Griffith Observatory

John Mosley

Jan. 5 May 28, 2000

Cosmic Catastrophe

The show previews the planetary alignments in May 2000 and evaluates the claim that planetary alignments cause disasters on earth.
4 walk-in slides
Introduce the theater and projector and "warm up" the audience in front of the Zeiss to establish a personal presence.
  After the obligatory announcements, ask if people have heard of a "rare planetary alignment" that happens in May. Our show evaluates the claim that planetary alignments cause natural disasters on earth. 
5 audio A 100
"Part 1: The Claim"
Part I
The Claim
6 book front cover
FL 104 
A lot of people have heard of a planetary alignment coming up in May. A book titled 5-5-2000 promotes the idea that we are in for a rough time then. It says this on the back cover:
book back cover
FR 106
Cover Voice

On May 5 in the year 2000, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will be aligned with the earth for the first time in six thousand years. On that day the ice buildup at the South Pole will upset the earths axis sending trillions of tons of ice and water sweeping over the surface of our planet.


When people hear that a rare planetary alignment will cause a catastrophe, they want to know whats going on. They send us emails. We get mail!

7 audio
AOL Voice

Youve got mail!

e-mailer FL 110

Do you have any information on the planetary alignment on May 5 and when it last occurred? What precautions should I take and what places would be safe?

e-mailer FR 114 When was the last time the planets were in alignment? Could this alignment produce enough of a gravitational "effect" to alter the orbits of objects in the asteroid belt? What about the electromagnetic influences?
e-mailer A 116
[voices fade under]
books 104,106 again
What would be the effect when these planets are so lined? Is there any credibility to the alleged catastrophic effects of such an alignment?

Well people want to know. Is there anything to it? Do the planets line up in May, and is there anything to be worried about?


8 Babylon pan 126

The idea that the planets are responsible for disasters on earth is hardly new. Way back in ancient Babylon, the main duty of astronomers was to advise the king.
video: soothsayer 120 
Mars planet 
FL 122
Mars god FR 124
Babylonian Soothsayer

When Mars approaches Jupiter, there will be a great devastation upon the land. there will be a slaughter of cattle [and] the king of Akkad will die.

Parthenon pan 136

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy detailed the horrors each planet brought:

Ptolemy [video]
Mars planet 
FL 132
Mars god FR 134

Mars brings about wars, civil faction, capture, enslavement, uprising, the wrath of leaders, and sudden deaths

London pan 146

Perhaps Shakespeare summed up best the prevailing opinion of what could happen when the planets got in the wrong position:

planets of doom
FL 142
planets of doom
FR 144

But when the planets 

In evil mixture to disorder wander, 

What plagues and what portents, what mutiny, 

What raging of the sea, shaking of earth, 

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors, 

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate 

The unity and married calm of states 

Quite from their fixture.


AS 150



Powerful stuff! You didnt want any surprises from the sky. You see, the sky was mysterious and the objects in it were unknowable. Imagine you lived thousands of years ago. You would have had no idea what the stars are made of, how big they are, how far away they are, or why they shine. Youd have no idea why the planets move or why the sky turns. It would be maddening. It would likely be terrifying.

9 audio
woodcut A 152

rainbow in west eclipse in east C 153

Its no surprise then, that through history people have looked at the sky with dread and apprehension in addition to wonder and awe. In ages when people were naturally superstitious, superstitions extended to the sky. What did a rainbow mean? What did an eclipse mean? What did it mean when one planet passed another?

10 HST AS 155
Today we understand the sky. We know that the stars are other suns, like our own, but incredibly distant; that the planets are worlds more or less like the earth; and that the planets move across the sky because they orbit the sun. We understand the laws of gravity and planetary motion. You would think that, in our modern age of science and spacecraft, there would be no reason to fear "omens" in the sky.
11 video: 5/5/2000 cover 158 But look at this book! It says a rare planetary alignment in May will cause a catastrophe. A lot of people take it seriously. What exactly does it say?
[video continues] alignment over

Antarctic pan 160

[video ends]

According to the book, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will align with the earth for the first time in exactly 6,000 years, and that will cause the ice that has been building up at the South Pole to upset the earths axis, triggering sudden and catastrophic floods and earthquakes.

Atlantis, Pyramid cabala, Alley Oop etc. AS 170
Just how this will happen involves a lot of arm waving that includes the Book of Mormon, dinosaurs that lived alongside humans, Inca fortresses, the lost continent of Mu, the Ark of the Covenant, Atlantis, Velikovsky, and so on.
12 Pyramids pan 180 According to the book, the ancient Egyptians warned us about this 6,000 years ago. It happened to them too, and they built the Great Pyramid to warn us it would happen again!
13 video: large "?" 185  Well how about it? Do the planets line up in May, can we see them line up, and should we be worried? Those are the kinds of questions we should be able to answer. And we can. We look to sky to find our answers.
audio A 200
"Part 2: The Sky"
Part 2
The Sky
LA Day pan 201 [Pause briefly as pan establishes itself to audio and audio fades.]
  Now, planetary alignments are something we specialize in here at Griffith Observatory. We know where the planets are and where they are going. Better yet we can see them; we can watch them move. You can watch the planets yourself, from your own backyard, on a clear night.
sunset clouds 202
audio builds
night pan 205
moon, planets, stars 
[Sunset with special effects as audio builds and then continues for several minutes. Set stars are:
Jan. 5 Feb. 27 b Ceti
Feb. 28 April 9 a Andromedae
April 11 May Rigel 
blue sky fades
west twilight glow
[Fade blue dome lights, sunset colors, and west twilight glow as stars appear.]
14 audio; constel. AS 207, 210 [Point out the planets that are visible plus major constellations in a traditional constellation talk. Then show the figures and names to audio.]
15 audio
Zeiss daily motion 
fade stars & planets
sunrise clouds etc.
blue dome up
[Explain that we will see the nightly rotation of the sky, and rotate through one night to audio, pointing out major constellations and the way the sky rotates. Fade the stars, moon and planets near sunrise, and watch Zeiss sun rise to sunrise effects. Fade sunrise colors while leaving blue dome lights up partway, and stop the sun while low in the southeast on the current date.]
Part 3

How the Planets Move and Why They Align


16 "Part 3: How the Planets Move"
A 300

Now that weve oriented ourselves, identified the stars and planets that well see tonight, and run forward through the night to tomorrow morning, its time to turn to the topic were here to explore, and that is the motions of the planets and Mays planetary alignment. How do the planets move around the sky, and why and when do they come into alignment?
  Well begin by looking at how the planets move as the days and weeks pass, and to do this, were going to go back in time a few months and start on October 1 of last year. Well back up time, and then well run forward to the current date and then continue on to May. 
ecliptic To keep track of the date, well bring up the suns path in the sky. Its this dotted line with numbers on it  
  [Explain the ecliptic, the dates on it, and that the apparent annual motion of the sun around the sky is really caused by the earths orbital motion around the sun. The sun is on tomorrows date. For completeness, very briefly explain the celestial equator,]

17 audio; reverse
Zeiss annual reverse
[We want to back up to October. Run Zeiss annual in reverse to audio, putting the sun near the meridian and then keeping it there {dont show the meridian marker}. Stop on October 1, 1999.]


blue dome fades

Here we are at noon on October 1, 1999. Normally at noon we see the sun but not the stars and planets. We want to see the planets too to keep track of them and follow their motions, so lets let the lights fade to reveal the nighttime sky at high noon. 
Zeiss moon, planets [Fade the blue dome lights, add the moon and planets, and identify each.]
18 audio
Zeiss annual & daily
[Run annual motion forward and establish how the planets move. Notice that the planets move along the suns path because the solar system is flat, and therefore they must pass each other and come into conjunctions. There are no conjunctions in late 99 when the planets are spread over half the sky. Point out that planets cannot be seen if they are near the sun, and watch Mercury go from the evening sky to morning and back again. Note that planets east of the sun are in the evening sky, planets west in the morning. Keep the sun near the meridian. Leave the ecliptic on; keep the meridian off.]

19 "Part 4:" A 400
[audio continues]
[Pause on February 1, when all five naked-eye planets are visible at the "same time" {in reality, Venus in the morning and the others in the evening} and reassess. We are now ready to see the "grand alignment" in May.]
Part 4
Planet Alignments in May 2000
[audio continues] [Run Zeiss motion forward very slowly, always keeping the sun near the meridian, and describe conjunctions as they occur. Point out when planets are too close to the sun to be visible.]
Planet Conjunctions, March June 2000

planets date time sep.

Venus-Mercury March 15 4:44 p.m. 2.1°

Mars-Jupiter April 5 11:24 p.m. 1.0°

Mars-Saturn April 15 7:24 a.m. 2.2°

Mercury-Venus April 28 7:56 a.m. 0.3°

Mercury-Jupiter May 8 11:08 a.m. 0.8°

Venus-Jupiter May 17 3:30 a.m. 0.01°

Mercury-Mars May 19 2:04 a.m. 1.1°

Jupiter-Saturn May 27 5:20 a.m. 1.1°

Venus-Mars June 21 12:04 p.m. 0.2°


Zeiss annual & daily
[audio continues]
[Pause to highlight the first of two close configurations: the minimum span in longitude of five planets plus the sun and moon on May 5 (25° 53').]
Zeiss annual & daily
[audio continues]
[Run forward to the second minimum span: five planets plus the sun (but not the moon) on May 17 (19° 25').]
ecliptic fades
[audio ends]
[Run annual motion through the summer to show that the planets then disperse (and incidentally that conjunctions continue to occur).]
20 May 5 A 410
21 May 17 A 420
[Summarize with graphics the two times of minimum span (with and without the moon).]
  Once we know what is happening in May, people want to know how often it happens. Fair question!
22 "Part 5: How Often " A 500
Part 5
How Often Does this Happen?
  No sequence of events repeats exactly just as no baseball game repeats exactly, even if the score ends up the same so what we really want to know is, how often are the planets grouped so close together? When were they last this close, and when will they next be again?
23 25° bar A 510

"57 years" A 511

Its actually an easy question to answer. The five naked-eye planets fit within 25° or less of each other on the average of once every 57 years.
24 planets 1962 
A 520
The last time the planets were this close was on February 4, 1962, when they spanned 15.8° considerably less than this year. There was a total solar eclipse at the same time, so if there ever was an opportunity to predict a cosmic catastrophe, this was it.

25 audio
Not surprisingly, the Griffith Observatory was crowded that afternoon, 38 years ago. Robert Richardson, the assistant director, described the mood:
crowd-1 1962 
A 530
Robert Richardson

mostly people [were] trying to get reliable information about the stories they read in the newspapers, or the wild rumors circulating by word of mouth. It was depressing, however, Most of the people hadnt the foggiest notion of what goes on in the sky.

crowd-2 1962
A 532

Despite predictions of doom, nothing happened other than a massive traffic jam. 

26 "Jupiter Effect" 
FL 535
"Man Who Saw" cover FR 540
That was 1962. There were similar scares that planetary alignments would cause massive earthquakes that would destroy Los Angeles in 1982 and 1988 and we survived them all. Thats why we feel, "been there, done that." 

27 planets 1953 
A 550
The planets were half as far apart in 1962 as this May. The closest theyve come in all of recorded history was a scant 41/3° on February 27, 1953 B.C. Apparently the Chinese were so impressed they zeroed the year count of their calendar to begin with the following new moon.
28 planets 2675 
A 560
The next time all five planets plus the sun and moon will come as close as they do on this May 5 wont be until March 20, 2675. Well worry about it then.
  So we know when and how often the planets align. The next question is, what if any are the consequences?
29 "Part 6: When Planets Align"
A 600
Part 6
What happen When Planets Align?
Planetary Alignments, Tidal Forces, and Earthquakes

30 book 
FF 610-11
According to some, planetary alignments cause widespread catastrophe. Heres Charles Berlitz, author of Doomsday 1999:
video: Berlitz, sci-fi disasters 620

It is now considered by certain astronomers that this alignment of the planets may cause the magma layer to pile up within the crust and change the balance of the world, causing a "wobble" which would mean that the earth would undergo major geological changes. huge tidal waves, tempests with wind speeds of hundreds of miles per hour, earthquakes of intensity far beyond the Richter scale, the sinking of islands, coastal areas, and low-lying inland areas and the rising to above sea level of sections of the ocean floor. Those of us who witnessed such manifestations would feel that the end of our world had come

[video continues]

Well maybe. Actually this was his prediction, written in 1981, for what would happen during a planetary alignment in 1982! The earth split in half that year and everyone died maybe you missed it. He predicted that the survivors would experience even worse disasters in May 2000!

  What is the effect on the earth of a planetary alignment? 
31 Newton monument A 630

Principia cover 
FL 632

gravity diagram
FR 634

Isaac Newton hes on our Astronomers Monument discovered the law of gravity in 1687. He found that every object in the universe attracts every other object, and the strength of their attraction depends on the masses of the objects and their separation. If you know their masses and the distance between them, you can calculate very precisely the force they exert on each other. Newton figured this out more than 300 years ago, and by now we understand gravity rather well.
32 video: tides 640 What youll hear about is "tides" and "tidal forces." Tides happen when one side of a planet is pulled harder than the other, and the planet is stretched slightly. The most familiar example is the moon pulling the oceans of the earth out of round into bulges of water, which we experience as high and low tides.
Io [video] Tides are most dramatic on Jupiters moon Io, which is being flexed by Jupiter. If you flex a piece of metal back and forth long enough, it will break; Ios constant flexure heats its interior and makes it the volcanically most-active body in the solar system. Tides can be powerful and important.
  So what tidal effect do the planets have on the earth?
[video continues:
sizes/distances to scale]
The important thing to know is that, for there to be a tidal force, the object doing the pulling has to be significantly closer to the near side than the far side of the object it is pulling compared to the distance between them. 
[video continues: math worked out] For example, the moon is 230,000 miles from the near side of the earth and 238,000 miles from the far side. That 8,000-mile difference is about 3% of the distance to the moon, and thats enough to cause tides.
  Thats why the moon has no tidal force on your body. Youll hear [pause for voice on video]
Tides Voice (on video)

The oceans are made of water and the moon raises tides in the oceans, and our bodies are made mostly of water so the moon must have a tidal force on us too.


[video continues: numbers]


but thats complete nonsense. Whats important is how much closer the near side of you is to the moon compared to your far side, and a foot difference over 230,000 miles is completely negligible. The person sitting next to you has a million times greater tidal force on you than does the moon.

[video ends] So how strong are the tidal forces of the moon, sun, and planets on the earth?
33 pier FL 658
pier close-up
FR 659
A typical high tide at the Santa Monica pier is 6 feet. Using round numbers, four feet of that tide comes from the moon and two feet comes from the sun. The sun is millions of times more massive than the moon, but its hundreds of times more distant, so its tidal force is less. 
34 pier with Venus
A 660
As for planets, Venus raises the highest tides on the earth, and it adds another 3/1,000 of an inch! Thats less than the thickness of a sheet of paper.
35 pier with others
A 662
All the other planets put together add 1/10 as much as Venus another ten-thousandth of an inch. 
  So, if all nine planets were perfectly aligned, they would increase a six-foot tide by an additional few thousandths of an inch. Thats hardly enough to cause the earths crust to slip or the earth to topple over on its axis. 
36 books in trash 
A 665
The bottom line is that it makes no difference to the earth whatsoever whether the planets are aligned or not.

37 video: forces
Some claim that the mysterious force the planets are supposed to exert when they align is not gravitational; its "unknown to science" as "M" stated on America Online:
plasma 1 AS 667

plasma 2 AS 668

"M" (on video)

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.



video continues: Voyager II passing Neptune and soaring into distance 

Zeiss stars on
[video ends]

Are there forces out there that we dont yet know about? Its true that we dont know everything, but were not totally ignorant about nature either. We know enough about the forces within the solar system, for example, to navigate the little Voyager II spacecraft across the solar system and put it precisely 2700 miles above Neptunes north pole 12 years after it was launched. Neptune is 3 billion miles away, but we put that little spacecraft within 14 miles of where we wanted it. If there are forces out there that we dont know about, they arent strong enough to divert this spacecraft after a dozen years in space, so why should we think they affect us here on earth?
  Lets take a different approach. For the sake of argument, lets assume we dont know anything about the solar system that were as ignorant of the planets and gravity and what causes earthquakes as people were 5,000 years ago. Would there be a way to test the claim that the planetary alignment will cause earthquakes? You bet. All you do is make a list of planet alignments and a list of earthquakes, and see if they match! The best source is China, which has a lot of earthquakes and a long tradition of keeping accurate records.
38 audio
China pan 669

numbers A 670

A researcher at UC San Diego compiled a list of 125 earthquakes in northern China since 780 BC; only one, in 1624, coincided with a planetary alignment. His conclusion: in northern China, at least, there is no connection between planetary alignments and earthquakes.
39 Turkey quake
FF 671-72
eclipse A 673

40 "coincidence" definition A 674

Its easy to connect a disaster with something in the sky after the fact. A powerful earthquake rocked Turkey a few days after a solar eclipse last August, and some people said, "My isnt that a strange coincidence." Well, yes it was a coincidence; thats what a coincidence is.


41 headline A 675

Be careful you dont remember just the hits and not the misses. What about the earthquake the following week in Athens? We dont see newspaper headlines "Planets align; nothing happens."
  Why then, if the planets have nothing to do with the earth, do we hear so much about alignments and the disasters they are supposed to cause? 

42 bookstore cartoon A 677

43 audio: ca-chink
$$$ AS 678

First, the print and broadcast media are Big Business and there is a lot of money to be made. Sensationalism sells. Competition for our attention and our dollars is stiff, and even reputable publishers are more and more willing to print what sells, whether it is true or not, and the same is true for radio and television. Money is a good part of the answer.
44 disaster head- lines AS 698 Another reason such beliefs remain popular is that we have a genuine fear of earthquakes and other natural disasters. We want to be alerted in advance if possible, and it may seem reasonable that planetary alignments should have an effect. It turns out they dont, and its a case where a reality check can save a lot of worrying.
Part 7
Summary & Conclusions
  So the planets align in May. Unfortunately, the sun is part of the alignment and we wont see the gathering. But we will see future alignments, and some will be well worth watching. Lets jump ahead to an especially good one that happens in two years.
45 audio
Zeiss daily & annual

horizon west blues

[Begin near August 1, 2000 with the sun high in the southeast and run annual motion forward at full speed {begin slowly and accelerate to full} and daily very slowly forward to advance to early May, 2002 in just under 2 minutes. Stop daily motion with Rigel 5° above the southwest horizon (so Mercury will be visible). Narrate sparsely; let the audio carry it. Slow annual motion when the sun is just below the western horizon and the planets are gathering in the evening sky. Creep annual forward when Mars appears in early May, narrate the situation as it evolves, and stop on the evening of May 15 when the moon is near Venus.]
point out On the evening of May 15, 2002, the planets Mercury, Saturn, Mars, Venus, the crescent moon, and Jupiter will all be together in the evening sky. Best of all this is a gathering of planets that you can actually see, from your own backyard. If you forget the date, dont worry well keep you posted. Thats our job.
  So we wont see much in May of this year, but future planetary alignments will be very pretty. None of them, of course, will trigger earthquakes or any other sort of cosmic catastrophe.
46 audio
constel. AS 700
fade Zeiss planets
Long ago, when we had no way to know better, we thought the stars inhabited a mystical, magical realm, far out of reach and beyond understanding.
galaxies etc. 
AS 705
Today we marvel at a universe full of wonders that we are gradually coming to understand.
planets as gods pan 710 Once we thought of the planets as angry gods that sometimes brought disaster.
planets pan
Today we know them as fascinating worlds to explore with telescopes and spacecraft.
fearful people ABCD 720-23 Our anxieties once inspired terror when we saw an unexpected comet, eclipse, conjunction, or alignment. No one knew what to make of them or what to do.
astronomers ABCD 730-33 But through the centuries weve come to understand the planets and how they move and how they affect the earth. Planetary alignments need no longer be feared, but when visible should be enjoyed.
family stargazers 
ABCD 780-83

(audio continues)

These configurations are not just for astronomers. We can all watch them from our own backyards; we can share them with our family and our friends as the grand gear-work of the solar system brings planets together now and then as they continue their endless parade across the sky. 
47 credits 880-99