W. H. Ip (1976) finds that
of the 11 earthquakes with an intensity greater than 8 since 1000
C.E., none coincide with a heliocentric planetary alignment. Ip
concludes that "It appears that such an arrangement of planetary
orbital positions has no effect on the triggering of earthquakes."
Ip also summarizes a 1975 study by Yu Shen that has not been translated
from Chinese into English. Shen attempted to find a correlation
between 38 centuries of seismic activity in northern China and
the 179-year heliocentric alignment of the planets much touted
by the authors of The Jupiter Effect prior to 1982. Since
780 B.C.E. there have been 15 or 16 heliocentric alignments and
125 earthquakes in northern China with intensities greater than
6 on the Richter scale, but only one of these earthquakes (in
1624) coincided with a heliocentric alignment. Again the conclusion
is that "heliocentric planetary alignments have nothing to
do with the triggering of earthquakes, at least in Northern China."
Anyone can look for a correlation between tides and earthquakes
and the first person to find such a correlation would be famous.
Yet no one has yet found a convincing relationship - probably
because there isn't one. Earthquakes are caused by motions within
the Earth. We would like to predict them for obvious reasons,
but an appeal to the planets or to astrology won't help.
If we are talking about gravitational and tidal
forces of the planets, the situation is clear. Unfortunately,
some believers will dismiss the entire effort. In a posting to
the "2000 Planets Align Discussion Board" of America
Online (Dec. 14, 1994), "M" says: "What does 'seeing'
the planets from Earth have to do with it? What we will see is
not the planets themselves, perhaps, but the intersection of the
great Cosmic forces they represent." Sigh.
The conjunction of a prediction by Nostradamus, a series of planetary
alignments, and the end of the millennium will generate innumerable
predictions of doom and gloom. We have survived the "end
of the world" before and we will again, but it will be a
busy time for defenders of rational thought.
13 EMBARRASSING QUESTIONS TO ASK ASTROLOGERS
Andrew Fraknoi's "Ten Embarrassing Questions to Ask Astrologers,"
from his Astrology Defense Kit, are useful when encountering believers:
1. What is the likelihood that 1/12 of the
world's population is having the same kind of day?
2. Why is the moment of birth, not conception,
crucial for astrology? (Think about it a bit and you can put an
astrologer on the spot with this one: one-third of all births
in the U.S. happen when the doctor performs a Caesarean section
or induces labor-was yours?)
3. If the mother's womb can keep out astrological
forces until the moment of birth, why can't we do the same with
a piece of steak?
4. If astrologers are so good, why aren't
they rich? (The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1995, reports
on page 1 that the treasurer of Orange County, California, used
an astrologer and psychic to guide the county's investments. He
lost $1.6 billion and bankrupted the county. Why aren't he, the
astrologer, and the county rich?)
5. Are all horoscopes done before the discovery
of the outermost three planets incorrect?
6. Should we not condemn astrology as a form
of bigotry? (Isn't it discrimination by birth date?)
7. Why do different schools of astrology disagree
so strongly with each other?
8. If astrological influence is carried by
a known force (such as gravity-caused tides), why do the planets
dominate over closer objects? (Why does Mars supposedly have more
influence that the nearby doctor attending a birth?)
9. If astrological influence is carried by
unknown forces, why is it independent of distance? (Why does Mars
supposedly have the same influence regardless of its distance,
which varies greatly?)
10. Why are there no astrological influences
caused by stars and galaxies?
THREE ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS YOU MIGHT ASK ARE:
11. If Astrology is based on planetary forces
why did astrologers not predict the existence of three of the
planets (one-third of the solar system!)?
12. If astrologers can predict the future,
why do they not agree on who will win the next election?
13. And if the planets exert unknown forces
on little you and me, why didn't they act on the Galileo spacecraft
after slingshotting around the solar system for years-and which
arrived right on target?
WHEN DEBATING AN ASTROLOGER
People relate best to stories about people. Abstract scientific
concepts are wonderful, but if you can cast an argument as a short
anecdote or story, it is more likely to be both grasped and remembered
than if it remains abstract. Personal anecdotes work well.
When talking about UFOs I freely admit that I once saw one. While
driving up the California coast many years ago-before I was an
experienced planetarium astronomer-I spotted a slowly moving light
in the sky that was so bright I pulled off the highway to watch
it. Others did the same. I was completely puzzled by this unidentified
flying object until another watcher explained that it was the
second stage separating from the first stage of a rocket launch
over the Pacific. Now that I live in California I see such launches
now and then, but at that time, never having seen such a sight,
I was stumped to explain it. Once it was explained it went from
being a UFO to an I(dentified)FO. We all see things from time
to time that are outside our normal experiences and that we cannot
explain without help, and I am sympathetic to other people who
also see things they cannot explain.
When discussing astrology, and when time permits, I like to tell
the story (in Dreams and Illusions of Astrology, Michel
Gauquelin, Prometheus, NY, 1979) of the French psychologist Michel
Gauquelin, who sent "his own" birthdate to a French
astrologer and asked him to prepare a horoscope. It said, "He
is a Virgo, instinctive warmth is allied with intellect and wit....He
is endowed with a moral sense which is comforting-that of a worthy,
right-thinking citizen....His emotional life finds expression
in total devotion to others or altruistic sacrifices...and to
enjoy having a charming home." We would all enjoy receiving
such a horoscope-which of course, is exactly the point.
The birthdate was actually that of Marcel Petiot, a doctor who
posed as an underground agent during World War II. When refugees
came to him to escape the Nazis, he took their money, murdered
them, and dissolved their bodies in a secret chamber in his house.
After the war, he was convicted of murdering 27 people; before
his execution he boasted he had really killed 63.
Next, Gauquelin placed an advertisement in a Paris newspaper,
offering "totally free, ultra-personal horoscopes."
There were 150 replies. To each he sent the same horoscope
- the one he had received for Dr. Petiot. With each horoscope
he sent a questionnaire asking about the accuracy of the reading.
Ninety-four percent replied that they were pleased -- that
they were accurately portrayed by the horoscope of this notorious
murderer. Some even wrote glowing letters of praise, for example:
"I didn't believe in astrology until you did my horoscope,
but now I do!"
When talking to believers, rhetorically ask them how strong they
think the tidal force is of a person (perhaps you!) standing nearby.
A person standing next to you has a million times greater
tidal force on you than does the moon. (This is often expressed
as the comparative tidal force of the doctor who delivers a baby
with the force of the planets in determining a natal horoscope.)
This simple analogy makes clear what big numbers can't.
Another tactic is to begin a discussion with an astrologer by
stating, "I agree -- astrology does work. As practiced
today, it works quite well. Most people who visit an astrologer
come away satisfied and feeling that they have benefited from
the experience. Astrology works well -- and I know why!"
The person is astonished and taken off guard.
I continue that what I mean is that visiting an astrologer or
having a horoscope cast can be a fulfilling and personally satisfying
experience. Someone holds your hand, looks you in the eye, and
explains how you are connected to the cosmos and how forces far
greater than ourselves are shaping our destinies. Generally flattering
things are said, and you're happy that someone cares. You probably
get some vaguely useful advice about the future, and who wouldn't
welcome that. So the experience itself can be very rewarding,
which is precisely why so many people go to astrologers and why
astrology is still around. Everyone's happy. Everyone gets something,
and in that sense it does work.
But what really happens is that a person who wants help and advice
gets some personal attention from a kindly authority figure, and
that's the sum of the reward. The planets have nothing to do with
it. All the mumbo-jumbo about ascensions and quadrants and whatever
is to make the astrologer seem to have authentic knowledge of
a difficult subject, but in reality the charts and horoscope are
smoke screens to deflect your attention from what is really going
on, which is a cold reading. It's an old carnival side-show trick,
and it works equally well if you use planets, tea leaves, goat
intestines, or a crystal ball.
Where astrological advice does no harm, it probably doesn't matter
and it's just entertainment. When a person seriously needs professional
help, he or she is poorly served by a fortune-teller. We've learned
through painful experience that it is necessary to restrict medical
practice to trained professionals; astrologers are practicing
psychology without a license.
WHEN DOES THE CENTURY END?
If the world is to end at the end of the century and millennium,
does the end come at midnight December 31, 1999, or 2000? The
correct answer is that because there was no year zero, the 20th
century and the second millennium both end on December 31, 2000.
The first century, like all since, had 100 years; it began in
the year 1 and ended at the conclusion of the year 100. The second
century began with the year 101, and so on; the 21st century begins
on January 1, 2001, and the present century ends at the conclusion
of the year 2000.
However, this argument will have no weight for people to whom
it is obvious that the change from 1999 to 2000 involves more
digits. I am sympathetic with them. Hillel Schwartz describes
in Century's End how, at the end of the last century, newspapers
and sources of authority unanimously counted the new century from
January 1, 1901, but virtually all actual celebrations were held
on the last day of 1899. The people know better than the timekeepers
when to party. We will see the same pattern this time, when the
major celebrations will occur on New Year's Eve of 1999, despite
being told this is "wrong."
I propose a simple compromise. Those of us who will party in 1999
are really celebrating the end of the nineteen-hundreds,
a complete century which began on January 1, 1900, and which ends
on December 31, 1999. The same date also marks the end of the
unnamed millennium of four-digit years that begin with 1.
Whether you celebrate the end of the 1900s, the end of the 20th
century, the end of the second millennium, or the end of the world,
have a good time.
NOSTRADAMUS ON THE NET
On a hunch, I did a keyword search for "Nostradamus"
with a web browser to search for occurrences of the word on the
Internet's World Wide Web, and I came up with more hits than a
person could (or would want to) examine. For starters, you'll
find all the quatrains in several languages. There's no need to
buy the books!
I learned that there's also no need to rely on his obscure and
inconvenient quatrains to know the future because now psychics
are channeling him and getting his latest thoughts on the stock
For a modest fee you can subscribe to an information service that
"focuses on financial expansion or collapse, domestic and
world economic developments, national and international political
directions, and perhaps most importantly, global and regional
You can also learn the short-term future history of the world,
highly abbreviated here, beginning when "A meteor
will strike the center of the Indian Ocean, causing tidal waves
that will heavily damage the surrounding lands....On August 2nd,
1987 [a powerful dictator] will attack Iran, Turkey, and Egypt...Israel
will be defeated by the Arabs, with her air force destroyed....China
will launch a surprise nuclear biological-warfare attack over
the Arctic...The Chinese will invade France by way of southern
Russia, conquering all in their path....A Western coordinated
counter-offensive launched from Portugal will delay an amphibious
assault on Yugoslavia...England will partially sink as a result
of geological alterations...The Papacy will leave Rome...The Chinese
will attack France via air, sea, and mountain....Switzerland will
fall by the hand of the Easterners, who will confiscate the gold
reserves and impoverish the Swiss people....The resulting battle
will defeat the British....All life in London will die out during
winter...Russia will aid the encircled Americans and help to defeat
the Chinese navy....Scotland and London will be recaptured by
the Allies....Spain will be reconquered after a large naval battle
on March 3rd, 1996....The French, under a new leader named Ogmios,
will lead an Allied assault on Turkey between May 25th and June
21st, 1996....Israel will be liberated....The last battle will
bring about the collapse of the Arab empire....and World War III
will...finally be over." A feature of the Internet is the
ability to update easily, and I'm looking forward to the latest
revision of this interesting history. There's no need to list
web sites here to use as starting points. Search for "Nostradamus"
and stand back. (And check out the newsgroup "sci.skeptic"
while you're online.)
Any number of commercial and shareware astronomy programs will
show the planetary alignments. See "Software Roundup 1995"
in the August 1995 Sky & Telescope for recommendations.
I used Voyager II(Mac), Carina Software, 12919 Alcosta
Blvd. #7, San Ramon, CA 94583, fax 510-355-1268; Starry Night
(Mac), Sienna Software, 105 Pears Avenue, Toronto, Ontario Canada,
email@example.com; and AstroVizier (DOS), Zephyr Services,
1900 Murray Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15217, fax 412-422-9930. My
comprehensive and constantly updated list of astronomy software
is posted on the Internet World Wide Web at the following site:
Allen, W. E. 1994. "5-5-2000." Planetarian, Sept.:
De Meis, S. and J. Meeus. 1994. "Quintuple Planetary Groupings-Rarity,
Historical Events and Popular Beliefs." Journal of the
British Astronomical Association, Vol. 104, #6, December:
Fraknoi, A. 1989. "Your Astrology Defense Kit." Sky
& Telescope, Aug.: 146-150.
___. A. 1990. "Scientific Responses to Pseudoscience Related
to Astronomy, An Annotated Bibliography." Mercury,
Furnham, A. "Hooked on Horoscopes." New Scientist,
Jan. 26: 33-36.
Ip, W. H. 1976. "Chinese Records on the Correlation of Heliocentric
Planetary Alignments and Earthquake Activities," Icarus,
Jones, T. 1989. "Science in the Bear-Pit." New Scientist,
Oct. 7: 70-71.
Kilston, S. and L. Knopoff. 1983. "Lunar-Solar Periodicities
of Large Earthquakes in Southern California." Nature Vol.
303, July: pp. 21-25.
Meeus, J. 1961. "Compact Planetary Groupings." Sky
& Telescope, Dec.: 320-321.
___. 1982. "Planetary Quadrants and Minimum Sectors, 0 to
3000," Sky & Telescope, January: 5-6.
___. 1988. "Doomsday: The May 2000 Prediction." Skeptical
Inquirer, Spring: 290-292.
Mosley, J. 1990. "How to Debate Astrology." Astronomy,
Randi, J. 1990. The Mask of Nostradamus, New York: Scribners.
Richardson, R. S. 1962. "The 'End of the World' at the Griffith
Observatory." Griffith Observer, May: 62-65.
Rusk, J. 1990. "Scientists Confront Pseudoscience, A Bibliography
for Librarians." Planetarian, Vol. 19 #2, June: 12-14.
Schwartz, H. 1990. Century's End. New York: Doubleday.
Thompson, L. G. 1981. "On the Trail of the Jupiter Effect."
Sky & Telescope, Sept.: 220.
Upton, E. 1975. "Great Earthquake Hoax." Griffith
Observer, Jan. (reprinted pp. 2-8, Jan. 1982).
A longer version of this article appeared
in Planetarian, the journal of the
International Planetarium Society, March, 1996.