We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

String of Pearls

By Bob Berman
Nov 1, 1997 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:26 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Several times a century, from our Earthly perspective, the planets array themselves in a line like a string of pearls. If you live in Woodstock, New York, as I do, or in any other New Age hot spot, you know what that means: trouble.

In occultist literature, planetary clustering usually portends the end of the world. The planetary configuration that took place in 1987 was even given its own catchy name--harmonic convergence. The anticipated cataclysm was less drastic, however, than total Armageddon. California was merely supposed to fall into the ocean. The newest calamity worrying astrological circles is 5-5-2000. On May 5 in the year 2000, five planets and the moon will confine themselves to a 26-degree swath behind the sun, with ensuing worldwide destruction. Perhaps. Probably not.

True believers suffer a collective memory defect that prevents them from recalling the countless previous predictions of doom that failed to materialize. My prediction is that the conjunction occurring now-- beginning this month and lasting through December--definitely will have a worldwide influence: Hordes of astronomers will rush out to gaze into the evening twilight. Some will pull reluctant family members and neighbors along. Friendships will crumble. Romances will be born.

All the planets will form a line stretching from the sunset position leftward into the southern sky. Since most of the participants will be low, shining through extra layers of jiggly atmosphere, it’s not a particularly good time for telescopic views. It’s an event rather like an Italian street festival: everyone is invited, and no special equipment is required. The naked eye works just fine.

Start watching during the last week of October, when dazzling Venus hovers just beneath dim Mars in the southwest. On November 3 the crescent moon floats just to the right of the pair, at dusk. Meanwhile, brilliant Jupiter dangles in the south, enjoying the moon’s close company on November 7. Uranus, looking like a greenish star through binoculars, sits to the lower right of Jove at a distance measured by a single clenched fist held at arm’s length, or 10 degrees. Neptune, for telescope owners, is another 10 degrees along the same line.

Saturn, bright but not brilliant, is the solitary star in the southeast, the caboose in this train of worlds, somewhat isolated from the others. At the front of the parade, conceptually at least, is Pluto-- impossibly faint and impossibly low above the point of sunset, unless you have the eyes of Superman. Mercury is in this sun-hugging zone as well, a few degrees above the southwestern horizon as twilight deepens, and easier to find by the middle of November.

By month’s end Venus and Mars have strayed apart and inched closer to the gassy giant planets in the south, while Mercury hugs the skyline just after sunset. The effect is now complete: a necklace strung with every planet in the solar system.

Insomniacs who get up to sky-gaze before dawn will face the opposite part of the heavens--where not a single planet can be found from horizon to horizon. The solar system is now like an out-of-balance clothes dryer. Every member is clustered in one 120-degree pie-shaped sector (the Scorpius-to-Pisces zone of the zodiac), visible at dusk, while the remaining two-thirds of the heavens is home to nothing at all.

Yet this lopsided arrangement is without physical consequence. If all the planets formed a perfectly straight line, our Earthly oceanic tides would rise less than one-hundredth of an inch. So don’t worry. It’s lovely and intriguing, but it’s not the end of the world.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.