Whenever I do a new livestream on Instagram (hint hint, @universetoday on Instagram), it’s generally with an audience that doesn’t have a lot of experience with my work here on Universe Today or YouTube.
They’re enthusiastic about space, but they haven’t been exposed to a lot of the modern ideas about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrials. They have, however, seen a lot of TV and movies.
You can post anything you want on the internet, and if people like the sound of it, they spread it. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s true or not. We’re not born fact checkers and skeptics, are we?
Pretty soon, before you know it, it’s gone viral. Then it becomes its own sensation, and people who don’t even believe it start reporting it. Never is this more true than with hoaxes.
The latest hoax is the “15 Days of Darkness in November” thing that’s going around. Everyone’s on the bandwagon.
The 15 days hoax is not new. It made an appearance last year, and was thoroughly debunked. And of course, there wasn’t 15 day of darkness last year, was there? (Unless NASA covered it up!)
It’s here again this year, and will be debunked again, and will probably be here next year, too.
The whole thing started at a site that will remain linkless, and caught on from there. This is what the site reported:
“NASA has confirmed that the Earth will experience 15 days of total darkness between November 15 and November 29, 2015. The event, according to NASA, hasn’t occurred in over 1 Million years.”
Of course, NASA never said any such thing.
Here is supposedly what will happen to cause this calamity. Try and follow along with the nonsensical foolishness.
During the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on October 26, light from Venus would cause gases in Jupiter to heat up. The heated gasses will cause a large amount of hydrogen to be released into space. The gases will reach the Sun and trigger a massive explosion on the surface of the star, heating it to 9,000 degrees Kelvin. The heat of the explosion would then cause the Sun to emit a blue color.
The dull blue color will last for 15 days during which the Earth will be thrown into darkness.
Where to begin? Let’s start with conjunctions.
Conjunctions are mostly just visual phenomena. The fact that two things in the sky look closer together from our point of view on Earth doesn’t mean that they’re that close together. In fact, even when Jupiter and Venus are in conjunction, they can still be over 800 million km apart. For perspective, the Sun and the Earth are about 150 million km apart.
So, as the hoax goes, at that great distance, light from Venus will cause gases on Jupiter to heat up. News Flash: the light from the Sun is far more intense than light from Venus could ever be, and it doesn’t heat up the gases on Jupiter. In fact, any light from Venus that makes it to Jupiter is just reflected sunlight anyway.
The hoax gets more outrageous as it goes along. These supposed heated gases then escape from Jupiter into space, and head for the Sun. But Jupiter is enormous and has enormous gravitational pull. How are any gases going to escape Jupiter’s overpowering gravity? Answer: they can’t and they won’t.
Then, these gases supposedly strike the Sun, and trigger a massive explosion on the Sun’s surface, which turn the Sun blue and plunges the Earth into darkness. Not blueness, which I could understand, but darkness.
This is absurd, of course. The Sun dominates the planets in a one-way relationship, and nothing the planets ever do could change that. No escaped gases from Jupiter would ever strike the Sun.
Nothing Jupiter does can affect the Sun. Jupiter is, on average, 778 million km from the Sun. Jupiter could change places with Venus, and the Sun would keep shining normally. Jupiter could explode completely and the Sun would go on shining normally. Jupiter could put on a big red nose and some clown shoes, and the Sun would remain unaffected.
The Sun is a giant atom-crushing machine 1000 times more massive than Jupiter. The massive wall of energy and solar wind that comes from the Sun slams into Jupiter, and completely overwhelms anything Jupiter can do to the Sun. It’s just the way it is. It’s just the way it will always be.
Like the faked Moon landing hoax, and the Nibiru/Planet X hoax, this 15 days of darkness meme just keeps coming around. There may be no end to it.
It’s annoying, for sure, but maybe there’s a silver lining. Maybe some people reading about this supposed calamity will enter the word “conjunction” into a search engine, and begin their own personal journey of learning how the universe works.
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.