But the damage had already been done. People rushed to purchase gas masks and “comet pills.” The New York Times reported that “terror occasioned by the near approach of Halley’s comet has seized hold of a large part of the population of Chicago.” Likewise, the Atlanta Constitution reported that people in Georgia were preparing safe rooms and covering even keyholes with paper. (One man, the paper said, had “armed himself with a gallon of whiskey” and requested that friends lower him to the bottom of a dry well, 40 feet deep.)
After Halley’s passed by the Earth in May, the Chicago Tribune announced (unnecessarily) “We’re Still Here.” Not everyone, however, was caught up in the apocalyptic frenzy. Rooftop “comet parties” were all the rage in cities throughout the United States.
8. Planets Align, Nothing Happens
In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann wrote a best-selling book, The Jupiter Effect, warning that in March 1982, an alignment of the major planets on the same side of the Sun would trigger a series of cosmic events - culminating in an earthquake along the San Andreas fault that would wipe out Los Angeles.
The book had an aura of credibility, since both authors were Cambridge-educated astrophysicists and Gribbin was an editor at the prestigious science magazine Nature. The scientists claimed that the combined gravitational force of the planets (especially dense ones, such as Jupiter and Saturn) would exert tidal forces on the Sun, causing an increase in sunspot activity that would douse the earth with high-speed particles, which, in turn, would cause abrupt changes to our planet’s rotation, leading to earthquakes.
Several scientists criticized The Jupiter Effect, saying its argument was based on a tissue-thin chain of suppositions. (Seismologist Charles Richter of Caltech called the thesis “pure astrology in disguise.”) Still, the book spooked people worldwide—thanks, in part, to the endorsement of other doomsayers such as Hal Lindsey (author of the best-selling 1970s book, The Late Great Planet Earth) who, in 1980, wrote that earthquakes across the planet would trigger meltdowns at nuclear power plants and would smash dams, causing massive floods.
As the dreaded date approached, panicked city residents bombarded Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory with phone calls. Elsewhere, the San Diego Vista Press reported on March 10, 1982: “We've literally had people ask, ‘Should I sell my house and move away?’ said Kevin Atkins of Gates Planetarium [in Denver, Colorado]… One small Christian sect in the Philippines is building a maze of padded cubicles and trying out padded suits in readiness for disasters.” Even Beijing’s newspaper, The People’s Daily, sought to assure readers that “there is no regular cause-effect relation at all between this astronomical phenomenon and natural disasters like earthquakes.”
One year after the non-doomsday event, Gribbin and Plagemann published The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered. It was also a best-seller.
9. The Y2K Panic
At least during this apocalyptic scare, there was someone to blame: Over the decades, computer programmers had used two, rather than four digits, to represent years. As such, computers would allegedly go haywire on January 1, 2000, since the dumb machines would not be able to make sense of the year “00”—and thus the dreaded “Y2K Bug” was born. Some pundits defended the programmers, noting that their actions had been a logical way to conserve precious computer memory and save money. Others were less flattering. “What led to the Y2K Bug was not arrogant indifference to the future,” wrote Brian Haynes in The Sciences Magazine. “On the contrary, it was an excess of modesty. (‘No way my code will still be running 30 years out.’) The programmers could not envision that their hurried hacks and kludges would become the next generation’s ‘legacy systems.’” A September 1999 poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that 9 percent of Americans believed Microsoft was hiding the solution to the problem.