The year 2012 is going to be a momentous time to be alive on planet Earth, at least according to those who believe that's the year the world will end or transform. Some people believe a great religious event will take place, but others point to alleged evidence -- such as predictions by ancient timekeeping traditions and modern scientific astronomical cover-ups -- as the eventual causes of our planetary demise or great renewal. It's those in the latter category, the ones looking to the stars, who need to do a little more legwork.
In order for the world to "end" based on these predictions -- or, if not end per se, coincidentally transform in some miraculous manner -- something major needs to go down, and theories abound as to what'll occur. Will a mysteriously shrouded planet come whipping through the solar system and cataclysmically smack into us like a cosmic game of croquet? Will colossal solar flares rocket out from the sun and envelope the Earth until it's little more than a charred husk of a planet? Or perhaps, the planets -- and indeed the entire mighty Milky Way galaxy -- will align in such a way as to catastrophically affect life on our tiny home turf?
Now granted, there's a lot we as humans don't know about the exact workings of the universe, and no one can be 100 percent certain what the future will hold, but blowing several catastrophic holes in this sort of theory is pretty simple stuff. Get the not-so-sensational and decidedly-less-deadly details on planetary alignments on the next page.
Running Late to the Planet Party
Much of the confusion that's muddied the field and allowed for the invention of various planetary and galactic alignment theories stems from the fact that while explaining and understanding the actual astronomical landscape takes a little effort, pandering to people's fear and paranoia does not. Understanding the reality of the situation involves a look at how different aspects of the Milky Way and our solar system are scientifically defined and spatially assessed -- served, of course, with a healthy dollop of common sense.
Let's examine the planetary alignment theories in particular. If you were looking down on our solar system from above, what's considered a planetary alignment -- also known as a conjunction event -- is when it looks like some or all of the planets are forming a more-or-less straight line. The sun can either be at one end, or somewhere along the middle. Assuming it was the former, though, if you were viewing this alignment from Earth, you would see the planets involved clustered together in one quadrant of the night sky. And if you shot a somewhat wobbly arrow from the sun, it would pass through every planet. "Alignment," however, doesn't mean perfect. It's often a little chaotic: more like a loose collection since the planets are considered aligned even when they're several degrees apart in the night sky -- but that's the sight.
What the doomsday theories typically suggest is that the gravitational pull of the other aligned planets would trigger cataclysmic disasters on Earth (or on the sun, and in turn on Earth). Perhaps their combined tugs would cause tidal changes and flooding, or pole shifts and earthquakes. Problem is, even if the Earth and the sun and all the other planets in our solar system aligned with each other on Dec. 21, 2012, that wouldn't set the stage for any special events -- and especially any disastrous events -- to occur. It would just be an interesting item of note, nothing to get in a panic about.
That's because the distances between planets are just too great to cause any events. Even if every planet in the solar system ganged up against Earth on the other side of the sun, it wouldn't create even a minor effect on us. And when the planets do align on our side of the white picket fence, their effect is also negligible. And forget the idea that there's one "special" alignment that's never happened before. Major planetary alignments are relatively rare in terms of human lifetimes, but they're far from uncommon in the big scheme of things. If the Earth hasn't already been thrown asunder at this point, we're certainly not in for any surprises now.
But when it comes to 2012 in particular, a major planetary alignment isn't in the cards, and certainly not on Dec. 21. These rare grand conjunction events only happen every couple of decades and the 2010s aren't one of them. One major alignment occurred in 1962, for example, and two others happened during 1982 and 2000. Not-so-amazingly, Earth pulled through.
Man has always been fascinated by the world beyond our own, making astronomy one of the oldest sciences. Test your astro knowledge with our quiz.
- Top 10 Space Conspiracy Theories
- Will the world really end in 2012?
- How the Mayan Calendar Works
- How Galaxies Work
- How Lunar Eclipses Work
- How Solar Eclipses Work
- How Stars Work
- How the Milky Way Works
- How Time Works
- Does time change speed?
- How did ancient civilizations use sundials to tell time?
- How Nostradamus Works
- Cain, Fraser. "Planets Line Up in Spectacular Show." Universe Today. April 18, 2002. (May 27, 2011) http://www.universetoday.com/8346/planets-line-up-in-spectacular-show/
- Cessna, Abby. "Planetary Alignment." Universe Today. July 5, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://www.universetoday.com/34076/planetary-alignment/
- Collins, Truman. "The May 5, 2000 Planetary Alignment and Its Destructive Potential." Feb. 11, 1998. (May 27, 2011) http://www.tkcs-collins.com/truman/conjunct/conjunct.shtml
- Conan, Neal. "Our Fascination with the End of the World." NPR. Dec. 1, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120988099
- Debunking the "20012 Doomsday" Web site. (May 27, 2011) http://www.2012hoax.org/start
- Geryl, Patrick. How to Survive 2012 Web site. (May 27, 2011) http://www.howtosurvive2012.com/htm_night/home.htm
- Hithcock, Mark. "2012, the Bible, the End of the World." Harvest House Publishers. 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=tfeDlpU2FMwC&lpg=PA24&dq=%22 Apocalypse%202012%3A%20An%20Investigation%20Into%20 Civilization's%20End.%22&pg=PA15#v=onepage&q=%22Apocalypse %202012:%20An%20Investigation%20Into%20Civilization's%20End. %22&f=false
- "Ideas & Trends in Summary; It's All Right To Come Out Now." New York Times. March 14, 1982. (May 27, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/1982/03/14/weekinreview/ideas-trends-in-summary-it-s-all-right-to-come-out-now.html
- Joseph, Lawrence E. "Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization's End." Broadway Books. 2007. (May 27, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=tfeDlpU2FMwC&lpg=PA24&dq=%22 Apocalypse%202012%3A%20An%20Investigation%20Into%20 Civilization's%20End.%22&pg=PA9#v=onepage&q=%22Apocalypse %202012:%20An%20Investigation%20Into%20Civilization's%20End. %22&f=false
- Klotz, Irene. "World Not Ending in 2012, Says NASA." Discovery News. Oct. 22, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/space/nasa-debunks-2012-apocalypse.html
- Krupp, E.C. "The Great 2012 Doomsday Scare." Sky & Telescope Magazine. Nov. 9, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012-guest.html
- Luttermoser, Donald. "Planetary Alignments: Fact or Fiction. East Tennessee University. March 18, 2006. (May 27, 2011) http://www.etsu.edu/physics/etsuobs/starprty/22099dgl/planalign.htm
- Morrison, David. "Nibiru and Doomsday 2012: Questions and Answers." NASA. June 1, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ask-an-astrobiologist/intro/nibiru-and-doomsday-2012-questions-and-answers
- Morrison, David. "The truth about December 2012: The world will NOT end!" NASA. (May 27, 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sg4V5uJTlj4
- NASA. "2012: Beginning of the End or Why the World Won't End?" Nov. 6, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html
- Plait, Phil. "Misconceptions." Bad Astronomer. (May 27, 2011) http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/index.html
- Villard, Ray. "Top 10 Reasons Why the World Won't End in 2012." Discovery News. Nov. 4, 2009. (May 27, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/space/ray-villard-doomsday-theories.html
- Walker, John. "Solar System Live." (May 27, 2011) http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Solar