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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | Ventura County Life

Aligned for Disaster or a Commercial Break?

May 03, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

Apocalypse again?

Seems like just yesterday that Y2K was supposed to punch our lights out, but now utter annihilation is at hand once more.

How time flies when you're facing doom!

In any event, you might want to consider canceling the baby-sitter for Saturday night.

Because on Friday, the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will--for a brief while--march in a ragged line with the Earth, the sun and the moon.

Now I realize that in the panorama of human despair, this might not seem like much.

You might be asking: "Why should I worry about a bunch of dumb planets . . . when the poor, exploited wretches who act in TV commercials have gone out on strike? How will I fill the time between the segments of a very special Ally McBeal? Will it just be white space there--stark, terrifying, won't-someone-please-say-something silence? Hold me, Nigel--I'm frightened!"

I'm sorry you're upset.

But if you believe the catastrophists, the planetary alignment of May 5 will be even worse than the actors' strike.

In his novel "Ice: 5/5/2000," a Georgia survivalist named Richard Noone claims the planetary chorus line will play havoc with the Earth's gravity. Trillions of tons of ice and water will surge up from the South Pole. Three-quarters of humanity will be finished. The others will be very wet.

The radio talk lines are humming, the astrologers are abuzz and the debunkers have found yet more evidence of human folly.

In Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory has mounted a program called "Cosmic Catastrophe" to assure citizens that the alignment-Armageddon link is cosmic baloney.

"Planets have lined up over and over in the past, and the world hasn't ended," noted the observatory's director, Ed Krupp. And even if the gathered planets exert a gravitational pull an oh-so-tiny-bit greater than usual, Krupp said they're "pipsqueaks" next to the sun and the moon.

No special programs are planned in Ventura County, but Hal Jandorf, an astronomy instructor at Moorpark College, has managed to frame the problem in everyday terms accessible to most laymen.

"It's B.S.," he said, "just a lot of B.S."

In other words, Jandorf is reasonably sure that civilization won't end on Friday.

After all, it didn't end in 1982, when the planets lined up in a different, but equally unusual, way.

Disaster was forecast enthusiastically by, among others, the tabloid Midnight: "Astronomers and scientists are desperately worried that one of the most terrible disasters in the history of mankind may hit the United States, killing untold millions and reducing the American West Coast to rubble."

The only known damage, however, was in Jandorf's backyard, where TV crews and about 100 stargazers gathered with telescopes.

"My lawn was totally flattened," he said.

Jandorf might well add planet-alignment jitters to his list of astronomy's urban legends--a topic he'll address during an international astronomical conference in Ventura this July.

"You think the sun is directly overhead at noon?" he asked. "It's not! In the 48 states, it's never directly overhead!"

When he picked up his son at school in Thousand Oaks one winter noon, he mentioned to a teacher that the sun was just 30 degrees above the horizon.

"She freaked out," he said. "She thought the axis was out of whack."

On Friday, there will be no freaking out, at least among the astronomically aware.

Because the sun's glare will blot out any view of the alignment, Jandorf's garden will not be trampled by those eager for a peek at a celestial coincidence that won't happen again in just the same way for another 438 years.

"Out of sight, out of mind," Jandorf said. "I think I'll sleep well."

*

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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