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Move Over Double Rainbow, Six Planets Are Now Aligned

May 11, 2011, 12:00 AM
Alignment

What's not to love about the so-called Double Rainbow video that went viral in July, 2010? In this frequently parodied meme, Paul Vasquez, aka HungryBear9562, or simply "Double Rainbow Guy" was completely overcome with joy when he observed a double rainbow outside his Yosemite, California home. One Jimmy Kimmel tweet and nearly 27 million YouTube views later, he was famous, or should we say, infamous. 

The question on millions of minds was this: why was Vasquez so darn happy? Was he on drugs or had he found a double pot of gold? What Vasquez saw, of course, is not that unusual, and is easily explained. A double, or secondary rainbow is caused by a double reflection of white light from the sun off the back of raindrops. As a result of this double reflection, the light exits the raindrops at a different angle, so we see it higher up in the sky.

Vasquez's ecstatic reaction is also not all that unique if we consider mankind's highly charged relationship to the cosmos. Throughout the ages, human beings have exhibited all sorts of outbursts of emotion when observing the heavens. In Vasquez's case, it was an expression of uncontrollable joy. In many other instances, sights in the sky have been the cause of great fear and superstition. 

Consider, for instance, the Doomsday scenario of Dec. 21, 2012. That's when the Mayans, and gullible people everywhere, say the world will end, supposedly signaled by an "astrological alignment" that will bring about the destruction of the planet. (Others have suggested the Apocalypse will happen in less than two weeks--May 21, 2011, to be precise.) The 2012 doomsday notion has been shot down by everyone from NASA scientists to Jon Stewart, who ridiculed the idea during a Glenn Beck spoof last month:

"The Mayans. A group that has never been wrong...about predicting a mass human extinction event. Well, they were wrong once. They did not see Cortés coming. A lot of good people missed that one."

What's the Big Idea?

What is quite revealing about the whole 2012 scenario is that it is actually happening right now. Very early in the morning, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are visible to the naked eye. These planets have been roughly aligned along the eliptic, the path the sun travels throughout the day. Uranus and Neptune can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope. Of course, it is geometrically impossible for all of the planets to form a straight line out from the sun because each planetary orbit is tilted in respect to the Earth's orbit. Therefore, this so-called "planetary alignment" we are witnessing may more accurately be described as "multiple planetary conjunctions." The planets in our solar system appear to be close together in a loose grouping. Of course, they are millions of miles apart. 

As Jeffrey Kluger pointed out in Time, this month's apparent planetary lineup is "as much illusion as fact." Kluger explains that in the same way "a group of people scattered randomly across the room can appear to be aligned depending on your angle of sight, so too can planets that seem tidily arranged from one point of view turn out to be nothing of the kind when you look at them another way." Or, to put it another way, consider the constellations: "View Orion from Earth, and he's a hunter; view him from the other side of the galaxy, and he's a frog or a tree or just a jumble of stars."

What's the significance?

As silly as the 2012 apocalyptic scenarios may seem to be, there is a danger inherent in letting superstition hold sway. As Richard Mason noted in his classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:

"The appearance of comets has been often thought to foretell the speedy dissolution of this world. Part of this belief still exists; but the comet is no longer looked upon as the sign, but the agent of destruction. So lately as in the year 1832 the greatest alarm spread over the Continent of Europe, especially in Germany, lest the comet, whose appearance was then foretold by astronomers, should destroy the earth. The danger of our globe was gravely discussed. Many persons refrained from undertaking or concluding any business during that year, in consequence solely of their apprehension that this terrible comet would dash us and our world to atoms."

Not much has changed since 1832. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan argued in The Demon-Haunted World, superstition is a prescription for disaster:

"We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology...We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan

 

 

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, May 11 2011

 

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