Rens Van Der Sluijs: Joining the Dots Part One: Fireworks on New Year's Day.
Can there be any truth in the traditional linkage of a total conjunction of planets and universal disaster or is this just arrant nonsense?
“All that the earth inherits will … be consigned to flame when the planets, which now move in different orbits, all assemble in Cancer, so arranged in one row that a straight line may pass through their spheres. When the same gathering takes place in Capricorn, then we are in danger of the deluge.”
This statement is attributed to the Babylonian priest, Bēl-re’ušunu (3rd century BCE), better known as Berossus, and epitomises the once widespread astronomical concept of the ‘Great Year’. From the Roman Empire to China, ancient philosophers defined the ‘Great Year’ as a large cosmic cycle, completed when the five naked-eye planets, the sun and the moon appear in linear conjunction. It was thought that such complete conjunctions occasioned cosmic catastrophes – devastating floods and fires that destroyed the preceding cosmos and inaugurated a new world.
Standard astronomical models do not acknowledge any mechanisms accounting for global tides or fires in response to planetary conjunctions. While the tidal effects of the moon are satisfactorily explained with gravity [I disagree on this point -- OIM], the same force cannot demonstrably be made to work for the planets, as has often been pointed out.
The crux is that this dismissal rests on the antiquated perception of interplanetary space as a vacuum, in which gravity is the only operational force. With the coming of the Space Age, this simplistic paradigm has been incontrovertibly refuted. It is now known that most of the interplanetary space, and of the entire cosmos, consists of plasma and almost every body in the solar system is enclosed in a plasma sheath, technically a double-layer structure that serves to shield the object inside from electric fields impinging on the shell.
Teardrop-shaped magnetotails, which are structurally comparable to the comas and ion tails of comets, extend out into space from the earth, Venus, and most other planets. These are often so long as to extend to the orbit of the next planet, sometimes ‘tickling’ the protective sheath around that object as they point away from the sun. The solar equivalent to these planetary magnetospheres is the solar wind, which is ultimately responsible for auroral displays on the earth and on other planets.
The physical composition and the interaction of these magnetospheres are extremely complex and scientists are only just beginning to get a handle on the subject. What is already clear, however, is that the possibility of the sun or any of the planets ‘influencing’ the electromagnetic weather on another body is no longer so remote.
As the plasma sheaths of different bodies brush against each other in the ecliptic plane, they effectively complete a giant electric circuit, allowing a transfer of electric charge between adjacent planets. Such discharging offers a straightforward explanation for the ‘forgotten’ Pythagorean conviction that ‘comets’ arise when planets form linear conjunctions. Can it also account for the destructions by fire and flood the ancients believed would happen when the planets line up?
To find out, it is necessary to make a careful distinction between apparent linear conjunctions as seen from a viewpoint on earth and actual linear conjunctions in space.
Insofar as some or all the naked-eye planets are regularly seen to arrange themselves in linear conjunctions, ancient astronomers might have based their ideas concerning a ‘Great Year’ on observation. The approximate conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury and the rising sun stretched out over a number of constellations on the 15th. April 2002 is comparable to the so-called thema mundi or ‘cosmic birth chart’ outlined by Hellenistic astrologers, in which the seven traditional ‘planets’ span across the entire starry sky. Could such ‘apparent’ lineups of planets have inspired associations with transient events of the kind envisioned by the likes of Berossus?
In theory, current knowledge about the solar wind and the ‘windsock’ behaviour of planetary magnetotails allows that a lineup of bodies in the solar system might cause extremely violent disturbances of the geomagnetic field. For such a magnetospheric explanation to work, however, the linear arrangement of the moon, the sun and the five naked-eye planets cannot have been apparent, as, in that case, the plasma tails of these bodies could not line up to produce a ‘closed electric circuit’.
Also, the earth would have to be physically displaced outside the string of planets, yet if it was to experience any of the resulting ‘fireworks’, it must have been caught in the crossfire itself. As the earth’s ionosphere would be loaded to excess with charged particles, an outburst of auroral activity might go some way towards explaining the reported ‘conflagration’ of the world.
The requirement of a ‘real’ linear conjunction of planets, including the earth, in true state fits better with Berossus’ intimation that the “gathering” of the seven players occurred in a single constellation, but results in a visual separation of the exterior planets on the night side and the interior planets on the day side, in solar transit. The ancient authorities on the subject of the Great Year all lived at times when astronomy was advanced enough to distinguish apparent visual arrangements in the sky from inferred physical models of reality.
That a great conjunction triggers destructive interplanetary ‘storms’ fits into the segment in time when astronomers first became interested in the periodicities of planets. The idea may have received its ultimate inspiration from mythical memories about a time when comets and meteors were rampant, when the world suffered in flames, and when stars and planets saw an apparent reorganisation that followed the breakup of a previous linear arrangement of bodies. In the real world, a linear alignment of planets with the solar wind may sometimes have coincided with an exceptionally intense discharge event.
The above is not to suggest that planetary conjunctions must always precipitate cosmic discharging or ‘bad weather’ on earth – far from it. It is easy to think of complicating factors that help to explain why, for example, the conjunction of 2002 did not wreak any havoc. For one thing, many congregations of planets may simply be loose enough to allow sufficient leeway for plasma tails to ‘miss’ the sheaths of other planets. The role of coronal mass ejections warrants investigation – are these a required cause or a consequence of the ‘fireworks’ accompanying a great conjunction?
What are the restrictions on the orientation of the solar wind on such occasions? Finally, the intensity of electric discharging during conjunction must be modulated by the initial charge differential between the bodies involved, but this will vary over time, gradually being cancelled out during quiescent periods, when no extraneous forces impinge on the system.
The bottom line is that ancient speculations about a link between catastrophic events and planetary movements present a challenge that is well worth renewed attention. In this particular case, plasma physics offers an intellectually palatable way to vindicate the ‘astrological’ claim that the antics of the planets can affect the conditions of life on earth as a whole. The role of concomitant effects, such as the repositioning of the geomagnetic field, tsunamis and earthquakes, also invites further consideration. As a theory of cosmic time, the ancient notion of a ‘Great Year’ may thus be rescued from the dustbin of scientific theorising.