Oh My Stars

Will a rare planetary alignment generate an enormous earthquake on Earth on or about May 28th of this year at around 2300 hours UT?

There are two answers to that: a short one and a long one.

The short answer is: No. No, it almost certainly won’t. Now get back to work.

The long answer is: No. No it almost certainly wont. Now get back to work, but first here’s why you shouldn’t worry about it…

To start with: a little background. I have had an interest in astrology since childhood. But even before that I was fascinated with astronomy. I like to think that I can hold a fairly intelligent conversation on either subject. I can discuss the gravitational interactions of co-orbital bodies or the chemical composition of asteroids at least as well as the next guy — provided of course “the next guy” isn’t actually a professional astronomer. But I generally know my barycenter from my Lagrange Points, thank you very much.

You may have noticed a few of your friends on Facebook in the last few days have been worked up into a lather over an upcoming “planetary alignment” that will allegedly set the stage for a whopping big earthquake in a few days. As with many science-y sounding panics, this started with a YouTube video of dubious factual content which has since gotten repeated and recycled and distorted even further until it reaches the point where it makes its faulty way into popular consciousness. Remember when the rogue planet Nibiru came and turned the Earth 90 degrees on its axis and wiped us all out? Yeah, neither do I.

Here is the YouTube video that started this big flap in the first place. If you want to play along at home, watch the video and read my notes and I will tell you what it gets wrong.

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1:15 – Even the so-called “realistic view” used in this software grotesquely overplays the size of the planets and thus the relative distances between them. Remember that time Mars was nearly as big in the night sky as the Full Moon? Yeah, neither do I.

2:10 – Predicting things like “a major earthquake will happen within a few days of…” is kind of a sucker bet because “major earthquakes” happen all the time. I’ll return to this in a bit.

2:20 – The Mars-Mercury-Moon alignment. First of all, the alignment in question is entirely a matter of perspective. Set the right view angle on your software and you can draw a straight line between anything and anything else in the Solar System. That, and this particular alignment has happened literally thousands of times in the last few centuries alone without tripping off any major earthquakes. There are scientists who study these things you know, and they have considered the effects of planetary gravitation causing earthquakes, and they haven’t found any links. Did you know that? It’s true!

2:35 – This alignment “disturbed the Earth-Moon equilibrium.” Remember that gigantic high tide that day, or the Moon not being exactly where it was predicted to be down to a fraction of an inch? Yeah, neither do I.

I’m not going to do notes on the rest of the video because the whole thing is, frankly, a tribute to the power of choosing the right perspective, drawing lines between points that are not actually connected, and saying “that’s interesting.” At this point, my Inner Science Geek was responding like this… and this is a video you should watch:

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The whole thing about “planetary alignments” does sound a bit like astrology, at least on the surface of it. Although I have seen some serious research using astrology to predict major earthquakes, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really understand it. I’m no expert. One thing I do know though is that anyone who claims to be a psychic ( or a “YouTube personality”) who tells you that “there will be a major earthquake within X number of days of…” is playing really very easy odds. There are in fact several million earthquakes in the world each year. Most of them are not detected because they’re very small or hit remote areas where no one is paying attention. The US Geological Service in the United States alone detects about 20,000 earthquake the year. That’s about 50 each day.

As for major earthquakes? Let’s say that Magnitude 5 or bigger constitutes “major.” In 2012, earth experienced over 1,500 such quakes. If we limit ourselves to the really big ones – that is, magnitude 6 or larger – there were still over a hundred of those in 2012. There were slightly over 200 in 2011, and 174 in 2010. There are 365 days in the year. Do the math and tell me how psychic you have to be to say “There will be a major earthquake around…”

So if you’re bored try this sometime: wait until 2 or 3 in the morning and call all your friends and tell them that you had a psychic flash that there will be a major earthquake somewhere in the next few days. Sit back and set your Google News Alert for earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater. Your friends will be calling you Nostradamus in no time flat – unless of course they do some research and understand a bit of simple math.

(And by the way: any skeptics out there reading this? Feel free to enjoy the delicious irony of an astrologer explaining planetary gravitational effects to the easily panicked. We astrologers may not be as dumb as you had hoped.)

Remember that Eclipse in August 1999 that Nostradamus said would be the end of the world? Remember Y2K? Remember the devastation caused by the planetary alignment of 05/05/ 2000? Yeah neither do I. The tail end of the 20th century was the Golden Age for apocalypses that failed to deliver.

And that “Four Blood Moons” thing so many were all worried (and that I wrote about here) last year? Yeah, so far — no end of the world. My apologies. Your ticket will not be refunded.

You’ll notice that I said at the beginning of the blog entry that there would almost certainly not be a major earthquake on March 28, which is what the current story making the rounds on Facebook would have you believe. I will admit that statistically it could happen, especially if I keep it vague about defining “major earthquake.”

Next time something like this comes up, remember a lesson many of us should have learned between 1998 and 2001: when in doubt, always bet against the end of the world. At worst you will only ever be wrong once.

In conclusion: Science!

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