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Planets and earthquakes: needless fear

For several months, Mars and Jupiter have been putting on a rare show as they waltz together across the sky in what astronomers call a triple conjunction. But what of that greater "superconjunction" of 1982 when all the planets are supposed to line up and trigger earthquakes?

That little horror story of the 1970s continues to resurface in spite of its implausibility. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) says it's the subject of one of the most frequently asked questions the society receives. And readers of this column have been asking about it. So it's worth taking another look at this needlessly alarming proposition.

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Technically, a conjunction occurs with respect to a given celestial body (usually Earth or the Sun) when two or more other bodies line up on the same side of the reference body. Regarding Mars and Jupiter, they have been playing tag in the sky as seen from Earth. They lined up in December and early in March and will do so again in early May -- a tripple conjunction. The "superconjunction" with the earthquake connection, however, is supposed to be "an unusual alignment in which every planet is in conjunction with every other planet: that is, all the planets will be aligned on the same side of the Sun."

That's the way John Gribbin, astro- physicist cum science writer, and Stephen Plagemann, also an astrophysicist, described it in their book, "The Jupiter Effect," in 1974. They claimed that the tidal forces of this planetary line-up would provoke an overabundance of sunspots. These would encourage more solar eruptions that would bombard Earth's atmosphere with high-energy particles and cause unusual air mass movements. These, in turn, would affect Earth's spin and change the rate with which that spin supposedly triggers earthquakes.

That's a tortutous chain of reasoning with little scientific credibility. Yet the fears it aroused in public thinking persist to this day. That's why the ASP asked Belgian astronomer Jean Meeus, who had already debunked the Jupiter effect, to take another look at it last summer. His conclusion that "the complete chain [of reasoning] must be considered as having a probability equal to zero" still stands.

Specifically, Meeus points out that "in fact, there will be no [ superconjunctive] planetary alignment at all, neither in 1982 nor in any other year of the present century." Also, there is no scientifically established connection between planetary alignments and sunspots or between solar activity, weather, and earthquakes. Furthermore, even if there is a quake in 1982, Meeus notes, the "coincidence will prove nothing. . . . In reality neither the planets nor the sunspots will have had anything to do with the catastrophe."

In short, "the Jupiter effect" is a specious thesis that has raised unnecessary and long-lasting fear. It is time that it is put to rest.