by Carolyn Gramling Monday, October 26, 2015
In the movie “2012,” released in theaters last November, an alignment of five planets in our solar system — supposedly foretold by the Mayans thousands of years ago — causes horrors that span nearly every earth science disaster movie cliché: solar flares, neutrinos, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, poles shifting, oceans washing over the tallest mountains in the world, cities falling into the sea, mass hysteria and, basically, total destruction of life as we know it.
Fifty years earlier, in February 1962, a planetary alignment raised similar doomsday fears. That alignment also included the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), as well as the moon and the sun. On top of that, there was a total solar eclipse. Astronomer Robert Richardson of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Calif., described the scene outside the building on Feb. 4, the day that the alignment took place:
“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. One 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.'”
Others around the world had even more extreme reactions, stocking up bomb shelters in the United States, and holding nonstop prayer vigils attended by millions in Bombay, India. One group of believers moved en masse to the town of Cleator, Ariz., which the group thought was one of only 12 spots in the world safe from the imminent disaster. Others claimed that the alignment was responsible for the assassination the following year of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Despite these terrified reactions, such alignments aren’t unusual. In fact, similar alignments happen every few decades, NASA scientists say. Strictly speaking, planets in alignment aren’t in a perfectly straight line as visible from Earth; instead, they converge in a region of the sky that’s less than 25 degrees across. In 1962, the planets converged in a region of sky just 17 degrees across.
But even if the planets were lined up straight like a row of dominoes, an alignment would be completely harmless, scientists say. One fear is that such an alignment would produce a magnified gravity effect on Earth, or possibly have some impact on the position of the pole (the center of Earth’s axis of rotation). (Spoiler alert: In the movie, the alignment produces changes in the sun’s magnetic field. That creates powerful solar flares that send killer neutrinos hurtling into Earth’s core. The resulting heat causes crustal displacement, in which the whole of Earth’s crust, riding on the semi-molten asthenosphere, takes a cataclysmic slide around the planet, altering the location of the axis of rotation and generally causing disaster.)
But that’s entirely nonsense, according to David Morrison, a senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Morrison and other NASA scientists have fielded nearly a thousand questions about the “2012” alignment and the supposed Mayan predictions of doom, hundreds of which they’ve answered as part of the agency’s online Ask an Astrobiologist program. Those questions deal with topics ranging from actual, if not doomsday, science — magnetic pole reversals, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, the next solar maximum (which may or may not occur in the year 2012) — to flat-out myths such as the idea that an invisible planet named Nibiru, supposedly discovered by the ancient Sumerians, is on a collision course with Earth, also expected to happen in 2012.
“The bottom line is that Nibiru is a myth, with no basis in fact,” Morrison writes. “To an astronomer, persistent claims about a planet that is ‘nearby' but ‘invisible' are just plain silly.”
In his responses to questions about what, if anything, is likely to happen in 2012, Morrison notes, for the record, that the planets aren’t actually going to be in alignment that year. But when the planets in our solar system do align, they are all too far away to exert any detectable gravitational pull on Earth. Also, he writes, solar flares happen all the time and haven’t destroyed Earth yet. And neutrinos — tiny particles with no electrical charge and almost no mass — do emanate from the sun, but they are hardly an unusual phenomenon; in fact, neutrinos are constantly traveling to (and through) Earth, passing harmlessly through the human body at a rate of trillions per second.
Still, once the fears about 2012 die down, NASA scientists and other astronomers will likely have no more than a decade or two of calm before the next round of hysteria: The next alignment of the five planets visible to the naked eye is expected to occur in 2040. For more information from NASA on what really happens during a planetary alignment, visit http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ask-an-astrobiologist/intro/nibiruand-doomsday-2012-questions-and-answers.
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