Scientists not cancelling Christmas plans for 2012

The world will end after being hit by the planet Nibiru on 21 December 2012.

That’s a nice story, but it’s not true. And a senior scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute says so.

David Morrison (pictured), writes a regular column with the wonderfully Onionesque title Ask an Astrobiologist for the Astronomical Society of Pacific newsletter. He says that he’s been asked about the 2012 story by almost a thousand readers.

There appear to be many reasons for the scare stories, which go back at least 30 years. The main one involves claims that the Sumerians, the oldest recorded civilization on Earth, based in what’s now southern Iraq, wrote that they had discovered a planet named Nibiru which orbits the Sun every 3,600 years. More recently, a so-called psychic claimed aliens had informed her that the planet was due to collide with Earth.

These theories later got mixed up with some misapprehensions about the Mesoamerican long count calendar, a system used around 4,000 years ago in what’s now Mexico and Central America. To simplify the claims, there are some who believe the calendar runs for a fixed amount of time (unlike our own, which runs in annual cycles) and that that time runs out on… 21 December 2012. Add two and two together and you get Armageddon.

Morrison has now put together a detailed look at the science behind the bogus claims (PDF). Among his main points:

  • The Sumerians did not even know about Uranus, Neptune and Pluto or the idea of planets orbiting the sun.
  • The so-called Planet X, “discovered in 1993” and said to be Nibiru, was never proven to be a planet. Even the title is misleading: if and when something is confirmed as a planet, it receives a proper name; until then it isn’t referred to as a planet.
  • Most so-called pictures of Nibiru are in fact reflections of the sun caused by lens flare.
  • Even if the government wanted to keep Nibiru’s existence a secret, it simply wouldn’t be able to do so because astronomers would be so excited and discuss it. Indeed, if the stories were true, Nibiru would now be visible to anyone with a telescope.
  • Calendars measure time. They don’t predict events.
  • It’s illogical to ask NASA to prove Nibiru is a hoax. Proving a negative is impossible.
  • The theory that Nibiru could cause the Earth’s magnetic polarity to reverse simply doesn’t make sense, particularly as it’s based on a bogus idea that magnetic polarity is linked to the Earth’s rotation.

Unfortunately, despite the work of men like David Morrison, the doommongering probably isn’t going to quieten any given the upcoming release of a movie, 2012, in which the disaster does indeed take place. To promote the film, Sony has created a spoof website for the Institute of Human Continuity, an organization which is apparently running both a lottery to get places in special subterranean cities and an election for a new leader of the post-devastation world.

It’s not exactly convincing though. For those who don’t see the Sony copyright notice as evidence something is amiss, there’s also the question of whether an organization dedicated to giving everyone an equal chance of survival would really produce a website that’s inaccessible without the Flash plug-in. (Actually, I have a horrible suspicion the answer is yes, it would.)

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