A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012
PUBLIC CONCERN ABOUT DOOMSDAY IN December 2012 has blossomed into a major new presence on the Internet. This fear has begun to invade cable TV and Hollywood, and it is rapidly spreading internationally. The hoax originally concerned a return of the fictitious planet Nibiru in 2012, but it received a big boost when conspiracy theory websites began to link it to the end of the Mayan calendar long count at the winter solstice (December 21) of 2012. Over the past year, many unrelated groups have joined the doomsday chorus, including Nostradamus advocates, a wide variety of eschatological Christian, Native American, and spiritualist sects, and those who fear comet and asteroid impacts or violent solar storms. At the time of this writing there are more than 175 books listed on Amazon.com dealing with the 2012 doomsday. The most popular topics are the Mayan calendar and spiritual predictions that the disaster in 2012 will usher in a new age of happiness and spiritual growth. Quite a few authors are cashing in with manuals on how to survive 2012.
As this hoax spreads, many more doomsday scenarios are being suggested, mostly unrelated to Nibiru. These include a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, severe solar storms associated with the 11-year solar cycle (which may peak in 2012), a reversal of Earth’s rotation axis, a 90- degree flip of the rotation axis, bombardment by large comets or asteroids, bombardment by gamma rays, or various unspecified lethal rays coming from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy or the “dark rift” seen in a nearby galactic spiral arm. A major theme has become celestial alignments: supposedly the Sun will align with the galactic center (or maybe with the Milky Way Dark Rift) on December 21, 2012, subjecting us to mysterious and potentially deadly forces.
Unlike most pseudoscience stories, there seems to be no factual core on which the Nibiru- 2012 hoax has been constructed. This is different from, for example, the claims of aliens and a crashed UFO at Roswell, New Mexico. The alien stories are a fabrication, but the core fact is that an instrumented balloon did crash in Roswell on July 7, 1947. There is no similar factual core to Nibiru—just dubious “predictions” from psychics, or the Mayans, or Nostradamus. The rest is pure fiction.
I answer questions from the public submitted online to a NASA website, and over the past two years the Nibiru-2012 doomsday has become the dominant topic people ask about. Many are curious about things they have seen on the Internet or TV, but many are also angry about supposed government cover-ups. As one wrote “Why are you lying about Nibiru? Everyone knows it is coming.” Others are genuinely frightened that the world will end just three years from now. My frustration in answering questions piecemeal motivates this “Twenty Questions” format to organize the facts and shine a skeptical light on this accumulation of myths and hoaxes.
1. What is the origin of the prediction that the world will end in December 2012?
The story started with claims that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, is headed toward Earth. Zecharia Sitchin, who writes fiction about the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, claimed in several books (e.g., The Twelfth Planet, published in 1976) that he has found and translated Sumerian documents that identify the planet Nibiru, orbiting the Sun every 3600 years. These Sumerian fables include stories of “ancient astronauts” visiting Earth from a civilization of aliens called the Anunnaki. Then Nancy Lieder, a self-declared psychic who claims she is channeling aliens, wrote on her website Zetatalk that the inhabitants of a fictional planet around the star Zeta Reticuli warned her that the Earth was in danger from Planet X or Nibiru. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was recalculated (a standard procedure for doomsdayers) and moved forward to December 2012. Only recently have these two fables been linked to the end of the Mayan long-count at the winter solstice in 2012—hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012.
2. The Sumerians were the first great civilization, and they made many accurate astronomical predictions, including the existence of the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. So why should we not believe their predictions about Nibiru?
Nibiru is a name from Babylonian astrology sometimes associated with the god Marduk. Nibiru appears as a minor character in the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish as recorded in the library of Assurbanipal, King of Assyria (668–627 BCE). Sumer flourished much earlier, from about the 23rd century to the 17th century BCE. The claims that Nibiru is a planet and was known to the Sumerians are contradicted by scholars who (unlike Zecharia Sitchin) study and translate the written records of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumer was indeed a great civilization, important for the development of agriculture, water management, urban life, and especially writing. However, they left few astronomical records and they most certainly did not know about Uranus, Neptune or Pluto. They also had no understanding that the planets orbited the Sun, an idea that first developed in ancient Greece two millennia after the end of Sumer. Claims that Sumerians had a sophisticated astronomy, or that they even had a god named Nibiru, are the product of Sitchin’s imagination.
3. How can you deny the existence of Nibiru when NASA discovered it in 1983 and the story appeared in leading newspapers? At that time you called it Planet X, and later it was named Xena or Eris.
IRAS (the NASA Infrared Astronomy Satellite, which carried out a sky survey for 10 months in 1983) discovered many infrared sources, but none of them was Nibiru or Planet X or any other objects in the outer solar system. Briefly, IRAS cataloged 350,000 infrared sources, and initially many of these sources were unidentified (which was the point, of course, of making such a survey). All of these observations have been followed up by subsequent studies with more powerful instruments both on the ground and in space. The rumor about a “tenth planet” erupted in 1984 after a scientific paper was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters titled “Unidentified point sources in the IRAS minisurvey,” which discussed several infrared sources with “no counterparts.” But these “mystery objects” were subsequently found to be distant galaxies (except one, which was a wisp of “infrared cirrus”), as published in 1987. No IRAS source has ever turned out to be a planet. A good discussion of this whole issue is to be found on Phil Plait’s website. The bottom line is that Nibiru is a myth, with no basis in fact. To an astronomer, persistent claims about a planet that is “nearby” but “invisible” are just plain silly.
4. Maybe we should be asking about Planet X or Eris, not Nibiru. Why does NASA keep secret the orbit of Eris?
“Planet X” is an oxymoron when applied to a real object. The generic term has been used by astronomers over the past century for a possible or suspected object. Once the object is found, it is given a real name, as was done with Pluto and Eris, both of which were once referred to as Planet X. If a new object turns out to be not real, or not a planet, then you won’t hear about it again. If it is real, it is no longer called Planet X. Eris is one of several dwarf planets recently found by astronomers in the outer solar system, all of them on normal orbits that will never bring them near Earth. Like Pluto, Eris is smaller than our Moon. It is very far away, and its orbit never brings it closer than about 4 billion miles. There is no secret about Eris or its orbit, as you can easily verify by googling it or looking it up in Wikipedia.
5. Do you deny that NASA built a South Pole Telescope (SPT) to track Nibiru? Why else would they build a telescope at the South Pole?
There is a telescope at the South Pole, but it was not built by NASA and it is not used to study Nibiru. The South Pole Telescope is supported by the National Science Foundation, and it is a radio telescope, not an optical instrument. It cannot take visible light images or photos. You can look it up on Wikipedia. The Antarctic is a great place for astronomical infrared and short-wave-radio observations, and it also has the advantage that objects can be observed continuously without the interference of the day-night cycle. I should add that it is impossible to imagine a way in which an object can be seen only from the South Pole. Even if it were due south of the Earth, it could be seen from the entire southern hemisphere.
6. There are many photos and videos of Nibiru on the Internet. Isn’t that proof that it exists?
The great majority of the photos and videos on the Internet are of some feature near the Sun (apparently supporting the claim that Nibiru has been hiding behind the Sun for the past several years). These are actually false images of the Sun caused by internal reflections in the lens, often called lens flare. You can identify them easily by the fact that they appear diametrically opposite the real solar image, as if reflected across the center of the image. This is especially obvious in videos, where as the camera moves, the false image dances about always exactly opposite the real image. Similar lens flare is a source of many UFO photos taken at night with strong light sources such as streetlights in the frame. I am surprised that more people don’t recognize this common photo artifact. I am also amazed that these photos showing something nearly as large and bright as the Sun (a “second sun”) are accepted together with claims made on some of the same websites that Nibiru is too faint to be seen or photographed except with large telescopes.
One widely reported telescopic photo shows two views of an expanding gas cloud far beyond the solar system, which is not moving; you can see this from the fact that the stars are the same in both pictures. A sharp-eyed reader on my website identified these photos as a gas shell around the star V838 Mon. Wikipedia has a nice write-up and a beautiful photo of it from the Hubble. Another high school student was initially impressed by posted images of a red blob that were said to be of Nibiru. Then he worked out in his Photoshop class how to make just such pictures starting from scratch. One video posted in summer 2008 on YouTube shows a guy standing in his kitchen claiming that one of the objects discovered by NASA’s x-ray telescope is Nibiru. What is his evidence? That since this false-color x-ray image released by NASA is blue, this must really be a nearby planet with an ocean. This would be hilarious if it were not used to frighten people.
7. Can you explain the fact that the area at (5h 53m 27s, -6 10′ 58″) has been blackened out in Google Sky and Microsoft Telescope? People suggest that these have been blackened out because those are the co-ordinates where Nibiru is located at present.
Several people have asked me about this blank rectangle in Orion in Google Sky, which is a presentation of images from the Sloan Digital Survey. This can’t be a “hiding place” for Nibiru, since it is a part of the sky that could be seen from almost everywhere on the Earth in the winter of 2007–08 when much of the talk about Nibiru began. Plus, that would contradict the claims that Nibiru was hiding behind the Sun or that it could be seen only from the southern hemisphere. But I too was curious about this blank rectangle, so I asked a friend who is a senior scientist at Google. He replied that he “found out that the missing data is due to a processing error in the image stitching program we use to display the Sloan survey images. The team assures me that in the next run through, this will be fixed!”
8. If the government knew about Nibiru, wouldn’t they keep it a secret to avoid panic? Isn’t it the government’s job to keep the population at ease?
There are many objectives of government, but they do not include keeping the population at ease. My experience is that sometimes parts of the government do just the opposite, as in the frequent references to various terrorist threats or warnings about driving accidents on long holiday weekends, which are no more dangerous than any other time. There is a long history of associating bad things with political opponents (older readers will remember the “missile gap” in the 1960 election, younger ones will note the many current references to who is or is not keeping the U.S. safe from terrorists). Further, social scientists have pointed out that many of our concepts of public panic are the product of Hollywood, while in the real world people have a good record of helping each other in a time of danger. I think everyone also recognizes that keeping bad news secret usually backfires, making the issue even worse when the facts finally come out. And in the case of Nibiru, these facts would come out very soon indeed.
Even if it wanted to, however, the government could not keep Nibiru a secret. If Nibiru were real, it would be tracked by thousands of astronomers, amateurs as well as professionals. These astronomers are spread all over the world. I know the astronomy community, and these scientists would not keep a secret even if ordered to. You just can’t hide a planet on its way into the inner solar system!
9. Why does the Mayan calendar say the world will end in 2012? I have heard that they have been pretty accurate in the past with other planetary predictions. How can you be sure you know more than they did?
Calendars exist for keeping track of the passage of time, not for predicting the future. The Mayan astronomers were clever, and they developed a very complex calendar. Ancient calendars are interesting to historians, but of course they cannot match the ability we have today to keep track of time, or the precision of the calendars currently in use. The main point, however, is that calendars, whether contemporary or ancient, cannot predict the future of our planet or warn of things to happen on a specific date such as 2012.
I note that my desk calendar ends much sooner, on December 31, 2009, but I do not interpret this as a prediction of Armageddon. It is just the beginning of a new year.
10. What is the polar shift theory? Is it true that the Earth’s crust does a 180-degree rotation around the core in a matter of days if not hours? Does this have something to do with our solar system dipping beneath the galactic equator?
A reversal in the rotation of Earth is impossible. It has never happened and never will. There are slow movements of the continents (for example Antarctica was near the equator hundreds of millions of years ago), but that is irrelevant to claims of reversal of the rotational poles. However, many of the disaster websites pull a bait-and-switch to fool people. They claim a relationship between the rotation and the magnetic field of Earth, which does change irregularly with a magnetic reversal taking place, on average, every 400,000 years. As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal does not cause any harm to life on Earth. A magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia, anyway. But the 2012ers falsely claim that a magnetic reversal is coming soon (in 2012 of course) and that this is the same as, or will trigger, a reversal of Earth’s rotational poles. The bottom line is this: (a) rotation direction and magnetic polarity are not related; (b) there is no reason to expect a reversal of magnetic polarity any time soon, or to anticipate any bad effects on life when it does eventually happen; (c) a sudden shift in the rotational pole with disastrous consequences is impossible. Also, none of this has anything to do with the galactic equator or any of the other nonsense about alignments that appears on many of the doomsday websites.
11. When most of the planets align in 2012 and planet Earth is in the center of the Milky Way, what will the effects of this be on planet Earth? Could it cause a pole shift, and if so what could we expect?
There is no planet alignment in 2012 or any other time in the next several decades. As to the Earth being in the center of the Milky Way, I don’t know what this phrase means. If they are referring to the Milky Way Galaxy, we are some 30,000 light years from the center of this spiral galaxy. We circle the galactic center in a period of 225–250 million years, always keeping approximately the same distance. Concerning a pole shift, I also don’t know what this means. If it means some sudden change in the position of the pole (that is, the rotation axis of the Earth), then that is impossible, as noted above. What many websites do discuss is the alignment of the Earth and Sun with the center of the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius. This happens every December, with no bad consequences, and there is no reason to expect 2012 to be different from any other year.
12. When the Sun and the Earth line up on the galactic plane at the same time with the black hole being in the center couldn’t that cause something to happen, due to the fact that the black hole has such a strong gravitational pull?
There is a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and like any concentration of mass it exerts gravitational force on the rest of the galaxy. However, the galactic center is very far away, approximately 30,000 light years, so it has negligible effects on our solar system and Earth. There are no special forces from the galactic plane or the galactic center. The only important force that acts on the Earth is the gravitation of the Sun and Moon. As far as the influence of the galactic plane, there is nothing special about this location. The last time the Earth was in the galactic plane was several million years ago. Claims that we are about to cross the galactic plane are untrue.
13. I am scared about the fact that the Earth will enter the Dark Rift in the Milky Way. What will this do? Will the Earth be swallowed up?
The “dark rift” is a popular name for the broad and diffuse dust clouds in the inner arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, which block our view of the galactic center. The entire “galactic alignment” scare is ridiculous. Late in December the Sun is always approximately in the direction of the center of the Galaxy as seen from the Earth, but so what? Apparently the scaremongers have decided to use these meaningless phrases about “alignments” and the “dark rift” and “photon belt” precisely because they are not understood by the public. As far as the safety of the Earth is concerned, the important threats are from global warming and loss of biological diversity, and perhaps someday from collision with an asteroid or comet, not the pseudoscientific claims about 2012.
14. I have heard that the Earth’s magnetic field will flip in 2012 just when the strongest level of solar storms in history is predicted to take place. Will this kill us or destroy our civilization?
Near solar maximum (which happens approximately every 11 years), there are many more solar flares and coronal mass ejections than near solar minimum. Flares and mass ejections are no danger for humans or other life on Earth. They could endanger astronauts in deep space or on the Moon, and this is something that NASA must learn to deal with, but it is not a problem for us. Large outbursts can interrupt radio transmissions, cause bright displays of the aurora (Northern and Southern Lights), and damage the electronics of some satellites in space. Today many satellites are designed to deal with this possibility, for example by switching off some of their more delicate circuits and going into a “safe” mode for a few hours. In extreme cases solar activity can also disrupt electrical transmissions on the ground, possibly leading to electrical blackouts, but this is rare.
The last solar maximum occurred in 2001, so the next one was predicted for around 2012, 11 years later. However, the most recent solar minimum was unusual, with a period of a couple of years with almost no sunspots or other indications of solar activity, so scientists now guess that the next maximum will be delayed, perhaps to 2013. However, the details of the solar cycle remain basically unpredictable.
It is true that the Earth’s magnetic field protects us by creating a large region in space, called the Earth’s magnetosphere, within which most of the material ejected from the Sun is captured or deflected, but there is no reason to expect a reversal of magnetic polarity any time soon. These magnetic reversals happen, on average, only once in 400,000 years.
15. I am confused about a report on the Fox News website that in 2012 a “Powerful Solar Storm Could Shut Down U.S. for Months.” They referred to a report from the National Academy of Sciences that was commissioned and paid for by NASA. If nothing is going to happen as a result of the event in 2012, why would NASA allow such nonsense to be reported?
NASA is pleased with the National Research Council report on heliophysics. As noted, this report includes a worst-case analysis of what could happen today if there were a repetition of the biggest solar storm ever recorded (in 1859). The problem is the way such information can be used out of context. There is no reason to expect such a large solar storm in the near future, certainly not in 2012 specifically. The reference to “the event in 2012” illustrates this problem. There is no prediction of an “event in 2012.” We don’t even know if the next solar maximum will take place in that year. The whole 2012 disaster scenario is a hoax, fueled by ads for the Hollywood science-fiction disaster film 2012. I can only hope that most people are able to distinguish Hollywood film plots from reality.
16. All my school friends are telling me that we are all going to die in the year 2012 due to a meteor hitting Earth. Is this true?
The Earth has always been subject to impacts by comets and asteroids (as has the Moon, as you can see because it has no atmosphere to erode the impact craters), although big hits are very rare. The last big impact was 65 million years ago, and that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today NASA astronomers are carrying out the Spaceguard Survey to find any large near-Earth asteroids long before they hit. We have already determined that there are no threatening asteroids as large as the one that killed the dinosaurs. All this work is done openly with the discoveries posted every day on the NASA NEO Program Office website, so anyone can see that nothing is predicted to hit in 2012.
17. If Nibiru is a hoax, why doesn’t NASA issue a denial? How can you permit these stories to circulate and frighten people? Why doesn’t the U.S. government do something about it!
If you go to the NASA home page, nasa.gov, you will see many stories that expose the Nibiru-2012 hoax. Try searching nasa.com under “Nibiru” or “2012”. There is not much more that NASA can do. These hoaxes have nothing to do with NASA and are not based on NASA data, so we as an agency are not directly involved. But scientists, both within NASA and outside, recognize that this hoax with its effort to frighten people is a distraction from more important scientific concerns, such as global warming and loss of biological diversity. We live in a country where there is freedom of speech, and that includes the freedom to lie. We should be glad there are no censors. But if we will use common sense we can recognize the lies. As we approach 2012, the lies will be come even more obvious.
18. Can you prove to me that Nibiru is a hoax? There are so many reports that something terrible will happen in 2012. I need proof because the government and NASA are keeping so much from us.
Such questions should be put to the doomsday advocates to prove that what they are saying is true, not to NASA to prove it is false. If someone claimed on the Internet that there were 50-foot tall purple elephants walking through Cleveland, would anyone expect NASA to prove this wrong? The burden of proof falls on those who make wild claims. Remember the often-quoted comment from Carl Sagan that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
However, I think that astronomers have reached the point where we can offer extremely strong arguments that Nibiru does not exist. A large planet (or a brown dwarf) in our solar system would have been known to astronomers for many years, both indirectly from its gravitational perturbations on other objects and by direct detection in the infrared. The NASA Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS) carried out the first allsky survey in 1983, and several subsequent surveys would also have seen Nibiru if it were there. Further, if a large mass passed through the inner solar system every 3600 years, we would see its disruptive effects on the orbits of the inner planets, and we don’t.
But don’t take my word for it. Just use common sense. Have you seen Nibiru? In 2008 many websites said it would be visible to the naked eye in spring 2009. If a large planet or brown dwarf were headed for the inner solar system in 2012, it would already be tracked by thousands of astronomers, both professional and amateur, all over the world. Do you know any amateur astronomers who are watching it? Have you seen any photos or discussion of it in the big popular astronomy magazines such as Astronomy or Sky & Telescope? Just think about it. No one could hide something like Nibiru if it existed.
19. What about the scary ads for the new film 2012? They tell us to look at these Internet sites to verify the doomsday threat.
The pseudoscientific claims about Nibiru and a doomsday in 2012, together with distrust of the government, are being amplified by publicity for the new film from Columbia Pictures titled 2012, to be released in November 2009. The film’s trailer, appearing in theaters and on their website, shows a tidal wave breaking over the Himalayas, with the following words: “How would the governments of our planet prepare 6 billion people for the end of the world? [long pause] They wouldn’t. [long pause] Find out the Truth. Google search 2012.”
The film publicity includes a faux scientific website for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of humanity. The website explains that the Institute was founded in 1978 by international leaders of government, business, and science. They say that in 2004, IHC scientists confirmed with 94% certainty that the world would be destroyed in 2012. This website encourages people to register for a lottery to select those who will be saved; a colleague submitted the name of her cat, which was accepted. According to Wikipedia, creating this sort of fake website is a new advertising technique called “Viral Marketing,” by analogy with computer viruses.
20. Is it possible that the influx of questions you describe is part of some kind of campaign for a book or movie, in the hopes that the volume of denials is taken as more “evidence” that there is a conspiracy?
I ask myself the same questions every day, as the volume of mail I receive about Nibiru (along with various alignments and pole shifts) keeps increasing—now more than 20 per week. Clearly there is money to be made from people’s fear about an approaching doomsday. Many websites are selling books and tapes about Nibiru or even “survival kits.” It is all very sad, given the many real issues such as global warming and the financial collapse on which our attentions should be focused. In the final chapter of a new astronomy book (The Hunt for Planet X) Govert Shilling writes: “There is plenty to do for the debunkers—the archaeologists and astronomers who take a long and skeptical look at the tidal wave of Nibiru nonsense and explain with scientific precision what is wrong with this cosmic fairy-tale. They will have their work cut out in the next few years. And on December 22, 2012 there will be a new pseudoscientific cock-and-bull story making the rounds and the whole circus will start all over again, because no matter how many new celestial bodies are found in our solar system, there will always be a need for a mysterious Planet X.”
About the author
Dr. David Morrison is the Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and Senior Scientist in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Dr. Morrison received his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University (where Carl Sagan was his thesis advisor) and has spent most of his career working in planetary science and astrobiology. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the California Academy of Sciences. He is recipient of the Dryden Medal for research of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society for public communication. Morrison is a leading skeptic and proponent of improving science education and literacy. Asteroid 2410 Morrison is named in his honor.
This article can be found in
volume 15 number 2
2012 — The End of the World Again?
this issue includes: A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012; Large Hadron Collider: Will Physicists Destroy the World? Pro & Con; Why Atheism & IQs Are Rising; Skepdoc on Chiropractic; Coriolis Effect Myth; Thetis Lake Monster…
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