Oh My Stars

Hey, remember when the Mayan Calendar ran out in December 2012 and the world ended? Or when that whole Blood Moon thing happened in 2014-2015 and the world ended? Or how about when the Y2K bug hit, and the world ended? Or that eclipse Nostradamus wrote about in 1999 hit, and the world ended?  Or…

Yeah, you get the point. I’m pleased to report that I said none of these things would be The End, and I was right. So it’s with some annoyance that I report to you today that, with all the recent talk about Planet X in the news lately, one of the frankly dumbest of all the End Of The World stories is back in some circles.

The fictional planet Nibiru has made a comeback!

“Nibiru? Comeback?” you might say. “The miniskirt making a comeback, sure. But what the heck is ‘Nibiru’”?

First of all, if you have to ask… congratulations. It means you didn’t fall into the paranoid conspiratorial claptrap that was going around in 2012. In the event you come across the subject in future, here is why you shouldn’t panic.

According to Zecharia Sitchin, who claims to be an expert in Ancient Sumerian studies (but got his degree in Economic History), Nibiru is a giant planet, the size of Jupiter or larger, on an eccentric orbit that brings it into the inner Solar System about once every 3600 years or so. His decoding of ancient Sumerian and Mayan texts apparently confirm this. The story is that Nibiru will be returning soon… “soon” being “some time after the last failed prediction of its appearance.

Those ancient Sumerians and Mayans… they couldn’t hold their empires together, but apparently they were waaaay better astronomers than we are.

I’m not fluent in Mayan or Sumerian, so I have no place criticizing Sitchin’s archaeology. But others have, and not surprisingly it’s riddled with errors. But astronomy and astrophysics? Those are subjects I do know a little about. And I can tell you with great confidence that THERE ARE NO GIANT RAMPAGING PLANETS OUT THERE COMING TO EAT YOU. Honest. Allow me to explain…

Consider this: everything with mass in the universe has a gravitational field. The greater the mass, the stronger the field. That’s why apples fall to Earth, and why the Earth doesn’t fall towards apples. The Earth orbits the Sun. If the Earth were travelling faster, it would achieve “escape velocity”: the speed needed to fly away from the Sun and off into the Cosmos. If Earth were to slow down, it would fall into the Sun. Every planet in the solar system has a gravitational effect on every other planet, although (relative to the huge mass of the Sun) the pull that, say, Neptune has on Venus is pretty weak.

Put another way: when you were born, the mass of the obstetrician had slightly more influence on you than the planet Mars did… but slightly less than that of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

If two bodies of sufficient mass pass close enough to each other, they will have an effect on each others orbits around the Sun. Many asteroids have had their orbits affected by the occasional (relatively) close brush with Jupiter: picking up speed and moving out into more distant, less circular orbits around the Sun as a result.

Even though Nibiru has such a long orbit, given the age of the Solar System (about 4.5 billion years), it would have passed by Earth (and all the other planets) about one and a quarter million times in the life of the Solar System. And yet despite all these close brushes with a giant planet, Mercury through Neptune remain in relatively stable, circular orbits. The odds of that being the case with a Nibiru whipping through the neighborhood that many times is comparable to the odds of making your first break in a game of pool by throwing a bowling ball onto the table… and having all the pool balls drift elegantly back into their original triangular configuration. Try it sometime… with someone else’s pool table, ideally.

Furthermore… you’d think that with something that big in our own Solar System, there would be some kind of observational clues… after all, we found Pluto, and it’s a tiny, insignificant little thing compared to Uranus and Neptune. Uranus, in turn, is much smaller than Nibiru allegedly is; and Uranus was discovered in the 1700s. As far as observational data for Nibiru: there was a misidentified sighting of a distant galaxy by the IRAS satellite in 1984 that has gotten a lot of coverage as being “Nibiru,” and the occasional misidentified sun dog.

Go ahead and be paranoid abut the Government all you want… but there’s no way NASA could hide it if the Earth’s orbit had been pulled out of shape by a passing planet any time in the last few billion years.

The primary reason all of this bothers me… other than it being a sign of how bad public education really is these days… is that there seem to be a lot of people out there exploiting the fear of Nibiru Doom for profit, or at least for clicks on their web site. And regardless of which religious tradition one follows, or which ancient texts on bases one’s beliefs on… most faiths agree that hoodwinking the gullible for profit is a bad thing. And I agree.

So: no need to panic. The only threat to the world is human nature itself.

Okay, in light of that… maybe you can panic a little.

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