Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

May 18 2015 7:00 AM

No, a Planetary Alignment on May 28 Won’t Cause an Earthquake

Sigh. This again?

I’m seeing some buzz on social media that a planetary alignment on May 28 will cause a huge magnitude 9.8 earthquake in California.

Let me be clear: No, it won’t. It can’t. Worse, there’s not even really an alignment on that date, at least not with the Earth. It’s all baloney.

This all stems from a video by someone who I believe is sincere but also profoundly wrong on essentially every level. It’s been picked up by various credulous places online, then spread around by people who haven’t been properly skeptical about it.

While this story hasn’t gone as viral as the usual astronomically impaired tabloid doomsday BS, it’s popular enough to debunk and hopefully can serve as a template for future such claims of doom and gloom that are actually smoke and mirrors.

First, here’s the video. It’s from YouTuber Ditrianum Media.

There’s a whole lot of nonsense in there that I won’t even bother with, including claims of spirits and (seriously) Nostradamus.

But then the narrator starts talking about alignments. Several things struck me while watching this.

First, there is simply no way an alignment of planets can cause an earthquake on Earth. It’s literally impossible. I’ve done the math on this before; the maximum combined gravity of all the planets under ideal conditions is still far less than the gravitational influence of the Moon on the Earth, and the Moon at very best has an extremely weak influence on earthquakes.

To put a number on it, because the Moon is so close to us its gravitational pull is 50 times stronger than all the planets in the solar system combined. Remember too that the Moon orbits the Earth on an ellipse, so it gets closer and farther from us every two weeks. The change in its gravity over that time is still more than all the planets combined, yet we don’t see catastrophic earthquakes twice a month, let alone aligning with the Moon’s phases or physical location in its orbit.

So right away, we’re done.

I’ll note that in the video the narrator talks about the planets being “energized,” but doesn’t talk about what this truly means … but it doesn’t matter, because it’s meaningless. It’s the usual sort of New Age word salad when they talk about “energy”; they never define what that truly means (unlike in science where it has a strict definition) so it means everything and nothing.

Also, if you watch the video, like for example at 7:27 and 8:11, these “alignments” don’t even align with the Earth! One is just two planets that appear to line up with the Sun when the Earth is far off to the side, and in another they actually form a perpendicular line with the Earth. This is beyond silly; it doesn’t even make any sense.

Jupiter Pluto
Still going with nope.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; NASA,ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute); NASA; Phil Plait

At 8:40 he shows another “alignment” that apparently goes between the Earth and Moon … but note that the Moon’s distance to Earth isn’t shown to scale! The sizes of the planets and Moon aren’t to scale either. Look at the width of the Earth’s orbit in the display; that’s 300 million kilometers in real distance. The Moon’s distance from Earth is about 380,000 km, or a bit more than 0.1 percent of the size of Earth’s orbit.

To scale, the Earth and Moon would be less than a pixel apart on his display! Now imagine how small the Earth itself would be on that scale.

That “alignment” doesn’t come anywhere near splitting the two. I’m not sure I’d take doomsday advice from someone who doesn’t seem to understand the software being used to predict it.

Again, I’m sure the narrator is sincere and honestly wants to help people and warn them of an event he thinks may be real. This puts him a comfortable step up over the various and repulsive scam artists you can find all over the Web.

But it doesn’t make him within a glancing blow of reality. Alignments of the planets have no effect on us at all. They can’t make you float, they don’t cause earthquakes (the “supermoon” doesn’t either), and don’t even get me started about astrology.

There is something very human about being scared of the unknown, and when we don’t understand something, it’s all too easy to supply any number of threatening boogeymen to stand in the nebulous shadows.

Understanding reality makes a lot of those boogeymen evaporate. Poof. This is absolutely one of those times.

And yes, understanding reality also introduces us to real things that are scary. But there’s the beauty of science: We can separate the real things that scare us from the things that shouldn’t. If something isn’t real, you don’t have to worry about it. You can focus instead on the circumstances you can affect.

I think that many people who turn to pseudo- (and outright anti-) science may do so because they feel that things are out of their control. That’s too bad, because—even though it may not seem like it at first—when you begin down the path of studying science, of becoming a critical thinker, these tools actually help you be more in control of your life, not less.

Take control. Think critically. And that goes doubly so when you’re reading stuff on social media.

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May 17 2015 7:30 AM

Dance of the Noctilucent Clouds

I know I just posted a time-lapse animation of aurorae, and the time lapse below also has aurorae in it, but—and this is a big but—it has something I’ve only seen very rarely: Animation showing the movement of eerie and beautiful noctilucent clouds!

The noctilucent clouds are in the first 40 seconds of the video. These are very high clouds, formed from extremely fine grain ice crystals about 75–80 kilometers in altitude. They can only be seen just after sunset or before sunrise, when the Sun is below the horizon but still able to illuminate the clouds. They’re not terribly well understood, but some studies indicate they appear to be more common recently, possibly inked with global warming (see Related Posts, below).

The rest of the video is quite lovely too, featuring aurorae, thunderstorms, and just the always-lovely movement of stars overhead. I have to laugh: I get exposed to more music that I’d never have otherwise heard watching these kinds of videos. I like the accompanying soundtrack to this video, and in fact it’s cool how the music stutters a bit, and the photographer, Tadas Janusonis, synched that up with the lightning bolts. I like it when the music matches the cadence of the video.

Related Posts:

Noctilucent clouds:

Videos by Tadas Janusonis:

May 16 2015 7:30 AM

What If Climate Change Is Real?

Katharine Hayhoe is one of my favorite climate scientists. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it all boils down to her being a science evangelist, and I do mean that literally: She’s an evangelical Christian who specifically talks to other religious folks about climate change, an obviously key demographic.

One of the problems with communicating the urgency about the climate is the distraction factor: People (deniers) arguing over minor details as a way of changing the focus from the reality of the bigger picture.

That’s why I’m glad to see Hayhoe gave a TEDx talk at Texas Tech University (where she is a professor) where she reviews the very basic understanding we have of global warming and why it’s causing our climate to change. If you find yourself struggling over the root causes, this is a great place to start.

And when you’re done watching, head over to Skeptical Science to get more info on the points she mentioned, as well as many, many others. You’ll find the science there, as well as debunkings of denial talking points.

After that, hopefully you’ll understand why so many of us are so concerned over this, and so willing to spend so much time fighting those who seem hellbent on making sure our planet warms up even more.

May 15 2015 7:15 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: Jupiter’s Moons

One of the first objects Galileo observed with his new telescope was the planet Jupiter, shining high in the skies over Italy in 1610. When he did, he was astonished to see three little stars in a row next to it, all invisible to the naked eye! These three stars stayed near the bigger planet, moving around it. A fourth one appeared a few days later, and he knew what he was seeing: a revolution.

Well, what he was really seeing were moons, each orbiting the planet. But here was absolute proof that not every object in the heavens orbited the Earth, and it was the death knell of geocentrism, the idea that had ruled our understanding of the Universe for thousands of years.

We now know that these moons are worlds in their own rights—the biggest four would be naked-eye objects if Jupiter’s brilliant light didn’t swamp them out—and are fascinating, amazing places.

If I ever needed a reminder that astronomy is a living, evolving science, this episode was it. After I write each episode, it takes a few months before it’s edited, recorded, the graphics prepped, and it’s ready to go live. In this case, between the time we recorded it and the time it went up, astronomers found really good evidence of a salt water ocean under the surface of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon.

This idea has been around a while, and there was some evidence for it before, but the new work is much more convincing, and gives us some details about the subsurface ocean. I mention the older work in the episode, but there simply wasn’t time to get the new results into it, so we had to leave it as is.

While this might frustrate me as someone making a video series, as a scientist and a science communicator—heck, as a living, breathing human being—this thrills me! An entire ocean, as old as Earth, and it’s been hidden from view this whole time. What wonders are there, deep inside the solar system’s largest moon?

We don’t know … yet. We will someday, I’m quite sure. After all, discovery is what science is all about, learning more about the Universe around us. If that means a video I make winds up being something less than accurate due to a coincidence of thing, hey: That’s a sacrifice I’m more than willing to make.

May 14 2015 11:15 AM

Sunset Clouds Over the Nile

If you’re lacking inspiration in life, sometimes it’s worth just browsing images taken from space.

A random tweet, a click, a scroll, and then I saw this and knew I had to share it with everyone, because, sigh. Wow.

May 14 2015 7:30 AM

Small Rockslide Causes Splatter Eruption on Kilauea

Last year, I visited the Big Island of Hawaii and spent a few hours looking over the Halema’uma’u crater on the Kilauea volcano. The crater is several hundred meters across, and on one side is the Overlook Crater, a vent that has lava pooled some dozens of meters below the rim.

… usually. In the past week or so pressure inside the caldera has forced the lava up, and on April 24, 2015, it overflowed the vent into Halema’uma’u itself.

Then, on May 3, a small part of the crater rim wall collapsed into the lava pool. What happened next was impressive.

Wow. Spatter from the eruption shot up far enough to land on the Halema’uma’u Overlook, a popular visitor spot that is now closed. Happily, the Jagger Museum and Volcano House around the rim are still open.

It’s not clear what will happen here over the next few weeks and months. In September, I’ll be there again for Science Getaways. I wonder what we’ll see?

May 13 2015 10:45 AM

Smarter Every Day: Opening the Shutters on the Space Station

My friend Destin is the brains behind the fantastic Smarter Every Day video series, where he investigates cool science facts. They usually start with a question Destin has, and then he dives into it.

So here’s a good one: On the International Space Station, the astronauts take all those amazing photographs through the “cupola,” a bump in one nodule on ISS equipped with seven windows. The windows are equipped with shutters to protect them … but how do the astronauts open them?

To answer this, Destin went to Johnson Space Center in Houston to talk to ISS astronaut Don Pettit, to a motorcycle parts shop where the original shutter design engineer now works, and then, finally, to the wonderful Samantha Cristoforetti—who is currently on the ISS.

The video Destin put together for this is great. Watch to the very end. It put a big smile on my face.

What a fun video! And good on Cristoforetti for doing this. I hope to meet her someday in person and shake her hand. She’s great. I'll note too that she will be staying on the ISS longer than expected; she and astronaut Terry Virts and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to return to Earth this week, but the loss of the Progress resupply capsule has delayed further launches, messing up the scheduling. The plan now is for their return to occur in June.

May 13 2015 7:00 AM

New Horizons Has Now Seen All Five Known Moons of Pluto

Talk about timing. Just Monday I posted about New Horizons possibly seeing new moons of Pluto when it zips past the tiny world in July, and now a new picture has been released from the space probe showing the four smaller known moons!

Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In the animation the moons are color-coded; the orbit of Styx is green, Nix yellow, Kerberos orange, and Hydra red. Nix and Hydra were discovered in Hubble images in 2005, Kerberos in 2011, and Styx in 2012. Nix and Hydra were spotted by New Horizons in February 2015, but now all five known moons can be seen by the probe.

In the animation Pluto and Charon are in the center but are so bright their light was subtracted of the images to reduce their glare. Funny—from Earth, Pluto is so faint that you need a decent telescope to see it at all, and Charon so close to it and faint it was only first seen in 1978. But now New Horizons is able to see them so well their brightness needs to be reduced to see fainter objects!

Here’s the original animation showing the original images, then with Pluto and Charon subtracted, and then with the orbits annotated.

Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

These images were taken between April 25 and May 1, when New Horizons was still roughly 100 million kilometers from Pluto. The moons are all too small to be resolved just yet; they’re just dots in the images. For a sense of scale, Nix orbits Pluto about 65,000 km out, Hydra about 50,000.

On July 14, New Horizons will pass a mere 12,000 km from Pluto, right through the bull’s-eye of moon orbits. What will it see? More moons? An atmosphere around Pluto, possibly fed by plumes of outgassing material? Things we haven’t even guessed?

Possibly for the first two. Definitely for the latter. New Horizons is now on the frontier of what’s known about the Pluto system. Things will only get cooler from here.

May 12 2015 10:45 AM

The Universe Shines Through Humans’ Attempts to Diminish It 

Normally, if you ask me how to do astrophotography, among other things I’ll say you need to have access to dark skies. If you live near a city, the sky glows with reflected light, and that washes out your pictures—check out a photo of Orion I took in 2014 (second photo down in that post) to see what I mean.

But that’s not always true. A lot of the time the glow from city lights comes from lamps that tend to emit a very narrow color of light; the commonly used sodium lamps for street lights tend to be quite yellow, for example. If you have filters that block that light, but still let other colors through, the sky can be yours, even from a city.

Look no further for proof of this than Terry Robison. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, under what he calls “a great light done.” Despite that, with much care and practice, he has taken jaw-dropping photos of deep-sky objects.

Like, for example, the Carina Nebula. Behold! 

May 12 2015 7:00 AM

Louisiana: Burning Science at the Stake

Quick background: In 2008, creationist Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law. If there is a more Orwellian-named law, I’m unaware of it: It’s a blatant attempt to allow educators to teach creationism in public school science classes.

Science advocate Zack Kopplin (who is now 21) has tried to get the law repealed every year, and every year the appeal is denied by the Legislature.

Watching footage of the hearings is, quite simply, brain-exploding. In 2013, one legislator asked if E. coli bacteria would evolve into a human and another talked with dripping contempt for scientists. A third actually advocated using the teachings of a witch doctor in the classroom.

That last one—Elbert Guillory, R–District 24—was at it again this year, saying profoundly ridiculous things at the hearing.* Seriously, watch:

I’ve tried really hard, and although people have used science for all sorts of bad things, I can’t remember scientists ever burning dissenters at the stake. And Guillory actually uses the word “heretic” unironically, apparently clueless as to the word’s origins.

Thank heavens for Sen. JP Morrell, D–District 3, who schools Guillory about who historically burned whom at the stake.

Incredibly, the very arguably unconstitutional “science education” law was upheld, according to Kopplin, due to one senator’s “lack of courage.” Mind you, this is despite Kopplin having actual evidence it’s being used to teach creationism in schools!

I’ll be blunt: If I were a university taking applications from students who graduated from Louisiana public schools, I’d cast a careful eye over their application, especially in the sciences. That might be difficult for Louisiana universities, since Jindal is planning on brutally cutting their budgets, but it’s a necessary consequence of this sort of legislative environment.

This is not the students’ fault, of course, but of the Louisiana citizens who vote—or, more likely, don’t vote—at election time.

Voting matters, people. Local elections are critical. Educate yourself on the issues and candidates, and when the time comes, vote for those who stick to evidence-based reasoning. It’s no exaggeration to say our future depends on it.

Correction, May 12, 2015, at 15:00 UTC: I originally misstated that Guillory was a Democrat; as he was the last time I wrote about him. He started out his career as a Republican, switched to being a Democrat in 2007, then changed parties again in 2013 back to Republican.