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Gerardus D. Bouw, Ph.D.


It looks like this issue is going to be very late, so this will be old news. There was a planetary alignment May 5-6 of this year. Again, the world was supposed to end. Of course, it didn’t, but there were those astrologers and occultists who thought it surely would. Do you recall the 1982 alignment, when all the planets were on the same side of the sun? Books were written (The Jupiter Effect, for example) predicting giant tides in the sun which would alter the earth’s weather. As a result, the scientists speculated, changes in wind pressure on the mountains of California would trigger great earthquakes which were going to shake California into the ocean. Even decent Christians succumbed to that one. Of course, California is still with us, much to the chagrin of many. And do you recall the alignment of 1962? On February 4 of that year, the sun, moon, and all the planets from Mercury to Saturn were clustered within a 17-degree area of the sky. Worse yet: it was new moon and there was a total eclipse of the sun — a sure portend of doom. But again the earthquakes did not materialize and the world didn’t miss a beat.

Now the scripture does say that the sun, moon, and planets are for signs and for seasons, and that is not in dispute. In the star of Bethlehem paper that appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of the Biblical Astronomer, we documented the signs which led up to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. But instead of signs for the return of Jesus, the pundits see them as the end of the world. This illustrates a common fallacy. Why does one automatically assume that such signs are negative, that is, bad? Astrology and new-age superstitions have thrived on such disaster-prognostication for planetary alignments since the alignment of 300 B.C.

There are some conjunctions associated with the 5 May event. The first conjunction of the series happened on 15 March when Mercury and Venus were 2°.1 apart. At the time Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn spanned 20° in the evening sky.

On 6 April Mars and Jupiter were about 1° apart, with Saturn 6° away. The crescent moon made this a pretty sight. On 15 April Mars is 2°.2 from Saturn and moves away so that the sun and the five planets span 39° on 20 April.

On 28 April Mercury came to within 0°.3 from Venus but this was too close to the sun to see by eye. The sun and planets now fell within 30° of each other. On 5 May the sun, moon, and the five planets all fall within 25°.9 of each other (see figure on the previous page which shows the alignment as it appears from the pole of the ecliptic).

Still too close to the sun to be seen, these events happen: Jupiter passes through superior conjunction (earth-sun-Jupiter alignment). Mercury passes Jupiter and comes to superior conjunction. Next Saturn goes through superior conjunction and then Venus passes Jupiter. At that point it is 17 May and the planets and the sun span an area of 19°.4. All the planets are still too close to the sun to be seen.

The most notable event in the sequence is on that date; Venus and Jupiter are separated by only 42 seconds of arc (0°.01). Venus almost occults (passes in front of) Jupiter. This rivals the 2 B.C. conjunction of the same two planets, which conjunction figured in the sequence leading up to Jesus’ birth later that year.

Several conjunctions remain. Mercury passes Mars within 1°.1 on 19 May; Jupiter passes Saturn with the same separation on 27 May. Venus, after passing directly behind the sun on 11 June, passes 0°.2 from Mars on 21 June.

The final massing of sun, moon, and five planets happens on July 1 and 2 when, for 11 hours, all fit within a circle 8° in diameter! Unfortunately, it is too close to the sun to see.

Within about 3000 years either side of A.D. 2000, the closest clustering of the five naked-eye planets happened on 27 February, 1953 B.C. when Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn all fell within a 4°.3 circle. The next close grouping (within 25°) will occur on 8 September, 2040.

When it comes to groupings of all seven bodies, that is the five planets and the sun and moon, the last time they were close was in 1962 when they were within 15°.8 of each other. May 5 of this year they are within 25°.9 of one another, and the next grouping of all seven is set for 20 March, 2675 when they will fall within 22°.6 of each other.

Of Earthquakes

Will earthquakes accompany such planetary massings and alignments? To answer that we need to look at the gravitational contributions of the planets as felt here on earth.

In a paper designed to evaluate the Jupiter effect of 1982, Thompson tabulated the relative contributions to the tide for the sun, moon, and planets. He set the sun’s contribution at 1 and came up with the table below.






0.000 113


0.000 013 1


0.000 002 3


0.000 000 7


0.000 000 5


0.000 000 001


0.000 000 000 2


0.000 000 000 000 1

As you can see, all the planets combined contribute only about one ten-thousandth what the sun contributes to the tides, and the moon’s contribution is more than twice as strong as that of the sun.

What is particularly interesting about the 5 May alignment is that the gravitational strengths of the planets are at a minimum. Since they are all at the far side of the sun, their contributions are minimized. The gravitational strength contributing to the tide height falls off with the cube of the distance. That means that if the moon were twice as far away, the tide would be an eighth what it now is. Three times as far away and the tide would be 1/27th as high. So, far from contributing to a high tide, the planets actually contribute less to the height of the tide than they normally do. And of the planets, the major contributor to the height of the tide is Venus, which is on the far side of the sun. It may surprise to learn that Jupiter, the largest of the planets, contributes less than Venus, but that’s what an inverse cube effect will do.

Now the claim of Gribbin and Plagemann, authors of The Jupiter Effect, was that the effect was on the sun, not on the earth. As we can see from the table, the contributions are not great, but Ip has checked for a connection between earthquakes and planetary alignments. Of 11 earthquakes of eight or higher on the Richter scale since A.D. 1000, none coincide with a heliocentric planetary alignment.

A 1975 Chinese paper by Yu Shen (cited by Ip), looked at alignments and earthquakes since 780 B.C. During that time there have been 15 or 16 heliocentric alignments of the type used by Gribbin and Plagemann, and in that time there were 125 earthquakes in northern China of strength six or higher on the Richter scale. Only the 1624 earthquake happened close to a planetary alignment. The conclusion is that there seems to be no correlation between alignments and earthquakes.