Conjunction Assumption

April 2000
by Robert Novella

Now that we’re well into the year 2000 and Y2K fears have subsided, I thought I could relax and forget about impending global disasters. Not so, if an increasingly vocal crop of doomsayers are correct. Apparently, a planetary alignment that will occur on May fifth will wreak havoc on the Earth that will make crashing computers seem like a harmless virus. We are told to expect solar flares, force 13 earthquakes, 500 mph winds and tidal waves flooding our coastal cities. Massive planets lining up on one side of the sun may seem like an inauspicious event with dire consequences, but the astronomical facts that scientists deal with every day reveal it to be a relatively common and inconsequential event.

On May 5th 2000 the Sun and inner 6 planets of our solar system will (or did, depending when you read this) align starting with the Earth on one end, followed by the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and finally Saturn. Even the moon will be roughly between the Earth and Sun. This so called “Grand Conjunction” has many people extremely concerned about the potential effect this will have on our planet. The catch-phrase- “Beware 5-5-00” is even being used to echo this dread and attract newcomers to this latest apocalyptic meme.

The idea that planetary alignments can cause destruction on the Earth is not a new one. Records dating from 300 B.C. express fears similar to those found today. One would think that advances in astronomy and science would abolish such superstitious concerns but such beliefs are ubiquitous in first world nations as well as third. Predictions for the May fifth conjunction range from the astronomically uninformed to virtually incomprehensible. Here’s an example of the former from the Survival Center1 web site:

“On or around May 5, 2000 (give or take a few days) these planets … will line up on one side of Earth creating major stress on Planet Earth. Predictions range from a few earthquakes to major earth crust movement (slippage), polar ice cap movement, sea levels rising 100 – 300 feet or more, huge tidal waves, high winds 500 to 2000 mph, earthquakes so massive that Richter 13 or more could be possible, both coasts of USA under water, magnetic shift and much more.”

Most predictions about the May fifth alignment are similar to those expressed above, as such; the thrust of this article will address their feasibility. Other predictions I have encountered are so out there that I would not know where to begin when addressing them. The following is from Kirael’s Inward Portal2 web site:

“The Great Shift of May 5, 2000 marks the Day of Epiphany for the Earth plane when a great Light Shift will occur that will bring you out of darkness. It is a major shift for the Light Workers of the world when every Light Worker on Earth has the opportunity to shift their embodiment process to their Light Body. Your bodies will begin to lose their density, and you will begin to feel the body moving towards Light emergence. This Shift is the forerunner of the Golden Shift itself into the Fourth Dimension.”

Um, OK.

Alignments involving most of the planets are not exceedingly rare celestial events. They have happened many times throughout human history with no deleterious effect on Earth. A sampling taken between the years –3101 and +2735 reveal 102 separate planetary groupings of the 5 naked eye planets within 25 degrees (1994 De Meis and Meeus). This is an average of one every 57 years. When was the last time a conjunction like 5-5-00 occurred? On February 4th, 1962 when the 5 naked eye planets were separated by only 17 degrees. In conjunction with this conjunction there was also an eclipse of the sun. During this event the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles was besieged with inquiries about the ramifications of the event. During the day of the alignment the road leading to the observatory was clogged with cars for more than half a mile. The year 1821 saw a similar grouping, also with no concomitant disasters. In fact, no correlation has ever been shown between planetary alignments and events such as earthquakes and volcanic activity. The term “alignment” itself is somewhat misleading. The planets will not form a straight line (regardless of the many “artist interpretations” I have seen). The phrase “multiple conjunction” is more accurate.

Assessing past conjunctions is illuminating but the heart of the matter is the feasibility of loosely aligned planets having an extra effect on the Earth purely due to their relative mutual positions. The most often cited culprits of this extra effect are the combined gravitational pull of the planets and the tidal forces. These are the only ways that planets can affect us, so if these forces can be implicated, then doomsday arguments would be bolstered at least into the realm of possibility.

Gravity depends on only two variables; the mass of the object and its distance. The greater the mass the stronger the attraction, the greater the distance, the less the attraction (for the purposes of this discussion I will ignore Einstein’s General Relativity interpretation of gravity as the curvature of space-time). Isaac Newton altered physics forever when he realized that the strength of gravity depends on the square of the distance. For example, if you double the distance between two objects, the gravitational force drops by a factor of 4 (2 x 2). At 100 times the distance, the force drops by 10,000 (100 x 100). Even though gravity is the force that shapes the large-scale structure of the universe, it is extraordinarily weak. The inverse square law shows that not only is it weak, but what strength it does have drops off very quickly. The result is that to have a significant gravitational effect on the Earth, an astronomical body need be relatively close or absolutely gargantuan. This, of course, applies only to two bodies in our solar system, the moon and sun. All other heavenly bodies have a completely negligible gravitational impact on the Earth. Even titanic Jupiter, so large that 1000 earths can easily fit inside, is so far away that it has only 1 percent the pull of the moon. If you add all the other planets together, the amount is a paltry 2 percent. But wait, it gets weaker. During the conjunction of May 5th the Earth is on one side of the Sun and Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn are on the other. This greater distance attenuates gravity to its absolute minimum.

The second most frequently cited effect of planetary conjunctions is a relative of gravity but has unique characteristics of its own. So called tidal forces are not strictly gravitational but involve the difference in gravity between two separate points. This differential force is more of a stretching than a pulling and as such has a greater potential for damage than simply pulling an object. Gravity has the potential of pulling the Earth from its orbit, tidal forces, on the other hand, can conceivably rip it in two. Earth’s tides are caused by the moon’s tidal forces. One way to look at it is that the ocean nearest the moon is pulled away from the Earth because it is attracted most strongly. The far side of the Earth is pulled least strongly so, in essence, the earth underneath is pulled away from it. Tidal effects are not limited to malleable water only, however. A slight but measurable bulge in the land itself propagates through the crust.

Fortunately, the same reasons that gravity failed to account for conjunction disruptions also account for the failure of tidal forces, only more so. Whereas gravity decreased by the square of the distance, tidal forces decrease by the cube. Twice the distance from a planet, therefore, lessens the force by a factor of eight. Consequently, distance is more crucial than mass when it comes to tidal forces. The sun’s gravitational pull on the Earth is 180 times that of the moon, however, the moon has twice the tidal effect on Earth because it is so much closer. The best way to look at this is to compare the ratio of the Earth’s diameter to the distance to the sun and moon. Since the ratio is much higher for the moon, the differential gravitational force will be a greater percentage of the total gravitational force.

The tidal effect on the earth from the other planets is therefore completely inconsequential regardless of their alignment. The planet Venus stretches us the most because it is closer to us, on average, than the other planets. The force, however, is 5 hundred thousandths that of the moon. The remaining planets contribute even less. This past December when the moon was full and unusually close, the additional tidal stresses on the earth were one thousand times stronger than all the planets combined. I don’t remember any doomsday predictions back then.

Doomsday planetary conjunctions seem superficially reasonable. People undoubtedly assume that when the planets line up the gravitational effects are magnified, conceivably causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. After all, this magnification of forces is like the spring tides during which the earth, moon, and sun line up to produce the highest tides twice per month. This bimonthly alignment, however, involves the only planetary bodies in the solar system that can affect the Earth given their size and distance. All the other planets are simply too far away. Any effect they might have is completely swamped by the sun and moon. Planetary alignments are common astronomical events and they can be beautiful, as in the case of eclipses, but one thing they have never been nor will they ever be is deadly.


1) Survival Center1 web site
2) Kirael’s Inward Portal2 web site (
3) “Quintuple planetary groupings — Rarity, historical events and popular beliefs,” Salvo De Meis & Jean Meeus, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 104, #6, pp. 293-297, December 1994.