Thursday, March 10, 2011

Not the end of the world

A month or two ago I heard for the first time that all the planets were going to align on December 21, 2012, and that the resulting tidal forces would unleash disastrous floods and possibly earthquakes. 

This, I thought, sounded rather cool.  Not the floods and earthquakes, of course -- but the idea of a planetary alignment sounded interesting.  There wouldn't actually be any flooding or earthquakes, because the positions of the other planets have nothing to do with that sort of thing (they're too far away to affect our tides).

Wondering which planets were going to be "aligned" (i.e., in conjunction or opposition), I fired up SkyGazer, a planetarium program that came with my college astronomy textbook, and punched in 2012-12-21, and got something of a surprise:  On that date there isn't going to be any sort of alignment at all.

Solar System Live gives this result for Dec. 21, 2012:

Granted, Pluto is going to be nearly at conjunction, but that happens every 367 days and just means it'll be behind the sun. So, not only was the part about global calamity wrong, but the event that was supposed to cause said calamity isn't even going to happen in the first place. 

As far as I can tell from a bit of googling, the entire erroneous alignment story somehow arose from the fact that the Mayan Long Count calendar reaches the end of its cycle on that date, something that (according to Wikipedia) appears to happen roughly every 400 years or so and doesn't actually mean much unless you want to use it as an excuse for a massive Mayan New Year party.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Suburban wildlife

I don't especially like living in the suburbs, but at least it's close enough to the edge of town for a small amount of wildlife to pass through.  I'll occasionally hear (and, more rarely, see) a screech owl in the back yard, and once what I think might have been a great horned owl.  A pair of Cooper's hawks were in the area for a couple of days this week, though I think they may have moved on by now.

Last year I saw a hawk (I don't know what kind it was) trying to catch a squirrel in the back yard.  It dove from a low branch and couldn't get up much speed, so it missed on its first try, and the squirrel seized the opportunity to scamper up a tree trunk.  The hawk flew up into that same tree, perching less than a dozen feet from the squirrel, which hunkered down against the bark.  The hawk extended its wings a few times, clearly trying to work out a way to get around the intervening branches before the squirrel could escape; it started out one way, then stopped and tried another direction, and another, and then it moved to a different branch and made a couple more false starts, and each time the squirrel tensed up to dart around the trunk to safety.  Eventually the hawk gave up and took off without ever making its move; maybe it had already had lunch.