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The Straight Dope 

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About 200 years ago Sir Edmund Halley discovered an anomaly in space around the stars of the Pleiades. A hundred years later Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel confirmed Halley's findings. In 1961 Paul Otto Hesse defined and measured this anomaly. It's an energy ring of incredible size, 760 thousand billion miles wide, and is due to intersect the earth just about any minute now. He also calculated that this is part of a 25,000-year-long cycle that our solar system goes through.

It's expected that once we're into the Photon Belt, electricity won't function and there will be three to five days of total darkness. All indigenous cultures and religions prophesy three days of darkness to mark the "end times."

Scientists discussing the Photon Belt have been fired, moved, or denied access to the equipment used to study it. If you cast around on, say, the Internet for information, folks with CIA or NSA credentials likely will show up and say it would be in the best interest of your family if you gave up the quest.

So my question is, what can you tell us about the Photon Belt? Any hard data?--N. A., Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Used to be when I got letters like this, they were in teeny handwriting that filled both sides of the page, and enclosed were little photocopied scraps and a mailing list that included the New York Times and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Today every weird belief has its own Web site, and when you call it up it says they've had 75 million hits since last Tuesday. I'm not saying the crazies have gotten any crazier, but they have definitely reached the mass market. Whatsamatta with all you guys, nothing good on TV?

The "photon belt" has been a hot topic in New Age circles since 1991, when a story about it appeared in Australia's Nexus magazine. In 1994 it received a book-length treatment in You Are Becoming a Galactic Human by Virginia Essene and Sheldon Nidle. Essene and Nidle claimed to be "channeling" members of the "Sirian Council," beings from a distant planet.

Exactly when we're going to enter the photon belt is a matter of debate. Originally it was thought that the arrival of the belt would lead to a vast transformation of society starting in 1992. So what did we get instead? Bill Clinton. Not to be critical in any way, but I for one would have expected something a little grander than a hike in the minimum wage.

Now the target date is May 5, 1997, though there will be a long buildup. "Apparently, by the end of Summer [1996]," one newsletter notes, "most of us will be having conversations with Masters, the spiritual hierarchy, and space commanders of all kinds." Don't know about you, but all I'm seeing is more Bill Clinton. As a fallback, some New Agers are saying the photon belt won't get here until 2011.

The question is not whether it's nuts to believe in the photon belt. Of course it's nuts. How many great scientific discoveries do you know of that were channeled from aliens? For the record, however, I feel obliged to say that

(1) No photon belt or other such region of increased energy has been discovered. Photons in any case are merely particles of electromagnetic energy, which we commonly experience as light. Upon exposure to excess photons the most common transformation of your being is sunburn.

(2) There's no "anomaly" near the Pleiades star cluster. The Pleiades are surrounded by a nebula, or gas cloud. This cloud is composed not of photons but of dust and hydrogen gas.

(3) The earth isn't heading toward the Pleiades but away from them. In the 1850s it was conjectured that the earth orbited the Pleiades, but this has long since been discredited.

(4) Paul Otto Hesse is unknown to astronomers. Someone dug up a reference to a 1986 book by him in German whose title translates as "Judgment Day: A Book to Mankind That Speaks of Things to Come." Nuff said.

What puzzled me was where the photon-belt story came from. The 1991 Nexus article was based on a 1981 article in an Australian UFO mag. I spoke to Colin Norris, head of the Australian UFO society that publishes the magazine, and he said it was coauthored by a "middle-aged mother" and a college undergraduate. Norris denied it was a prank, but it seems clear these folks didn't have detailed technical knowledge, unless of course they were on the horn with the guys from Sirius.

So it's a crock. But if you don't think so you'd better pick up five days' worth of candles by May 5.

--CECIL ADAMS

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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