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The Jupiter Effect

The Geophysical Institute has been receiving inquiries about dire events, including earthquakes, that are supposed to plague the earth in 1982 because of something to do with alignment of the planets. This leads us again to comment on the "Jupiter Effect," a name taken from the book published in 1974 by astronomers John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. While the book was undoubtedly a financial success, it has caused much needless concern and has proven to be a scientific flop.

Briefly, the authors proposed the following bizarre chain of events: When the planets are aligned on one side of the sun, the tidal forces create sunspots which create solar flares which create streams of solar particles which enter the earth's upper atmosphere which changes the weather which slows the rate of the earth's rotation which triggers earthquakes. Got it?

Among other unpleasant happenings would be the modification of rainfall and temperature patterns and the disruption of radio communications. Of course, the increased solar activity would also produce spectacular auroras.

To begin with, the basic concept (as depicted on the book's cover) is that in 1982 all the planets will be lined up like a row of soldiers on parade, and this just isn't so. In fact, the smallest angular separation of the four major planets--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune--will be greater than 60°!

There are many other weaknesses to the "theory." Two are that the tiny tidal bulge created on the sun will be several million times smaller than that raised on the earth by the moon, and there are no proven connections between solar activity and the earth's rate of spin.

Further, a check of the Geophysical Institute's records on solar activity for early 1982 reveals no anomalous behavior aside from occasional "storms" which are to be expected.

None of this, however, should be taken to mean that Alaska will not experience earthquakes in 1982. It will, because it does in any given year at the rate of a couple dozen a day, most of which are too small to feel. The chances that large earthquakes anyplace in the world during 1982 can be attributed to triggering by the "Jupiter Effect" are, for all practical purposes, nil.

Most scientists have never taken the proposal seriously anyway. Famed seismologist Charles Richter of CalTech, for instance, was led to observe in 1974 that it was "pure astrology in disguise." "In fact," he said, "it is very close to pure fantasy."

John Gribbin closes the episode in the July 17, 1980 issue of New Scientist where he retracts his theory, claiming that he was "too clever by half." (By this he explains he means that if he had jiggled the figures a little differently, he could have predicted the Mt. St. Helens eruption.) It is as one of the book's chief critics astronomer Jean Meeus tersely commented in 1975, "The Jupiter Effect does not exist."