Oh My God, it’s the End of the World! Again!

IN A RECENT Herald report, alarmist forecasts for May 5, 2000 speak of an “alignment” of the six inner planets, the Sun and the Moon, “for the first time in 6000 years” which “could wreak havoc on Earth”.

Let’s look at some of the facts. Firstly, the word “alignment” is an exaggeration. The diagram shows the positions of the six planets predicted for May 5, 2000. They will be separated by an arc of about 25 degrees viewed from the Earth, and, if you exclude the Earth, over 50 degrees viewed from the Sun. This is hardly an alignment — your space craft would have to take quite a zig-zag course to stop over at each one. Call it a “gathering” if you like.

Secondly, it is not a rare event. Similar gatherings have occurred several times in the last 150 years with slight variations in the configurations.

On February 7, 1982, all nine planets were on one side of the Sun confined within an arc of 95 degrees as viewed from the Sun, and the doomsday press had a field day. In the same year, on May 30, there was another alignment which wasn’t mentioned in the press. Not all the planets were on the same side of the sun, but the “line fit” was slightly better. A similar situation occurred a few months later in November 1982.

In December 1997, seven of the planets were gathered within an arc of 60 degrees viewed from the Sun. Earth and Pluto were well out of line so they spoilt it. There were similar events late last century, in 1902, in the 1930s, 1962, and two in the 1970s. The May 2000 event will not be very special compared with these, with only six of the planets involved, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto having the audacity not to conform.

Thirdly, the compounding effect of the gravitational pulls would be insignificant even if the alignment were perfect. Gravity is a very weak force, and a good high school physics student will tell you that it is a function of mass and distance. So, although Jupiter and Saturn are several hundred times the mass of the Earth, they are so far away that their effects on Earth are negligible even when they are aligned.

The Moon, although vastly smaller than the Sun, has much greater gravitational effects on Earth than the Sun does because it is so much closer. For the same reason the Moon has greater gravitational pull on Earth than the combined gravities of the planets would ever have even when aligned.

The Sun, by far the largest mass in the solar system, and closer to us than the giant planets, has only a slight compounding effect with the Moon’s gravity by slightly increasing the Earth’s ocean tides when the Sun, Moon and Earth come into alignment. This happens every two weeks at the full and new moons.

In 1974 two science writers, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann, coauthored a book called The Jupiter Effect, in which they forecast that, by a complex chain of events, the 1982 planetary alignment would trigger earthquakes. The book sold millions but the scientific community discredited it and the authors retracted the claims. In 1982, after the planetary alignment had passed uneventfully, they wrote another book Beyond the Jupiter Effect, in which they admitted their mistake. But this book was hardly noticed.

The May 2000 event will not even be an interesting observation occasion. Viewed from Earth, the planets will be so close to the Sun in line of sight that, with the possible exception of Venus, they will be invisible.

Careful investigations have found no correlation between planetary gravitational variations and events on Earth. There may well be some disasters on Earth in May 2000, but they will not be caused by the alignment of the planets.

Literature references are available via the editor.

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