The Photon Belt.

Some new age channellers state that, sometime in the not too distant future, the Earth will come into contact with something that they call the “photon band”, or “photon belt.” When this happens, they say, our planet will be rained with “pure energy”. Those who have cleansed their “lightbodies” will be ready to be whisked away to heaven, and those who haven’t will perish/be left on earth to continue spiritual growth/have their souls cleansed to prepare them for the next arrival of the photon belt.


It’s important to note that there have been a number of failed predictions that have been made as to the date of Earth’s collision with the photon belt. Dates given so far have been 1992, 1997, 2011, and 2012. Each has come to pass, leaving behind a slew of disappointed crackpots. Each time they slink away, make up an excuse for why nothing happened, and pull another date out of thin air. After their forecast failed in 1997, they began repeating, verbatim, this hilariously illiterate and nonsensical ad hoc rationalization:  “Earth was put into special hole in it that was drilled by a coherent bow wave of gamma particles from a nova that was first observed by astronomers in 1987″. Then, undeterred, they set their sites on 2012.


While the photon belt is a part of fuzzy new age philosophy, there are a few explicit claims that can be put to the test.


1.    According to new age sources, the photon belt was discovered in 1961 by satellites. They’re re-writing history here. Plenty of space related things happened that year (for instance, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person to travel into space), but none of them had anything to do with a “photon belt”. Unless–cue sinister sounding orchestral hits–the government has covered it all up…


2.    They claim that the belt encircles the Pleiades. This is also false, as no anomaly of the “photon belt” variety has been discovered near the Pleiades. The Pleiades star cluster is located within an interstellar cloud of gas, plasma, and dust, which appears streaky due to the alignment of its particles with the magnetic fields between stars. There’s nothing belt-like about it, and there’s certainly no more reason to think that it has magical powers than there is to think that any other interstellar cloud does.


3.    They claim that our sun orbits the Pleiades every 26,000 years, reaching the mid-point of the belt every 12,500 years. Our sun doesn’t orbit the Pleiades. Moreover, we’re actually moving away from them. According to the Hubble telescope’s fine guidance sensors, we’re currently about 424 light years away.


No photon belt has been discovered, but is it theoretically possible for one to exist? Sort of, but it would take some pretty special circumstances. Photons travel in straight lines, and the only thing that could make them form anything close to a belt would be a black hole. Light rays are forced to bend around black holes near their event horizon, forming a photon sphere­–the closest thing to a photon belt that has the privilege of existing. What would happen if we were to come into contact with one? Would “pure energy” rain down from the heavens, cleansing our souls? Well, the pure energy thing isn’t even worth considering, because the way they are using the word energy is scientifically meaningless. As the Debunkatron himself pointed out in Skeptoid podcast #1, anytime somebody uses the word energy to mean anything other than “work potential”, they are misusing it, and co-opting it for their own vague and ambiguous meaning. In the physical sciences, energy is simply a computable quantity that can be associated with any system, used to denote something’s potential to do work. Energy isn’t a substance, any more than “volume” or “mass” are substances, so to speak of “pure” energy makes no sense, it’s not even wrong. As for the idea of our souls being cleansed…this presupposes that we have souls to be cleansed, but the soul has never been isolated or measured, nor has its existence been inferred through science. The human brain is sufficiently complex to generate consciousness, end of story. If we were to actually come into contact with a photon sphere a spiritual awakening would be the last thing on our mind. That is, unless you think the gruesome fate of “spaghettification” (the stretching of objects into long thin shapes in a very strong gravitational field such as a black hole) is conducive to that sort of thing. I guess I’ll concede that it would stretch your brain, which isn’t that far off from “expanding your mind.”


In conclusion, the photon belt seems to be some sort of demented, new-age spin on the rapture myth. Evidently, somebody (who probably smelled strongly of patchouli oil) wasn’t satisfied with the regular, vanilla, christian rapture, and decided – perhaps after a nip of ayahuasca – to sex it up a bit. The resulting convolution of half-baked ideas has the typical narrative that is common to all rapture myths (where a chosen few leave behind the great unwashed masses to get sucked up into a paradisiacal realm), but is steeped in sci-fi technobabble, dressed in new age clothes, and harder to suspend disbelief for than ever before. I’ll confess that it is terribly easy prey, and probably a harmless bit of pseudoscience (if there is such a thing), but it presents us with an excellent opportunity to hone our skepticism.






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The end is nigh!

Whatever you do, don’t try to talk sense into a doomsday junky. They are fiercely protective of their belief in the apocalypse. Strangely enough though, they don’t seem to be picky about the precise details. Just as a conspiracy theorist will entertain almost any conspiracy theory (just as long as it isn’t the official story) a hardcore doomsday junkie will latch on to almost any doomsday theory. No matter how weak the evidence is, they will hang on the every word of the most inane doomsayers. This points to a profound desire to believe that the world is going to end. Interestingly, this desire isn’t strictly a feature of crazy doomsday conspiracists. Apocalipticism may be more pronounced in some, but it is nearly ubiquitous. There’s something fascinating, even appealing, about the end of the world.

Why would anyone enjoy contemplating something so horrible? There are many possible psychological explanations. Perhaps we draw comfort from nailing down the date and circumstances of our deaths, making them predictable and therefor less scary. Maybe it provides validation for those who have always had a strong sense of fatalism, giving them something to blame for their latent anxiety. Another possibility is that our inherent narcissism (which places us at the center of the narrative and can’t imagine a world without us) is comforted by the thought of the world ending with us. The thought of it continuing on without us is unbearable, like getting kicked out of a party with the knowledge that it will go on without you. Also, conspiratorial thinking, which is nearly always associated with belief in the apocalypse, has a wonderful way of making one feel special. The sense that you posses knowledge that others do not, and that you alone were clever enough to connect the dots, makes you feel uncommonly intelligent. Enlightened above all others, you can sit back and smirk as “sheeple” unwittingly go about their lives as if nothing is going to happen.

Even if you aren’t obsessed with the apocalypse, it still strikes a nerve. When the next doomsday craze comes along, the shear repetition of doomsday related discourse can’t help but plant a seed of paranoia. There’s no shame in this, as long as you use it as an incentive to educate yourself as to what the facts actually are behind the torrent of nonsense. Thankfully, for whatever reason a person believes that the end is nigh, the preponderance of the evidence points to them being wrong.
The last great doomsday scare was the “Mayan apocalypse.” Various authors said that the Maya predicted that there would be some kind of important, world-wide event on December 21st, 2012. According to some of them, the fact that the long count calendar was going to reach a round number meant that some sort of spiritual awakening would occur, according to others, the long count calendar was going to end, bringing the end of the world. Well, 2012 has come and gone, and neither happened. It’s obvious why. Like every doomsday, the Mayan Apocalypse was a complete fabrication.

Even if the Maya had been able to forecast thousands of years in the future, we had no reason to think anything would happen on December 21st, 2012, because the Mayans didn’t think the world was going to end on that date. Mayan writings refer to dates as late as 4772, so clearly they thought that the world would still be around then. People ignored this, invoking pseudosciences like astrology and numerology to bolster their claim. For the 2012 apocalypse, they even attempted to resurrect planet X (which would already have been visible to the naked eye long before December 21st if it had truly been coming to get us).
By the far the most common reason people gave for thinking the world was going to end was that they believed the Mayan calendar was coming to an end. This reasoning is similar to that used by those who believed that digital calendars rolling over to zero on the millennium would somehow spark technological armageddon. It’s like thinking that you’re car is going to explode once the odometer clicks over to some number that you’ve arbitrarily attached significance to. However, we haven’t even reached the end of the current “baktun” cycle, for that we have to wait for the year 4772. None of that matters though, because the Mayans actually considered reaching the end of the cycle something to celebrate!

Whether or not ancient people believed that the world would end on a predetermined date, I think the question that we should actually be asking is, who cares? There would be no reason for concern, even if the Maya had predicted the world was going to end today. While interesting, it would just be another pre-scientific superstition. We’re talking about a culture that practiced ritual bloodletting and human sacrifices. Yes, for such an ancient culture they had advanced astronomy, but our modern astronomy has reached a level of sophistication they couldn’t have comprehended. To make astrophysical statements about the world today, you don’t reference ancient cultures like the Mayans, you reference modern science. If something was going to happen, we would be the ones predicting it, not them.

“Y’all should know by now that if the World were going to end for any cosmic reason, I’d tell you how and I’d tell you when.” -Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter