It almost a rite of passage for each generation to have an apocalypse to fear, and astronomy provides plenty of scary scenarios for doomsday. Perhaps such end-of-the-world scares are thrilling or even amusing to some, but the harm comes when individuals act on these fears, often selling off their worldly possessions or even taking their lives. And of course, plenty of hucksters are eager to capitalize on a coming apocalypse. Here’s a look at five astronomical events that were feared by many to signal the end the world as we know it; obviously, the results turned out otherwise.
5. The Harmonic Convergence
In 1971 author Tony Shearer predicted in his book Lord of Dawn that a loose triangular alignment known in astrological circles as a grand trine on Aug. 24, 1987 would lead to an event of undefined celestial power. While not exactly a doomsday prediction, the event was supposed to end life on Earth as we know it, leading to the end of current governments and institutions and heralding in an era of peace and “higher consciousness.” This theory was further organized and promoted by José Argüelles, and the anticipation of the Harmonic Convergence was underway. The current hype surrounding the prophecy of the end of the world in 2012 traces its roots back to this event, as the Mayan calendar known as the Long Count is set to run out this year. Much significance is also attached to the date Dec. 21, 2012, as the winter solstice (as reckoned in the northern hemisphere) occurs on that date, along with a rough alignment of the Earth, Sun and core of our galaxy, as it does every year. Curiously, a very tight visual alignment of the planets occurs in 2040. Will we again fear the end of days on that date?
4. The Heaven’s Gate Mass Suicide
In 1995, astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp independently discovered the comet that became known as Hale-Bopp. Astronomers quickly plotted its orbit and knew the comet would be something special, a large comet with an active nucleus. Millions of people worldwide enjoyed viewing Hale-Bopp’s passage in 1996-1997, and it became the most studied comet in history. The event took on an ominous overtone, however, on March 26, 1997, when 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in California were discovered to have committed suicide. They were apparently spurred on by reports on a late-night radio talk show that a spacecraft was spotted trailing the comet, a theory that a supposedly “reputable” astronomer confirmed on the show. Cult leader Marshall Applewhite made a videotape documenting the group’s decision to “depart their physical bodies” before the spacecraft arrived. As we shall see, this wasn’t the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that a comet has induced mass hysteria.
3. The Great Meteor Storm of 1833
Each November, a meteor shower occurs radiating from the constellation Leo that is so feeble, only a few dedicated observers notice it. About every 33 years, however, the Leonid meteor shower puts on a spectacular show. This shower produced one of the greatest events witnessed in modern times in 1833. The morning of Nov. 13 was clear across the U.S. eastern seaboard, and folks were awakened by hundreds of flashes so bright they cast shadows. The scene must have been truly apocalyptic, as eyewitness accounts described shooting stars “like rain” as many people cried out for salvation. Churches filled up in towns that witnessed the event, awaiting the coming of the apocalypse at dawn. It’s no coincidence that several religious movements in the United States got their starts in the 1830s and gained traction in part from this singular event. The Leonids have put on spectacular shows in 1966 and 1999, and will again dazzle in 2032.
2. The Jupiter Effect
In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published a book entitled The Jupiter Effect noting a rough alignment of the planets on March 10, 1982 and predicting that the combined gravitational pull of the planets would trigger worldwide catastrophes. Said date came and went, inducing no measurable impact on the planet Earth, except a spike in book sales and publicity for the two authors. The trouble with the supposition comes from high school physics and is known as the inverse-square law of gravity. Although Jupiter is the largest of the planets, it’s also an immense distance away; the Sun and Moon have a much larger tidal effect on the Earth, as closer opposition passages of Jupiter have occurred since 1982 with no measurable impact.
1. The 1910 Halley’s Comet Panic
One of the most famous periodic visitors to the inner solar system is Halley’s Comet, first identified by Edmond Halley in 1705 as making a passage through the inner solar system once every 75.3 years. The comet’s 1910 appearance was a particularly eventful one, as it was the first to occur after the application of astronomical photography and the invention of the spectroscope. This technique allows astronomers to analyze the composition of a celestial body from a distance via examination of its spectrum. Shortly before the closest approach of Halley’s Comet, a scientist announced that poisonous cyanogen gas had been discovered in its tail. The Earth was to pass through the comet’s tail on May 19, 1910, and although scientists sought to reassure the public there was no danger, a famous French astronomer predicted the comet’s tail would “impregnate [the] atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” Newspapers sensationalized the story, and the first media-fueled frenzy promoting the end of the world was on. Adding fuel to the fire, an even more visually spectacular comet known as the Great Comet of 1910 came by earlier in the year, witnessed by more of the public than Halley’s itself. Profiteers hawked gas masks and “comet pills,” and newspapers such as the New York Times gave “Comet Doom” heavy coverage with such curious headlines as “Bermuda Observers Report Comet Acting Strangely Following King Edward’s Death.” Comet parties were thrown where one could drink and dance away the final days to the new tune, Comet Rag.
In a way, the 1910 Halley’s hysteria marked an end of innocence, the public’s first exposure to a “media blitz” that would become further enshrined in our culture with the panic following the Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. Perhaps every generation needs an astronomical boogeyman to fear. By the way, faithful comet Halley will again visit the inner solar system in the year 2061, inviting a new generation to wonder and remember.