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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Do you believe in ______?

When someone asks you whether you believe in god, spirits, auras, or spiritual energy, you should reply by asking them to define exactly what they mean by those words. If you do, what you will typically find is that they respond by unpacking the concept into even more nebulous terms and concepts that themselves require definitions. Essentially, what you find is that they are using the word as a place holder for something that they are unable to describe.

The most basic function of words is to label something that you understand, and can therefor describe. If you ask me whether I think it’s going to rain tomorrow, I know what you mean by rain, because I have seen it before, and I can know to a satisfactory degree of certainty that we share the same definition: little droplets of water falling from the sky. However, if for some reason I am unaware of the existence of rain, you will have very little trouble describing what you mean: little droplets of water falling from the sky. Words pertaining to spiritual concepts, however, are used as place holders for things that people have agreed exist, but cannot describe-using unambiguous language that anyone could extract the same basic meaning from. A lack of clear definitions like this strongly suggests that a person is just dispensing pseudo-profundities. In fact, if they fail to elucidate, we are unable to evaluate whether what they are saying has any root in reality. In order for a claim to be intelligible, it must be empirically actionable. In other words, it has to be testable, either by directly measuring or observing the thing itself, or by using the claim as a model with which to make predictions (because if the claim were true, it would have real world implications that themselves could be directly observed).

One possible criticism is that I’m attacking people’s right to use metaphorical language. Touché, I am. I am not however, attacking it in general. That would entail a rejection of all linguistic art, which is useful for evoking and describing ineffable human emotions that simply cannot be described literally (at least not without bringing up physiological aspects of the human brain, which defeats the purpose). That would be foolish. What I am attacking is the use of fuzzy, metaphorical language specifically in discussions where people are attempting to describe some alleged feature of reality.

When someone asks you whether you believe in spiritual energy, they are really begging the question, “what is spiritual energy?”. If in their attempt to describe it, they resort to an argument from ignorance, invoking a host of new nebulous things that lack definitions, they have only compounded the problem. You can’t possibly answer their question, because it is fundamentally vague and unintelligible, and therefor incapable of being stated more clearly. They may sit there with a sage look on their face, expecting you to do the mental contortion required to try and make some sort of sense out of what they’ve just said, but the onus is not on you to do that. The onus is on them to make sense in the first place.