Nibiru: Imaginary Planet Blamed for Earth's Woes

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The earthquake that ratted the Northeast U.S. this week is already being attributed to an imaginary celestial interloper called Nibiru.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are crazy ideas, damn crazy ideas, . . . and soothsayers.

If you have never heard of Nibiru here’s the skinny: a rogue planet is supposedly barreling toward Earth. When does it arrive? You guessed it, in 2012, the doomsday year some folks say they have derived from the Mayan calendar. Nibiru has also been blamed for the great Japan earthquake that happened on March 11 this year.

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My write-up here was inspired by an email I got from an individual who was astute enough not to simply swallow the many sensationalized and groundless ‘Nibiru’s gonna-slam-Earth’ postings on the Internet.

She wrote: “It [a Nibiru article] is flying around the Internet along with so many others regarding Planet X etc. It can be quite frightening and with so much scientific mumbo jumbo in them, one doesn’t know who/or what to believe.”

The gravitational tug from this alleged bigger-than-Jupiter monster will wreak havoc, according to numerous space soothsayers. Nibiru’s close encounter with Earth will cause mass devastation, tsunamis, hurricanes and temperature extremes that will kill off most humans. Oh yes, and Earth will stop spinning and tip upside down.

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This notion of bumper-car planet catastrophes is nothing new. In the mid-1900s psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky wrote a series of books that claimed that Earth had once been a satellite of a “proto-Saturn;” that Noah’s Flood was caused by a proto-Saturn exploding as a nova; that Jupiter was responsible the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; that Venus’ ejection from Jupiter had caused the “sun to stand still” in Exodus.

The crumb trail of the Nibiru doomsday fantasy snakes all over the place. Some of the ideas were no doubt inspired by Velikovsky’s writings. Suffice to say the fractured tale is intertwined with interpretations of ancient Babylonian and Sumerian mythology that invoke extraterrestrials, and the predictions of an individual who claims to be in telepathic communication with space aliens.

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Doomesayers have also gotten the imaginary interloper confused with the approaching comet Elenin, an innocuous little body that poses absolutely no danger to Earth.

Bottom line: The Nibiru tall tale is not based on a single crumb of scientific evidence. Nibiru simply does not exist; not now, not ever.

Nibiru believers will throw up conspiracy theories and a smokescreen of astronomical mysteries as circumstantial evidence. For example: anomalies in the trajectories of two deep space Pioneer probes, newly discovered Kuiper belt objects, and a zoo of discovered dim blobs in infrared sky surveys. But none of these alone point to a proverbial 800-pound gorilla prowling the solar system.

My colleagues on Discovery News and other science blogs have given numerous reasons why Nibiru isn’t real.

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But it’s like playing the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. You beat down one crazy idea and another one pops up.

So here’s my whack at a wacky idea.

If such a planet were approaching Earth, you could just go out into your backyard and see it every night with your naked eye. It’s that simple.

Based on claims of Nibiru’s present location in the solar system, it should be the brightness of the stars in the cup of the Big Dipper right now. In the coming months, as it supposedly hurtles toward a rendezvous with Earth, it should become the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.

If Nibiru was real then the International Astronomical Union, the official clearing house for the unusual comings and goings of celestial objects, would have issued a bulletin long ago and posted the orbital ephemeris of the object.

Amateur astronomers all over the world would now be marveling about it and Twittering incessantly. There would be lots of picture postings that would all show Nibiru slowly moving along its orbital track against a starry background.

Yes, there are alleged pictures of Nibiru all over the Internet. But the majority are lens flares from aiming a camera into the sun, noise in electronic detectors, or otherwise gross misinterpretations of satellite imaging. The dramatic Hubble Space Telescope picture shown below is pawned off as Nibiru, even though it is really an erupting star on the edge of our galaxy.

What’s more, professional astronomers around the globe would be scrambling for telescope time to study Nibiru. The watering hole for science papers presenting observations is an online service called Astro-ph. Simply go to the website and search thousands of papers for the term Nibiru. Ain’t nothin’ there: zip, zilch, zero.

This is in sharp contrast to the Nibiru legend that thrives on the Internet where there is no shortage of end-of-world predictions.

What’s more, we live in a largely science illiterate society where the pronouncements of real experts are often suspect and derided. This is obvious in the political debates over global warming, evolution, and questionable alternative medicine.

Keep in mind that if any part of the Nibiru prediction is true it would mean the history of the solar system is vastly different from what we have theorized and gathered painstakingly though telescope observations, space probes and dynamical computer models.

Astrobiology would be all wrong because a world colder than Pluto is supposedly inhabited. And, Newton’s laws of gravity are all wrong too, based on the planet’s alleged influence on Earth.

The Nibiru mania is the epitome of a pseudoscience: reject a huge collection of knowledge, conventional wisdom, and rational thought and come up with an ad hoc solution no matter how implausible it is.

For anyone who may think I’m being a snooty Nibiru-basher, all you need to do is post the planet’s orbital ephemeris here. I’ll get one of my amateur astronomer buddies to go out and photograph the region of sky where Nibiru supposedly is, and then I’ll gladly publish the picture.

After all, seeing is believing.

Image (top): That’s no Nibiru, it’s a bright Venus over-saturating the CCD pixels on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) camera. But the doomsayers will make up their own minds (NASA/ESA)

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