Some new age channellers state that, sometime in the not too distant future, the Earth will come into contact with something that they call the “photon band”, or “photon belt.” When this happens, they say, our planet will be rained with “pure energy.” Those who have cleansed their “lightbodies” will be ready to be whisked away to heaven, and those who haven’t will perish/be left on earth to continue spiritual growth/have their souls cleansed.
It’s important to note that there have been a number of failed predictions made as to the date of Earth’s collision with the photon belt. Dates given so far have been 1992, 1997, 2011, and 2012. Each has come to pass, leaving behind a slew of disappointed crackpots. Each time they slink away, make up an excuse for why nothing happened, and pull another date out of thin air. For example, after their forecast failed in 1997, many of them began repeating, verbatim, this hilariously illiterate and nonsensical ad hoc rationalization: “Earth was put into special hole in it [sic] that was drilled by a coherent bow wave of gamma particles from a nova that was first observed by astronomers in 1987.” Then, undeterred, they set their sights on 2012.
While the photon belt is a part of fuzzy new age philosophy, there are a few explicit claims that can be put to the test.
1. According to new age sources, the photon belt was discovered in 1961 by satellites. They’re re-writing history here. Plenty of space related things happened that year (for instance, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space), but none of them had anything to do with a “photon belt”. Unless—cue sinister sounding orchestral hits—the government covered it all up…
2. They claim that the belt encircles the Pleiades. This is also false, as no anomaly of the “photon belt” variety has been discovered near the Pleiades. The Pleiades star cluster is located within an interstellar cloud of gas, plasma, and dust, which appears streaky due to the alignment of its particles with the magnetic fields between the stars in the cluster. Technically, it’s a reflection nebula called the the Merope Nebula, and was discovered in 1859, not 1961. There’s nothing remotely belt-like about it, and there’s certainly no reason to think that it has magical powers.
3. They claim that our sun orbits the Pleiades every 26,000 years, reaching the mid-point of the belt every 12,500 years. Our sun doesn’t orbit the Pleiades. Moreover, we’re actually moving away from them. According to the Hubble telescope’s fine guidance sensors, we’re currently about 424 light years away.
No photon belt has been discovered, but is it theoretically possible for one to exist? Sort of, but it would take some pretty special circumstances. Photons travel in straight lines, and the only thing that could make them form anything close to a belt would be a black hole. Spacetime is curved around black holes, which, to an observer, causes light rays to bend around them near their event horizon, forming a photon sphere—the closest thing to a photon belt that has the privilege of existing. What would happen if we were to come into contact with one? Would “pure energy” rain down from the heavens, cleansing our souls? Well, the pure energy thing isn’t even worth considering, because the way they are using the word energy is scientifically meaningless. As the Debunkatron himself pointed out in Skeptoid podcast #1, anytime somebody uses the word energy to mean anything other than “work potential”, they are misusing it, and co-opting it for their own vague and ambiguous meaning. In the physical sciences, energy is simply a computable quantity that can be associated with any system, used to denote something’s potential to do work. Energy isn’t a substance, any more than “volume” or “mass” are substances, so to speak of “pure” energy makes no sense–it’s not even wrong. As for the idea of our souls being cleansed…this presupposes that we have souls to be cleansed, but the soul has never been isolated or measured, nor has its existence been inferred through science. The human brain is sufficiently complex to generate consciousness, end of story. Nevertheless, if we were to actually come into contact with a photon sphere a spiritual awakening would be the last thing on our mind. That is, unless you think the gruesome fate of “spaghettification” (the stretching of objects into long thin shapes in a very strong gravitational field such as a black hole) is conducive to that sort of thing. I guess I’ll concede that it would stretch your brain, which isn’t that far off from “expanding your mind.”
In conclusion, the photon belt seems to be a new-age spin on the rapture myth. Evidently, somebody wasn’t satisfied with the regular, vanilla rapture, and decided to dress it up a bit. The resulting convolution of half-baked ideas has the typical narrative that is common to all rapture myths (where a chosen few leave behind the great unwashed masses to get sucked up into a paradisiacal realm), but is steeped in sci-fi technobabble, dressed in new age clothes, and harder to suspend disbelief for than ever before. It’s easy prey, and probably a harmless bit of pseudoscience (if there is such a thing), but it presents us with an excellent opportunity to hone our skepticism.