Why Some People Thought the World Might End on March 10, 1982

chloe effron / istock
chloe effron / istock / chloe effron / istock

On March 10, 1982, a certain facet of people were bracing for a series of global disasters—earthquakes, tidal waves, and violent storms—that they believed would be caused by an alignment of all nine planets. The alignment was real, but the fear of a natural disaster takeover wasn’t coming from NASA or world governments. It had all come from 1974 bestseller called The Jupiter Effect.

Penned by British astrophysicist and science writer John Gribbin along with astronomer Stephen Plagemann, The Jupiter Effect predicted utter devastation. Astronomers had long known about the rare planetary alignment set to occur around that date, but the event wasn’t expected to have much of an effect on Earth. After all, the same thing had occurred every 179 years (and would continue to do so) and no catastrophic events had happened in the past. Still, Gribbin and Plagemann asserted that when all the planets lined up on one side of the Sun (“lined up” being a generous phrasing; the planets would be within a 95 degree arc from the Sun), the gravitational pull would trigger sunspots, solar winds, and an increase in Earth’s rotation that would lead to natural catastrophes, the most ruinous of which would be a Los Angeles-leveling earthquake along the San Andreas fault.

While The Jupiter Effect was widely covered in the media, the scientific community largely dismissed the theory. Edward Upton of the Griffith Observatory reportedly called it the "Great Earthquake Hoax" and wrote in Redlands Daily Facts: “The combined chain, as a basis for predicting earthquakes, has the same credibility as a reading of tea leaves." Days ahead of the supposed event, Nigel Henbest of New Scientist wrote: “Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Jupiter Effect has escaped the control of its creators, and now stalks the Earth terrorising the innocent and the illiterate.” Henbest went on to debunk the entire thing, citing a number of scientific holes in the theory. And the night before the alleged worldwide disasters were to occur, a “Planets of Doom” show at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado presented proof that the conjecture was a bunch of hooey.

By then, even Gribbin and Plagemann had walked their theory back, releasing The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, which didn’t exactly admit defeat but rather revised the terms to make it seem like they’d sort of gotten it right. Because the events were supposed to occur within a five-year window, Gribbin and Plagemann said the event had actually already happened—in 1980—and was to blame for the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Needless to say, March 10 came and went without any destruction or even much of a storm. While the tides were indeed a bit higher that day, no natural disasters occurred. But it’s easy, in some ways, to see how The Jupiter Effect took hold: nothing can propel a doomsday scenario like the promise of scientific proof provided by legitimate astronomers. Looking back, it’s hard to say how much the pair believed in their own estimations at the time, but by 1999 Gribbin himself had renounced the theory. In his The Little Book of Science, he wrote: “I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”