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Disharmonious Noncordance

October 18, 2003

Contents

Introduction
Small, faint and distant Chiron
Disembarking the Plane
(way) Off in the Distance
Miscellanea
Conclusion
Links


Just the other day, I was wondering when I would hear about the next bit of Bad Astronomy. After all, with the demise of Planet X in May 2003, and Jupiter failing to turn into a star in September, I knew the next piece o' silliness would be just around the corner.

And then, like a gift from the heavens, if you will, the email came.

The email was from Bad Reader Gregg Evans, who said that there is a website (http://www.harmonicconcordance.com/) claiming that on November 8th, there would be an interesting alignment of the planets. Immediately, alarm bells rang in my head; I've dealt with alignments before. As I read on, it got worse. This alignment, so the website claims, will "[open] an energetic 'stargate' to the Ascension of Mother Earth", among other things.

Now, I have little patience for New Age mumbo-jumbo. This is because New Agers tend to use a lot of scientific-sounding words in a meaningless fashion. The website quoted is true to form. It says, for example, "The astrological holograph that the moment projects is fundamentally spiritual in nature, and can be understood terms [sic] of Quantum Meta-Physics as well as by 'astro-spiritual' metaphor. " I have read that statement several times, and it makes less sense each time.

Now, I am not here to make fun of New Age mysticism. I am here to debunk the claims they make.


diagram of configuration from
http://www.harmonicconcordance.com The big claim has to do with an alignment of the planets, what the site calls a "harmonic concordance". According to the site, there are six objects in the sky that will form a "Grand Sextile", a six-sided symmetric figure in the sky. I won't go into detail here; go ahead and read it for yourself. The point is that if you connect the astronomical objects, you get a Star of David (the picture displayed here shows this configuration; clicking it will take you to a bigger version on the website itself). This shape, apparently, has all sorts of astrological significance. Moreover, there is a lunar eclipse happening at the same time, making this even more significant.

I will admit, when I saw the chart on the web page, I thought it was pretty neat to see the six-sided configuration. Having an eclipse there is also interesting, in a "huh, isn't that interesting" sort of way, as opposed to it having any real meaning.

But then I looked at it a moment longer, and in a flash several things hit me. All of them pretty much debunk the idea that this configuration is in any way significant. I'll be up front again and say that I don't see any significance at all to any planetary alignments, since there's zero evidence for any meaning to them (beyond the usual eclipses and such; here I am discussing meta-physical or even physical significance). But it doesn't matter if you believe in astrology or not: this concordance is nothing more than a bunch of hooey. Here's why.


Small, faint and distant Chiron

First and foremost, the objects involved were the biggest red flag. They are: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Chiron. The first five are standard fare for astrology, but the last... ah the last. I couldn't believe it when I read it. Chiron! It's an odd choice for such an alignment, to say the least.

Chiron (pronounced "Kye-rahn") was discovered in 1977. It is an icy body, and orbits the Sun out past Saturn. At its closest to the Sun, it is still a daunting 1.2 billion kilometers out. It is at best 200 kilometers across, making it large for an icy body, but tiny indeed compared to any planet you care to name. Even dinky Pluto is five times wider than Chiron.


image of Chiron taken with a 2.2 meter telescope Chiron is invisible to the unaided eye. At the time of the "concordance" it will be at magnitude 17.9; this means the faintest star you can see with your eye is 25,000 times brighter! Chiron is no shining beacon. It'll be nearly 2 billion kilometers away from the Earth at that time, too.

So why pick this meager speck to be in such a grand design? Because it fits, that's why. Without it, there would be no concordance! The Harmonic Concordance website says this itself:

You will no doubt note that I have used Chiron as a planet. I have done so because I have seen it work, consistently and with the legitimate energy of a planet, in many hundreds of charts. Were you to ignore it, the pattern would not emerge [emphasis mine].

So even the author admits that without it, he's got nothing. And his excuse for including it is weak at best. It has the energy of a planet? What does he mean by "energy"? Kinetic energy? Nope. Potential? No. Electromagnetic, nuclear, strong, weak? Huh-uh, no way, nein, bzzzzt. This is what I mean by New Age pseudoscientific terms: they sound like they have meaning, but they are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Chiron doesn't have the energy of a planet in any real sense; "energy" is just a word that sounds like it means something. It's like vibrations, or dimensions, or quantum meta-physics. These are all scientific words, being used in an (incorrect) unscientific way.

So right, away, including Chiron struck me as being pretty silly. But wait! There's more...


Disembarking the Plane

[Note (added October 20, 2003: Well, nuts. I made a mistake here, and it was a good one. In the following calculations, I somehow dropped a minus sign when doing the coordinate transform (probably a cut-and-paste error) which put in a pretty big error in the ecliptic latitude of Chiron (see below for an explanation of that). Originally, I said it was 38 degrees, which is huge. However, Bad Reader Charles Kluepfel (who also spotted an error in my diagram below) pointed out I had blown it here. I have corrected the text, which is, unfortunately I suppose, a weaker argument now. However, I still think the distance argument in the section below this is a real deal-breaker in the science of this "alignment". Read on. Oh, the original page with with the mistake can be found here, to keep me honest.]

My second thought was that when people claim there are alignments of planets, the alignments are pretty poor. The "alignment" of May 5, 2000 is a good example. So I went online, and used a position calculator at the U.S. Naval Observatory to find out where the Sun, Moon, and planets would be on the auspicious date. The time given by the concordance website is November 9, 2003 at 01:13 Universal (Greenwich) time. So I popped that in to the calculator and it gave me coordinates. Chiron is so small that I had to use a different calculator to find its coordinates.

Once I got all the data, I realized it wasn't very useful in its present state. The coordinates are based on a celestial equivalent of latitude and longitude, which didn't give me a good feel for where these objects are in relation to one another. So I converted the coordinates to a better system: an ecliptic one.

The Earth orbits the Sun in a plane. Since we are in this plane, we see it projected on the sky as a line (like holding a piece of paper edgewise to your eye; see, for example, diagrams on this page). This line is called the ecliptic. Most of the planets in the solar system also orbit the Sun very near the same plane the Earth does, so it's a convenient system to use for solar system objects. Ecliptic longitude is a measurement of where along this line an object is. If the object is above or below the line, then that is measure of its ecliptic latitude. It's very similar to longitude and latitude on Earth.

If the objects are really in alignment, then there should be an obvious pattern to their longitudes. To make it easier to see, I calculated their longitudes with respect to the Sun. In other words, the Sun would have longitude=0, and everything else would be relative to that. When I printed the results, I got a small surprise. Here it is:

ObjectLongitudeIf perfect...
Sun 0.0 0
Moon 179.5 180
Mars 245.6 240
Jupiter61.9 60
Saturn 123.2 120
Chiron 298.2 300

These numbers place the objects very close to 60 degrees apart each on the sky (I included what the number would be for each object if the alignment were perfect). In other words, starting at the Sun and moving around the sky, you'd see the objects spaced 60 degrees apart, just as the concordance website claimed. I was surprised, as this is indeed pretty neat. Of course, Mars is off by more than 5 degrees, but that's still pretty close. All the other objects are within a couple of degrees of being at 60 degree separations.

So what's the problem? Ah, there is one, and it's a doozy. I only posted the longitude in that table. What about the latitude? In other words, this alignment really only works if the objects are all in the same plane. Otherwise, calling it a true alignment would be misleading, to say the least. So let's see. I'll add it as a third column:

ObjectLongitudeLatitude
Sun 0.0 0.0
Moon 179.5 1.0
Mars 245.6 1.9
Jupiter61.9 -1.0
Saturn 123.2 0.7
Chiron 298.2 -6.5

As you can see, the Moon and planets are within a couple of degrees of being in a plane. But oops! Chiron is off the plane, by over 6 degrees. That's not a huge amount, but it's significant. It's more than Mars' longitudinal offset, for example. In my opinion, Mars' and Chiron's positional offsets still keep this alignment in the "interesting" category, but it's hardly one that is perfect, or even great. But even so, there is still one deal-breaker in this idea...


(way) Off in the Distance

In that diagram on the concordance site, it's worse than implying the objects are on the same plane. it implies they are all at the same distance, too. That's grossly misleading. They are not at the same distance! In fact, just to give you an idea of how not at the same distance they are, let's see another table. These numbers are all for the date of the alignment:

ObjectDistance from Earth (km)
Sun 148,650,000
Moon 405,000
Mars 102,300,000
Jupiter 868,200,000
Saturn 1,268,000,000
Chiron 1,865,000,000

Take a good look at those numbers. The Moon is less than half a million kilometers away, but Chiron is nearly two billion kilometers distant. Now look again at the nice, neat hexagram posted on the concordance website. The Earth is at the center, and the blue lines connect the Earth to the six objects. See how the blue lines are all the same length? Well, that's just plain wrong. In reality, the line connecting the Earth to Chiron is 4600 times longer than the one connecting the Earth to the Moon.

Suddenly, the Star of David is looking a wee bit lopsided, wouldn't you agree?


diagram of the concordance In fact, the shape of this configuration in space is so lopsided I had a hard time making a diagram that could show it to scale. Any way of reasonably showing Chiron on a diagram has the Moon indistinguishable from the Earth (it's like trying to distinguish your house from your neighbor's by looking at a map of the entire United States; the scale of the map is too small). In this diagram, I used some software (TheSky) to display the planets at the time of the concordance, and added Chiron myself in its approximate position since it was too small to be in the software's database. I have a hard time seeing any geometric pattern there, let alone a Star of David or a hexagram. Remember, it took three days for an Apollo spacecraft to reach the Moon, but the distance to Chiron dwarfs that seemingly to insignificance. Space is big.

My thanks to Bad Reader Charles Kluepfel for pointing out an error in my original diagram in this section. It has been corrected.


Miscellanea

Now, a reasonable skeptic (and I am one) would then bring up the point that the distance isn't so important, it's the alignment in the sky that's so interesting. I'd agree, except for one thing: you can't see all the objects at once! The Moon and Sun are 180 degrees apart, for example. They have to be, for there to be an eclipse. So when the Sun sets, the Moon rises, and only one is in the sky at a time. At the time of the alignment where I live, for example, I will only be able to see the Sun. It'll still be up, since it will be 5:13 p.m. But if you were in England, for example, you'd still only see the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. The Sun would be set (it's 1:13 a.m.!) and Chiron would be long below the horizon. The alignment itself is invisible.

Again, a reasonable skeptic might point out that visibility is not important, the alignment itself is. I'd agree again, but there's still a problem. I contend that distance itself is a deal-breaker here. If these objects have some sort of energy that transfers to people here on Earth as astrology claims, then the distance to that object and its mass must not matter. If they did matter, than the Sun would win over practically everything else by virtue of its mass, and the Moon would win the rest due to its proximity. Venus, Mars, even Jupiter can't compete. Certainly Chiron loses on both fronts!

So if distance and mass don't matter, then what about the other asteroids in the solar system? There are 26 asteroids in the solar system bigger than Chiron (not to mention the nine planets and dozens of moons) as well as bigger icy bodies out beyond Pluto. Heck, there are more than a billion asteroids in the solar system larger than 100 meters across. Why don't they count? You could find endless alignments all the time if you use them. And don't forget, astronomers have discovered planets orbiting other stars. Don't they count? Or the stars themselves? Or the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe?

This is the main reason (besides an utter lack of any supporting evidence) I think astrology is garbage. If you have some sort of system to determine a person's life using astronomical objects, you cannot set up rules and then break them every time you cast a horoscope. Astrology is inconsistent, has no physical basis, and did I mention there is absolutely no supporting evidence of it? I did? Well, it's worth saying twice.


Conclusion

So what's the harm here, really? If people want to gather together and chant for peace, who is to say it's wrong?

I think the people who may or will participate in this (non) event have their heart in the right place. And who knows? Maybe a big show of peace will do some good. It did for many great people in the past. But the premise for this is wrong. If we're going to strive for peace, the least we can do is work for the right reasons. Astrology is not the right reason, and this little bit of Bad Astronomy is really not the right reason. The Universe is a wondrous place, filled with beauty, elegance, and, yes, a geometric and physical symmetry that is very appealing to our nature as humans. That is a good reason to work for peace. Everyone deserves a chance to experience this beauty.


Links

Here are the relevant links in this article:



©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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