Beware the email rumor about “Betelgeuse.” What does “Betelgeuse” mean, anyhow?

Betelgeuse has been in the news again recently. No, not the creepy character played by Michael Keaton in the 1988 Tim Burton movie Beetlejuice . We’re talking about the red supergiant star in the constellation Orion, that Betelgeuse.

Apparently, some pseudo-scientific gossip is circulating online claiming that Betelgeuse will explode in 2012, causing damaging neutrino release and gamma radiation. There will be two bright, sun-like bodies in our earthling sky, the sun and a superbright type II supernova.

This cataclysmic doomsday prediction is a bunch of hoo-ha, malarkey, bunkum, and we’ll gladly take the opportunity to talk about the wonderful words associated with this wacky hoax. Let’s begin with the eighth brightest star in the night sky that also has one of the greatest names of all the stars, Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse’s moniker comes from Arabic, dating from a time when the hottest scientific discoveries came from the Middle East of the 16th Century. Orion was known as the constellation “the Giant” or al-Juaza. Bet- is a shortening of abet, or armpit, the location of the star in the giant’s constellation: bet al-Juaza became “Betelgeuse” as it moved to usage in Europe.

(Don’t forget the intriguing origin of the word “hoax” itself. It may have to do with sacrilegious puns. Get the story, here.)

So how about the Star Trek-sounding effects promised in this cataclysmic doomsday warning? Well, when a star of Betelgeuse’s mass collapses, it releases neutrinos, elusive particles that travel almost as fast as light. As the name suggests, neutrinos aren’t harmful – they pass through matter without effect.

Gamma rays may be the basis of many Marvel Comics heroes and villains, but in real life they are a form of high frequency light with a wavelength too short to appear in the visible spectrum. Gamma radiation is emitted from a nuclear reaction, essentially what’s happening inside an exploding star. If exposed, this would be bad news for Earthlings. Fortunately, scientists concur that Betelgeuse’s gamma rays would not be pointing in our general direction, so we should be safe when Betelgeuse supernovas.

(This isn’t the first time we’ve written about false reports of planets and stars changing the night sky. Check out the bizarre case of Mars and learn the violent meaning behind the planet’s name, here.)

Finally, what about the appearance of 2012 in the hyperbolic prediction? 2012 is associated with doomsday predictions of varying origin, most relating to the ending of the Mayan calendar in that year. The truth is, while astronomers are very certain Betelgeuse will supernova, and relatively soon, that “relatively” is in astronomical time, which can be pinpointed precisely down to sometime in the next million years. That means you have plenty of time to receive more email hoaxes in your inbox.

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