I’ll be talking about how a current End Times prediction affected someone whose name is the same as the wannabe prophet’s; but is an entertainer, not a doomsayer.
I’ll also take a look at the continuing, and serious, search for Planet 9; predictions involving close encounters of the cometary kind; and what we’re learning about the outer Solar System.
- Science and entertainment
- In the news
- Getting a grip
Opinion polls, referendums, acts of Congress, and Supreme Court decisions won’t change how the universe works.
A real-world equivalent of Danae’s “petition to end science tyranny” wouldn’t change Newton’s law of gravity. But it might affect someone’s research budget.
I’d like to think that most American adults are better-informed than the 9th graders who signed a ‘ban dihydrogen monoxide‘ petition.
On the other hand, a National Science Foundation survey’s results showed that just over half of Americans think astrology is “not at all scientific.”
The good news, as I see it, is that over half of us may be paying attention.
It may also mean that more Americans are taking astrology seriously these days. Or maybe the poll wasn’t accurate, or something else.
Some academics figured it was something else: that many Americans didn’t realize that astrology isn’t astronomy. (Jim Lindgren, Washington Post (February 18, 2014))
They could be right. I’ll get back to that.
I suppose getting upset that a government agency spent money on an opinion poll is an option. That makes about as much sense to me as ranting about ignorance, low educational standards, or something else I don’t like.
As it is, I don’t see a problem with government agencies doing opinion polls.
Not in a country where folks at my end of the citizenry have at least an indirect influence on national decisions.
Even if we don’t decide how taxes get collected and spent, how we vote indirectly affects the decision-makers. Officials trying to learn something about folks ‘out there’ makes sense. (December 23, 2016; December 16, 2016)
Astrology, along palm reading and other divination efforts, is a bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116)
Curiosity isn’t bad. Wondering how things work, learning about the universe, is part of being human. If we’re paying attention, we’ll see order and beauty; which points toward God. (Catechism, 31–32, 35–36, 301, 303–306, 311, 319, 1704, 2293–2296)
My version of English uses the same word for sleight of hand and the breathtakingly imprudent deal dramatized in Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus.”
I can imagine someone shunning stage magic because they think it’s Satanic.
No matter how silly I thought their fear is, I wouldn’t try dragging them to a David Copperfield show.
Maybe they’ve got personal reasons for that fear: reasonable or not.
Taking Matthew 5:29’s advice is a good idea, at least metaphorically.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.”
Giving up something that’s normally okay can make sense.
Getting back to “magic,” I enjoy watching card tricks and other stage magic.
It doesn’t bother me, since I understand that it’s essentially an application of physical skills and applied psychology.
Houdini’s famous escapes are a related form of entertainment. His efforts to debunk spiritualists may be less famous, and that’s yet another topic. Or nearly so.1
I’ll be talking about a British mentalist and an American — something else — in a bit.
Entertainers who are mentalists give the impression that they’re reading minds and otherwise employing supernatural powers.
As long as folks realize that it’s entertainment, I don’t see a problem with it.
When someone uses the same skills to convince others that they’re mediums or psychics? That’s a problem.
It’s not that I think such things don’t work.
Then there’s Saul’s world-class lapse in judgment, breaking his own law against necromancy and divination.
Even assuming that the woman in Endor used only ordinary methods, Saul was breaking his own rules. He really should have known better.
“David Meade death threats in end-of-world trolling”
Ciaran Dunbar, BBC News (September 25, 2017)
“Having the same name as a man who predicted the world would end on Saturday – last Saturday – has caused County Down mentalist David Meade no end of grief – even five death threats.
“American conspiracy theorist David Meade claimed that Planet Nibiru would collide with Earth on 23 September.
“David Meade, from Rathfriland, County Down, has been forced to dissociate himself from the claims.
“Newspapers have incorrectly linked the claim to him on social media….”
David Meade, the British entertainer, wants to clear up this misunderstanding. He also seems quite confident that the world will not end next month.
This “HEARD THE WORLD IS ENDING?” poster was on the British Mr. Meade’s Twitter account, starting Sunday. His refund offer is repeated on his website.2
“…’…when people were arriving on my site they were seeing things like “mentalist”, “mind reader”.
“‘That probably sounds like the sort of person that would predict the end of the world,’ he confessed.
“‘The last two weeks have been extraordinary and actually it’s verging on worrying this morning.’…
“…’Sixty percent of my work is in the United States, it is deeply worrying to think that this nonsense could be there online and could affect my business,’ he said.
“He has now received five death threats but said that he is not taking the threats seriously….”
(Ciaran Dunbar, BBC News)
I think “nonsense” is a good description of the American Mr. Meade’s contribution to my country’s chatter.
Nonsense can be entertaining, like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem.
Even that sort of nonsense stops being fun, I suspect, when it becomes completely random. Noam Chomsky’s Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, is a famous example.
Maybe “famous” isn’t the best word. Statisticians and literature buffs who study grammatically correct semantic nonsense know about it, though.
David Meade — the American doomsayer — may be keeping his options open. Reading between the lines of a Toronto Sun piece, I suspect he’ll say that he expected whatever has happened when he wants more publicity. Or maybe he really believes his story.
One reason I read BBC News is that they’re generally pretty good at separating fact from opinion. (September 1, 2017)
“…He describes himself as a ‘Christian numerologist’, whose apocalyptic theory is based on a ‘numeric code’ he said he found in the Bible….
“…Mainstream Christian groups have dismissed his theories and have denied that Christians believed them….
“…He said Nasa discovered Planet X in the 1980s and that preparations for it striking – or closely passing – Earth were well under way in both the US and in Russia.”
(Ciaran Dunbar, BBC News)
I’m not sure which “mainstream Christian groups” Ciaran Dunbar asked about this week’s featured conspiracy theorist.
I probably wouldn’t say that Christians don’t believe such nonsense. But as a Catholic living in America, I’m not sure how “mainstream” I am.
I’ve also known Christians with very odd notions. ‘Doomsayer’ Meade’s weird mix of numerology and Bible trivia reminds me of wannabe prophets of my youth.
I assume they were as Christian as they claimed. I’m certain that they were as wildly wrong as today’s End Times prognosticators.
About ‘Doomsayer’ Meade and numerology, maybe he honestly thinks he found his code in the Bible. But sincerity doesn’t guarantee accuracy.
Folks have associated numbers with non-numeric symbolism for a very long time. I think it’s interesting, and pretty much in the same category as astrology.3
Numbers meaning something is “Biblical” — in the sense that books like Revelation use numbers a lot. That doesn’t make numerology “Biblical.” I’ll get back to that.
He didn’t make up Nibiru, though.
My culture is developing a rich folklore about that imaginary planet.
The name comes from an Akkadian word meaning “crossing” or “point of transition,” like river crossings or ferry boats.
Babylonian astronomers used the same word for “equinox” and equinox-related astronomical objects.
Fast-forward a few millennia.
A Russian author started saying that space aliens from the planet Nibiru founded Sumerian civilization.
A Wisconsin woman says she’d been in touch with them, or maybe other aliens. Her story is that they’re warning us that Nibiru will get too close to Earth pretty soon.
Details, including when the cataclysm is predicted, have varied. The Russian author says the doomsday stuff wasn’t his idea, which is likely enough. He was more into the ‘ancient astronaut’ thing.4
None of which has much to do with being Christian. But like I said, I’ve known Christians with odd notions.
“New Wrinkles in the Search for ‘Planet X’”
Kelly Beatty, Sky and Telescope (June 21, 2017)
“Are astronomers being misled by the quirky alignment of orbits that they’re finding in the distant Kuiper Belt?
“Even as the count of known planets around other stars continues to climb, a small group of observational astronomers and dynamicists are fixated on something much closer to home: tantalizing clues that a super-Earth-size planet lurks undiscovered somewhere beyond the Kuiper Belt in our own solar system.
“Some have dubbed it ‘Planet X,’ others ‘Planet 9,’ and right now observing teams are using some of the world’s largest telescopes in a race to track it down. One big problem is that they’re not sure where to look — or if it even exists….”
This “Planet X” or “Planet 9” isn’t Nibiru.
This is a hypothetical large planet in the outer Solar System. Scientists aren’t certain that it’s there, but they have math that says it could be.
Again, Nibiru is an Akkadian word for “crossing.” It’s been applied to something in 20th-century folklore and mythology.
If we find “Planet 9,” maybe we’ll give it the Nibiru moniker. There’d be a certain entertainment value in that. But since “Nibiru” isn’t the name of an ancient mythology’s deity, it wouldn’t fit our cultural precedents.
I’ll get back to our search for “Planet 9,” after a little background on planets we’ve known about for millennia and names.
We can see five Solar planets from the one we live on. That was enough to get us started with serious study of the universe.
The objects we call planets, plus Earth’s sun and moon, were the Seven Luminaries.
What set those seven objects apart is that they move around in our sky. Fast enough for us to notice, anyway.
The “fixed” stars shift position, too, which we’d probably have noticed if an average human lifespan was several powers of ten longer than it is.
Their work eventually led to current Western astronomy.
Ancient Romans named planets after their deities, or maybe vice versa.
They probably picked up the habit from the Greeks and Babylonians. Europeans adopted the Roman custom, and we’re still likely to give new planets names from someone’s mythology.
We assigned symbolic values to planets, too. European alchemists associated the sun with gold, the moon with silver, and so on through Jupiter and Saturn: tin and lead for those two. Astrologers did pretty much the same thing.5
Hans Lippershey developed the first telescope we know of in 1608.
Galileo repurposed the Dutch perspective glass for astronomical observation, along with quite a few other folks. (June 2, 2017)
Who ‘invented’ statistics and when it happened depends partly on how you use the term. We’ve been recording and organizing data for millennia, mostly for inventories and censuses. Or should that be censi?
The word goes back to 1749, when Gottfried Achenwall took Latin and Italian words, getting Statistik:”science of the state.”
Other sorts of numeric analysis came at other times. Probability theory goes back at least to Al-Kindi’s cryptography work and frequency analysis in the 800s.
Gerolamo Cardano, Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal’s letters to each other discussed how to divvy up winnings after an interrupted gambling session. Christiaan Huygens tied that work together in his 1657 “On Reasoning in Games of Chance” treatise.
Jacob Bernoulli and Abraham de Moivre expanded probability theory’s math in the early 1700s. A great many other folks did more work, giving us the current statistical toolkit.
That sort of thing helped us realize that astrology didn’t work the way we felt it did, and I said that earlier.6
But it’s not.
We can see Uranus in Earth’s sky.
Folks who first noticed Uranus didn’t think of it as a planet, most likely because it’s so dim and slow-moving.
Hipparchos recorded seeing Uranus in 128 BC. Probably. Something with about the right brightness and position is in his star catalog.
Ptolemy used the Hipparchos catalog in his “Almagest.” The Almagest described a universe of nested spheres with Earth in the center. That model was a close-enough match to observations for quite a while. (December 2, 2016)
John Flamsteed spotted Uranus six times or more in 1690. He cataloged it as 34 Tauri. Pierre Charles Le Monnier observed and recorded it too, at least a dozen times, between 1750 and 1769.
Sir William Herschel used his town house garden in Bath, Somerset, for sky-watching. We didn’t have street lighting then, so astronomers could work in their back yards.
He recorded a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet” near ζ Tauri in 1781. It had moved slightly when he looked again, a few days later, so he reported it as a comet. His report left the possibility that it was a planet open.
Uranus had completed almost a full orbit by 1847. Astronomers had been tracking its position. They noticed that it wasn’t moving according to Newton’s law of gravitation.
There were various possible explanations. Maybe Newton’s law of gravitation didn’t work the way they expected. That didn’t seem likely, since it had been standing up to other observations for about a century.
Another, more likely, explanation was that gravity from something big and previously-unknown was farther out.
Who worked out the math first, showing where that ‘planet X’ should be, depends on who’s talking. The Royal Society gave Urbain Le Verrier credit.
This was a big deal, since it was the first time astronomers had used math to figure out where something was — and found it.
Galle arguably discovered Neptune, since he correctly identified it. But he wasn’t the first to see the planet.
The U.S. Naval Observatory’s Sears C. Walker, looking through historical records, found more recorded observations.
Jérôme Lalande saw it in 1795.
John Herschel spotted the planet in 1830. He thought it was a star. Galileo had done the same thing in 1612 and 1613.
The records Walker found, particularly those made by Lalande’s staff, helped pin down Neptune’s orbit. Like Uranus, the orbit followed Newton’s law of gravitation: but not quite.
There was probably something else out there.
Something big enough to affect Neptune’s orbit.
We knew roughly where to look; which quite a few astronomers did, staring in 1909.
Percival Lowell’s survey caught two faint images of Pluto in 1915, but he didn’t recognize what they were.
The Lowell Observatory eventually resumed his work. The director gave a new guy, Clyde Tombaugh, the job of finding “Planet X.”
Tombaugh’s job was looking at pairs of photos, one after the other, in a blink comparator. In 1930, after a great many blinks, he found what might be a moving object on photographic plates made January 23 and 29 of that year.
More observations gave enough data for Lowell Observatory to announce their discovery of another planet. That was in March of 1930.7
An eleven-year-old schoolgirl’s name for the object, Pluto, became official a few months later. The Disney character got the same name in 1931.
The New Horizons probe left Earth in 2006, passed Pluto in 2015. It is currently heading for Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69.
Scientists are still analyzing data sent back from New Horizons’s Pluto flyby. We’re calling Pluto a dwarf planet, and are finding more like it in the Kuiper belt.
Analysis of the known outer Solar System bodies shows that some of the orbits aren’t nearly as random as they might be.
There might be another big planet out there. Or maybe not. But we’ve learned a bit about probability in the last few centuries, and the math checks out pretty well.
If Planet 9/Planet X is out there, it’ll be a planet. A big one.
(From Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Institution of Washington, via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(Orbits of some outer Solar System objects, and proposed orbit of Planet 9. It’s called Planet X in this 2016 chart.)
“Orbital Path Podcast: In Search of Planet 9”
Michelle Thaller, podcast, Sky and Telescope (November 28, 2016)
“Astronomers are debating the existence of ‘Planet 9,’ a big planet beyond the orbits of Pluto and Neptune. Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with planetary scientists Scott Shepard and Mike Brown about if and when we’ll discover it.
“One of my favorite topics of the last decade has been the amazing richness and diversity of planets in our galaxy; planets around other stars, that is. The first planet outside our solar system was found a little over 20 years ago, and today we have over 3,400 confirmed exoplanets.
“Closer to home, we have bragged that we have now visited all the planets of our solar system. But have we? It often surprises people that we may have a long way to go before our own solar system is fully explored, or even discovered….”
My guess is that we’ll still be charting objects in the outer Solar System long after interstellar probes begin visiting nearby stars.8
By then we’ll probably have about as good an idea of what we’ll find as oceanographers do today, while mapping and exploring Earth’s ocean floor.
We’ve got a pretty good start already. Ernst Öpik said that long-period comets could come from a cloud orbiting in the Solar System’s borderlands. That was in 1932.
Jan Oort raised the same idea in 1950, and the “Oort cloud” name caught on.
We still haven’t found the Oort cloud’s outer fringe. It may merge into similar ‘clouds’ around our stellar neighbors. Or maybe not.
We’re getting a much better picture of the cloud’s inner regions. The last I heard, definitions for the Kuiper belt and scattered disc overlap. They’re both an assortment of very cold minor planets.
The Kuiper belt is roughly doughnut-shaped. So is the scattered disk, except those orbits go even farther away from the ecliptic.
They’re like the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Except stuff there is mostly rock and metal. What we’re finding in the Oort cloud is almost certainly stuff that’d melt or boil this far in; like methane, ammonia and water.
But let’s say I didn’t, and would feel better if we’d known everything there is to know when Sumu-abum was running Babylon.
My preferences wouldn’t change reality.
Since I’m a Christian and a Catholic, I think God’s God and I’m not.
I’m quite happy with the arrangement. (November 18, 2016)
“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
How I see the Bible, science, and what we’ve learned in the last two dozen or so centuries, may not be “Biblical” by creation science standards.
That’s hardly surprising. Fundamentalists cooked up their alternative to the real thing in the 1960s. Their notion of “Biblical” isn’t mine. (March 31, 2017)
Some Catholics seem as fervently dedicated to Ussher’s assumptions as their Calvinist counterparts. I’m not sure why.
I figure what the Church said in 1277 still makes sense. If someone disagrees with God about how the universe works, God wins the argument. (December 16, 2016)
I don’t know who made the first fizzled prediction of when Jesus would come back. We’ve been having false alarms for about two millennia now.
My favorite, in terms of being imaginative, is Swedenborg’s. (August 13, 2017)
I see a funny side to America’s perennial End Times prognostication.
But I also realize that some folks actually believe them. Maybe it’s the same set who jump on allegedly-scientific portents of doom, maybe not. (April 9, 2017)
I’m a Christian, so I believe what Jesus said. He’ll be back. I’m a Catholic, so I realize that Jesus didn’t know the timetable and that we should be ready whenever it is. (Matthew 24:36–44, Matthew 25:13, Mark 13:32–37)
That’s good enough for me.
Folks can and have taken bits from the Bible and warped them around assorted assumptions. Revelation gives them a rich “Biblical” starting point.
“…it abounds in unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism, which at best appears unusual to the modern reader….”
(Revelation, Introduction, NAB)
Again, I take the Bible very seriously. Folks who apply their own assumptions to what they find, not so much. The effect they occasionally have on others can be a serious matter, and that’s yet again another topic.
Science news reported cyanogen in Halley’s comet before its 1910 appearance.
Camille Flammarion may or may not have actually said the cyanogen “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”
That claim appeared in another sort of news.
Whether he said it or not, folks selling gas masks did a booming business until we didn’t all die. (January 27, 2017)
We went through pretty much the same thing in the mid-1800s. The Great Comet of 1556 was supposed to come back and wreak chaos and destruction upon a helpless Earth. It didn’t show up. (December 11, 2016)
It’s been a while since “Nemesis,” the “death star,” made the rounds through journalism’s imaginative regions. The highly-hypothetical star arguably launched Sailor Moon’s second story arc, and that’s still another topic.9
More about faith and using our brains:
- “New Worlds: The Search Continues”
(June 2, 2017)
- “Knowledge: Opening the Gift”
(March 26, 2017)
- “Fast Radio Bursts”
(March 17, 2017)
- “KIC 8462852 and Strange Stars”
(December 2, 2016)
- “Numbers and Nero”
(November 8, 2016)
- David Meade
- @DavidMeadeLive “Speaker, author & Star of BBC’s Million$Mentalist//BBCs MakeBelieve//DavidMeadeProject//’TheGift//Crowd Control// Event Team”
- “Mesolithic Timelords: A monumental hunter-gatherer ‘calendar’ at Warren Field, Scotland”
Carly Hilts, Current Archaeology (September 5, 2013)