An Array of Planets

(This column was first published in the December 22, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    Astronomers call it a near conjunction. Two or more stars or planets appear close together in the sky. A very close approach can produce the appearance of a brighter light source.

    Many believe that just such a conjunction -- of the planets Jupiter and Mars and possibly Saturn as well -- occurred two millennia ago to form the Star of Bethlehem, the bright light that led the Magi, the wise men, to the stable where lay their newly born Prince of Peace. The story is told in the Biblical Book of Matthew (2: ix-x): "Lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."

    This month, almost exactly two thousand years later, another close grouping of planets may be observed. And because so many are involved, this near conjunction is even more unusual. Shortly after sunset six planets array themselves in the southwestern skies lined up along the path the sun followed just an hour earlier. Four of the six are grouped so closely that a thumb held at arm's length would hide them all. They are, in order of brightness, Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. (Although Uranus and Neptune are much larger planets than Venus and Mars, they are also much farther away and require binoculars or a telescope to be seen.) Aligned with them but higher in the sky and farther to the south and southwest are Jupiter and Saturn. They belong on that brightness list between Venus and Mars.

    Earlier in the month the planets were spread more widely but they were also joined by Mercury, which has now passed the sun and is only visible in the morning sky.

    While I was working on this column I had a disturbing experience on the subway coming out from downtown. A young woman took the seat next to me and her reading caught my attention. She was intently studying an article on astrological predictions. I couldn't resist asking her about her interest in this subject. She was very forthcoming and told me how important astrology is to her life. She added, "My friends and I check our horoscopes every day."

    "Do the predictions influence what you do?" I asked.

    She offered several examples including: "Sometimes, if the signs are really bad, I stay home in my room all day."

    This young woman's belief system is entirely different from my own but, rather than debating with her, I told her about the unusual grouping of planets and asked if she thought this had any significance. I was quite unprepared for her almost violent reaction. Obviously deeply upset, she immediately responded: "They're pointing to El Nino. We're really in for it now."

    Just as she said this, we arrived at the South Campus station and, still clearly disturbed, the young woman dashed out of the subway and onto the crowded escalator. I had been left speechless by her unexpected and painful reaction and felt responsible for it. I tried to catch up with her at least to tell her that the planet alignment would also point west from Australia, currently beset by El Nino-caused drought and fires, yet El Nino is east of that continent. Unfortunately she had disappeared by the time I reached the top of the stairs.

    Sadly, I am afraid that such evidence would not have calmed her fears.

    I hope you find a clear night to see those planets, but please don't worry about their possible influence on our lives.