Good thing President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Now we can all go back to worrying about an even greater threat than the possibility that the President is a Kenyan double agent: the much buzzed-about reports that the world is going to end in 2012.
It was the Mayans — or maybe the Romans or the Greeks or the Sumerians — who called the shot this time, evidently on a day Nostradamus phoned in sick. Apparently, a rogue planet named Nibiru (which frankly sounds more like a new Honda than a new world) is headed our way, with a cosmic crack-up set for next year. No matter who's behind the current prediction, there are enough people ready to spread and believe in this kind of end-of-the-world hooey that you have to wonder if the earth isn't starting to take things personally. (PHOTOS: an illustrated history of the planet Earth.)
Regrettably, the Nibiru yarn got a boost in recent days with the very real announcement that an alignment of several of the very real planets will be taking place this month, offering a fleeting treat for stargazers willing to get up before sunrise and take a look. Even this genuine cosmic phenomenon, however, may be a bit less than it appears.
Beginning today and lasting for a few weeks, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be visible in the early morning sky, aligned roughly along the ecliptic — or the path the sun travels throughout the day. Uranus and Neptune, much fainter but there all the same, should be visible through binoculars. What gives the end-of-the-worlders shivers is that just such a configuration is supposed to occur on Dec. 21, 2012, and contribute in some unspecified way to the demolition of the planet. But what makes that especially nonsensical — apart from the fact that it's, you know, nonsense — is that astronomers say no remotely similar alignment will occur next year.
"Nothing bad will happen to the earth in 2012," NASA explains patiently — if wearily — on its website. "Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012." (See pictures of Earth from space.)
What's more, even this month's apparent planetary lineup is as much illusion as fact. In the same way a group of people scattered randomly across the room can appear to be aligned depending on your angle of sight, so too can planets that seem tidily arranged from one point of view turn out to be nothing of the kind when you look at them another way. The same question of perspective is true for our familiar constellations. View Orion from Earth, and he's a hunter; view him from the other side of the galaxy, and he's a frog or a tree or just a jumble of stars.