When I first heard we were all going to float in the air at 9:47 a.m. PST on January 4th, 2015 I laughed, figuring this latest Internet rumor would prove too silly to spread very far. Boy, was I wrong. This week the bogus claim has already been shared over a million times on Facebook. Now I’m being asked if it’s true. It all started on December 15th when the Daily Buzz Live, famous for fake news, published this tweet purportedly from NASA:
Sure looks real. Even has a cool, doomsday-flavored hashtag #beready. The story attributes the prediction to British astronomy popularizer Patrick Moore, who must be chuckling in his grave because he passed away in 2012. The story goes on. A rare planetary alignment of Jupiter and Pluto “will mean that the combined gravitational force of the two planets would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily counteracting the Earth’s own gravity and making people virtually weightless.”
But when it comes down to it, Zero Gravity Day is just a lot of warmed-over hoo-ha. Let’s sort out what’s fact and what’s fancy in this claim.
True: Patrick Moore did make this claim in a BBC radio program on April 1, 1976 … as an April Fools Day joke! The article doesn’t bother to mention this significant detail. Ever so sly, Moore fibbed about the details of the purported alignment. Pluto was in Virgo and Jupiter in Pisces on that date, exactly opposite one another in the sky and as far out of alignment as possible. Gullible to suggestion, hundreds of listeners phoned in to the BBC saying they’d experienced the decrease in gravity. One woman said she and 11 friends had been “wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room”.
Martin Wainwright, who edited the book The Guardian Book of April Fool’s Day (published by the British newspaper The Guardian), described Moore as the ideal presenter with his “weight delivery” lending an added “air of batty enthusiasm that only added to his credibility”. The Daily Buzz updated the joke and gave it even more credibility by wrapping it up in “bacon” — a fake NASA tweet.
False: Jupiter and Pluto will not be in alignment on January 4th. Pluto is hidden the solar glare in Sagittarius at the moment, while Jupiter shines nearly halfway across the zodiac in Leo. Far, far apart.
False: Planetary alignments will not make you weightless. Not even if all the planets and Sun aligned simultaneously. While the gravity of a place is Jupiter is HUGE and will crush you if you could find a surface to stand on, the distance between Earth and Jupiter (and all the other planets for that matter) is enormous. This waters down gravity in a big way. Jupiter tugs on you personally with the same gravitational force as a compact car three feet (1-meter) away. As for Pluto, it’s almost 60 times smaller than Jupiter with a gravitational reach that can only be described as virtually ZERO.
The Moon is by far the dominant extraterrestrial gravity tractor among the planets and moons of the Solar System because it’s relatively close to Earth. According to Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomer blog: “Even if you add all of the planets together, they pull on you with a force less than 2% of that of the Moon.”
The Sun also has a significant gravitational effect on Earth, but when was the last time you heard of people floating in the air during a total solar eclipse? If our strongest gravitational neighbors can’t loft you off your feet then don’t look to Jupiter and Pluto. Not that I wish this wouldn’t happen as it would provide a fitting physical aspect to what for many is a spiritual phenomenon.
There are countless claims on the Internet that alignments of comets, planets and fill-in-the-blanks produce earthquakes, deadly meteor storms, bad juju and even endless hiccups. It’s all pseudoscientific hogwash. Either deliberately made up by to lead you astray or because someone hasn’t checked the facts and simply passes on what they’ve heard. The stuff spreads like a virus, wasting our time and bandwidth and distracting our attention from the real beauty and bizarreness of the cosmos.
How to stop it? Critical thinking. If this skill were at the top of the list of subjects taught in high school, we’d live on a very different planet. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe we’ll always be gullible to snake-oil claims. But I’d like to believe that a basic knowledge of science coupled with the ability to analyze a claim with a critical eye will go a long way toward extinguishing bogus scientific claims before they spread like wildfire.
Come this Sunday at 9:47 a.m. PST allow me to suggest that instead of waiting to float off the ground, tell your family and friends about the amazing Full Wolf Moon that will shine down that evening from the constellation Gemini. If it’s magic you’re looking for, a a walk in winter moonlight might do the trick.
I’m a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, “Night Sky with the Naked Eye”, a guide to the wonders of the night using only your eyes, is now available on Amazon and BN as well as in local BN bookstores.