Faulty Nostradamus Rumor Shaking Up L.A.

Times Staff Writer

A man who has been dead more than 400 years has been giving the staffs at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory and Caltech’s seismology office a headache.

For months the observatory in Griffith Park and the university in Pasadena have been getting a steady stream of calls--some from the merely curious, some from the truly worried--asking if the 16th-Century French astrologer Nostradamus really predicted that in May this city will be hit by an earthquake caused by a “planetary alignment,” according to representatives of both institutions Tuesday.

Right up front, observatory program supervisor John E. Mosley said, none of this is true: No, there is not a planetary lineup this spring. No, planetary lineups don’t cause earthquakes. And, no, Nostradamus didn’t even predict an earthquake, he predicted a hailstorm with hail “larger than an egg.” Hardly the stuff of the apocalypse, even if it does happen, Mosley noted.

Although the observatory hasn’t been counting the calls, Mosley estimated that many as two-dozen people a day have let their fingers do the walking to the observatory.


“That’s a lot because normally we don’t get any (calls about catastrophic events),” he said. He added, “We were getting enough calls in January for me to do an in-house memo (debunking Nostradamus) for the people who answer the phones.”

After one such conversation, a woman told him, “Great, now I don’t have to leave in May,” he recalled.

Caltech spokesmen reported much the same phenomenon, saying that they have been getting calls since the Oct. 1 major earthquake here. They added that the callers may be inspired by the 1981 movie about the French stargazer, “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,” which has become a hot item in video stores and was recently reviewed on a nationally syndicated television movie review show.

According to Mosley, the movie asserts that a planetary alignment will cause an earthquake in “the New City"--which is assumed to be Los Angeles--in May, 1988. The truth is, Mosley said, that the five planets visible to the naked eye actually will be spread over two-thirds of the sky that month. Even if all the planets were lined up “perfectly” the result would be tiny, Mosley asserted, raising “the ocean tides by 1/25th of a millimeter.” And earthquakes, he added, are caused by “motions within the earth,” not by the motions of stars or planets.

Furthermore, he said, the film makers apparently played fast and loose with Nostradamus’ rhyming predictions by combining lines from two different quatrains to come up with the forecast of imminent danger for Los Angeles.

“Fire from the center of the earth, The great Earthquake shall be in the month of May” is the way it was presented in the movie, but Mosley, quoting the book on Nostradamus, said the correct verse simply begins, “A very mighty trembling in the month of May.”

Nostradamus, who died in 1566, left behind a collection of vague predictions about the future, explained Mosley, and his followers credit him with predicting the Russian Revolution, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.