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 Prophecy?

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 late-night TV.

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 radios.
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.

Nostradamus

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 for 1999.

>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.

5/5/2000

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 morning sky.

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.

ALIGNMENTS SUMMARY
PLANETSDATE UT
TIME
TRUE
SEPARATION
Venus - MercuryMarch 15
22:44
2.1°
Mars - JupiterApril 6
6:24
1.0°
Mars - SaturnApril 15
14:24
2.2°
Mercury - VenusApril 28
14:56
0.3°
Mercury - JupiterMay 8
18:08
0.8°
Venus - JupiterMay 17
10:30
0.01°
Mercury - MarsMay 19
9:04
1.1°
Jupiter - SaturnMay 27
13:20
1.1°
Venus - MarsJune 21
17:04
0.2°
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 happen again?"

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
Event
Date
Separation
Last
February 5, 1962
15.8°
Present
May 17, 2000
19.5°
Next
September 8, 2040
8.3°

Minimum Separation of 5 Planets + Moon + Sun
Event
Date
Separation
Last
February 5, 1962
15.8°
Present
May 5, 2000
25.9°
Next
March 20, 2675
22.6°

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):

Moon2.21
Sun1.00
Venus0.000113
Jupiter0.0000131
Mars0.0000023
Mercury0.0000007
Saturn0.0000005
Uranus0.000000001
Neptune0.000000002
Pluto0.0000000000001

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 market.

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 social trends."

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.)


Bibliography

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, contact@siennasoft.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: http://www.skypub.com/software/mosley.html.

Allen, W. E. 1994. "5-5-2000." Planetarian, Sept.: 15-16.

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: 293-297.

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, Sept.-Oct.: 14-147.

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, 29: 435-436.

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, Feb.: 8.

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.

 

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