BEYOND PLUTO, BEYOND REALITY. Some conspiracy theorists believe ancient Sumerian people discovered a planet called "Nibiru" beyond Pluto that will doom Earth in 2012. Scientists, however, beg to differ. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

BEYOND PLUTO, BEYOND REALITY. Some conspiracy theorists believe ancient Sumerian people discovered a planet called "Nibiru" beyond Pluto that will doom Earth in 2012. Scientists, however, beg to differ. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


 by David Morrison

The scoop: Conspiracy theorists are convinced a rogue planet will destroy the Earth in 2012, and movie makers are already trying to cash in on the hysteria. An astrobiologist calls for a reality check.

Unbeknownst to most of us, a small but vocal group of conspiracy theorists is convinced that a rogue planet is about to enter the inner solar system and doom the Earth.

They say that this threatening planet on a 3600-year orbit was discovered by the ancient Mesopotamians, who named it Nibiru, and it was known also to the Mayans, who associated it with the end of their calendar “long count” in December 2012. In Web sites, blogs, and radio talk shows, they insist that NASA is tracking Nibiru — but that this information is being kept from the public as part of a worldwide conspiracy.

They say the official silence can’t be maintained for much longer, however, because by 2009 Nibiru will be visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere. They also say Earth’s axis is already tilting and the length of the day is changing under its influence. As one believer recently wrote to me, “Why are you lying. It’s coming, and everyone knows it.”

I began to receive questions about this bizarre story in December 2007 through NASA’s “Ask an Astrobiologist” site. Normally I receive up to a dozen questions per week from the public, dealing mostly with life in the universe — but in the past 6 months the Nibiru traffic alone has grown to 20-25 messages a week, ranging from the anguished “I can’t sleep,” “I am really scared” or “I don’t want to die” to the abusive “you are putting my family at risk” and “if NASA denies it then it must be true.”

As a scientist, I’m both fascinated and astonished by the deluge of questions from people who are genuinely frightened and, apparently, unable to distinguish astronomical fact from fiction. They’re watching YouTube videos and visiting slick Web sites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit, or to quote Carl Sagan no “baloney detector.” Now a blockbuster disaster film called “2012” is set for release in the summer of 2009, and the commercial enterprise is clearly trying to cash in on people’s concern (perhaps contributing to their fear as well).

My guess is that only a tiny fraction of people truly believes that Armageddon is coming in December 2012. But their uncritical acceptance of this story worries me as a warning of the dangers of our current scientific illiteracy.

We’re facing monumental problems with global warming and loss of habitat, yet a substantial minority of Americans thinks the world was formed less than 10,000 years ago and deny that evolution is possible. Many Americans seem to prefer coal-fired generators to nuclear power plants without realizing the toll in public health that coal imposes. Billions are spent, including tax-payer dollars, for so-called alternative medicine with no scientific evidence for its efficacy. And legislators often resist efforts to collect the data that could actually demonstrate which government programs are effective and which ones don’t work as intended.

In spite of my frustrations, I can always hope that Nibiru will turn into a teaching moment. Its proponents are convinced that it will be visible to the unaided eye this coming spring, and its effects on the rotation and orbit of the Earth will be obvious by summer (just in time for the release of the film “2012”). When none of this happens, I hope they’ll realize that they need better tools to distinguish fact from fiction.

But maybe they won’t.

One of funniest things about this Nibiru story is that it is a rerun — there was a big Internet concern that Nibiru would destroy the Earth in May of 2003. Something tells me this didn’t happen, yet now the same myth is resurrected. Are we condemned to suffer a Nibiru scare every decade in this century, or will people come to their senses?

David Morrison, a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center and interim director of NASA’s new Lunar Science Institute, answers questions from the public on “Ask an Astrobiologist.” He recently published a collection of sample questions and answers surrounding the Nibiru story in Skeptical Inquirer. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Discovery Channel.

Article posted October 13, 2008.