The Galactic Core
Our solar system sits on the edge of a minor arm of the Milky Way galaxy. We are quite far out towards the edge, where nothing exciting happens. Even so, with the naked eye alone we can see about six thousand stars with the naked eye (if you don’t mind travelling to peep over the horizon!). With telescopes, that number jumps to hundreds of millions. Even this, though, is just a tiny portion of the galaxy, and the rest is shielded from our sight by the vast clouds of gas and dust which populate its spiral arms.
If we were to visit the galactic core, we would have a totally different view. The sheer number of stars packed into a much smaller volume would make our skies luminous to the point where we would need sunglasses at night. Since the average spacing between stars is only half a light year at the core, the average brightness would be much higher, with the brightest nearby stars casting shadows. All those stars blazing so near would increase the background radiation levels to a point where life would struggle to adapt, and the chances of a nearby giant star going supernova would be very high indeed. But worst of all would be the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy. Several hundred thousand times more massive than our Sun and tens of millions of kilometres in diameter, this beast voraciously consumes nearby stars and gas clouds. As they are drawn nearer by its awesome gravity, they get whipped up to higher and higher speeds, until tidal forces tear their very molecules apart. This process generates tremendous radiation in the Gamma and X-Ray wavelengths, making the entire region unbelievably toxic to life. If the Sun and the Earth were to pass through this region, nothing would survive.
Fortunately, this can never happen. We are bound in an orbit around the core at a distance of roughly twenty six thousand light years. We move with our neighbours around the core, not towards it. And even if something happened to disrupt our course and send us inwards, it would take millions of years to fall that far, and the effects would be very obvious to even the least educated observer thousands of years before we reached the centre. We do not see millions of stars with the naked eye, and we are still alive, therefore we are nowhere near the core, and would have millions of years warning if we were headed that way.
A less extreme idea is that we will pass through the galactic plane – sort of like moving from the galaxy’s northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere and briefly touching the equator. The obvious question is “So what?” but even allowing for some significance, one has to remember the sheer size of the galaxy. The earth takes a quarter of a billion years to make one full orbit of the galaxy, and about sixty four million years to bob back and forth from “North” to “South”. The actual crossing takes thousands of years, and any imagined effects wouldn’t be obvious from one year to the next.
So the idea of us passing through the centre of the galaxy in one specific year is laughable. But what about the more moderate ideas, that we will be in alignment with the galactic plane, or the centre of the galaxy, or neighbouring astral bodies?
It certainly is true that we are very close to an alignment with the core of the galaxy – but what exactly does that mean? Specifically, for a brief moment, the Earth, Sun and Galactic core will be positioned in a straight line. This happens every single year, though, on the December Solstice (December 21). The most perfect possible alignment happened back in 1998, so that each year the alignment becomes looser and less important.
Is there any significance to this? Try a quick experiment with me: Stand up straight, and turn to face North. Do you feel any different? Consider that you are now lined up vertically with the core of the Earth, AND with the earth’s axis, yet neither of these alignments have any obvious effect. You can repeat the experiment in any number of ways – lean against a fence so that you are directly lined up with the Sun, line up your bed with nearest power lines. Even if you believe that any of these objects have an effect on your life, you won’t notice any change at all based on the direction you happen to be facing. Similarly, having our solar system be in alignment with parts of the galaxy doesn’t have any significance. An alternative experiment is a little harder to try, but quite popular with tourists: Travel to the equator. Look for the big dotted line that somebody inevitably paints on the ground near a tourist attraction. Stand on one side of the line, then step over to the other side. Nothing happens! While the differences between North and South are real and obvious, they are not sudden – they happen gradually as you approach the crossing point, to the point where the exact position of the line becomes unimportant.
It should be obvious then that, to a scientist, none of these alignments or positioning mean anything whatsoever. There are no physical laws or phenomena which care about these things. Now, you can argue for non-physical effects (as in the case of astrologers and New Age practitioners), and that’s a matter of personal belief – science has no business arguing with that. But, as soon as you start predicting apocalypse or other physical effects, the argument falls flat. Whether you’re a scientist or not, it’s plain that there is no physical “real” significance to any of these arguments.