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Update on the Nibiru 2012 ‘Doomsday’

Follow-up

David Morrison

Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

Public concern about doomsday in December 2012 has grown since my Skeptical Inquirer article a year ago (“The Myth of Nibiru and the End of the World in 2012,” September/ October 2008). The concern has invaded cable TV and Hollywood, spreading internationally. As a result, many originally unrelated threads have joined the doomsday chorus, including Nostradamus believers, a variety of eschatological Christian, Native American, and spiritualist sects, and those who fear comet and asteroid impacts or violent solar storms. All agree that terrible things will happen to the Earth in 2012, but many also assert that this will be the beginning of a new age of happiness and spiritual growth for the survivors.

This story began with predictions that Nibiru, supposedly a 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 3,600 years. Sitchin has sold many books about these Sumerian fables, which include stories of “ancient astronauts” called the Anunnaki who aided the Sumerians. Then Nancy Lieder, a self-declared psychic who claims she communicates with aliens, wrote on her Web site ZetaTalk that 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 moved to December 2012.

These two Nibiru fables were greatly amplified when linked with the turn-over of the Mayan long-count calendar at or near the winter solstice of 2012. Many Web sites sprang up declaring that December 21, 2012, would be the end of the world, a time of violent physical and spiritual transformation—never mind that the real end for Mayan civilization came several hundred years earlier with the European invasion of the Americas. This spring I counted more than 175 books on the 2012 doomsday listed on Amazon.com, where the most popular themes are the Mayan calendar and ways to survive the coming apocalypse.

Messages to ‘Ask an Astrobiologist,’ May 2009

Someone has said that the Nibiru can be visible by our eyes since 15th May 2009 in south hemisphere. Someone also said that you, NASA have known this planet X, Nibiru since 1983. I really feel afraid of the end of world. Please tell me the truth!!

Why NASA is hiding facts about nibiru? It really exists beyond pluto. There is photo proof for that. It seems to me that you and NASA hide something big.

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Of course, Nibiru does not exist. A large planet (or a brown dwarf) in our solar system would have been known to astronomers for decades, 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 all-sky survey in 1983, which, along with several subsequent surveys, would have seen Nibiru if it was there. However, the Nibiru proponents have asserted that Nibiru was hiding—that it remained behind the Sun for several years or that it could be seen only from the South Pole. Both of these are geometrically absurd statements. Most of the so-called Nibiru photos on the Web are lens flare produced when a camera points at a bright source, an artifact also responsible for many UFO photos. As it approaches Earth, of course, Nibiru should be increasing in brightness. In fact, if it were going to be inside Earth’s orbit in three years, it should have already reached naked-eye visibility, and tens of thousands of astronomers, both amateur and professional, would be tracking it.

As the story grows in complexity, many more doomsday scenarios are being suggested, often unrelated to Nibiru. These include a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, severe solar storms associated with the eleven-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, and 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, which fascinate laypersons. Supposedly, the Sun will align with the galactic center (or maybe with the Milky Way Dark Rift) on December 21, 2012, subjecting us to potentially deadly forces.

All of these pseudoscientific claims, together with distrust of the government, are being amplified by publicity for the new film from Columbia Pictures, titled simply “2012,” to be released in November 2009. The film’s trailer, appearing in theaters and on its Web site www.whowillsurvive2012.com, shows a tidal wave breaking over the Himalayas with only 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 creation of a faux scientific Web site for “The Institute for Human Continuity,” which is entirely fictitious. According to this Web site, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind, and the Institute was supposedly founded in 1978 by international leaders of government, business, and science. In 2004, it claims, IHC scientists confirmed with 94 percent certainty that the world would be destroyed in 2012. This Web site encourages people to register for a lottery to select those who will be saved; a colleague of mine submitted the name of her cat, which was accepted. I learned from Wikipedia that creating fake Web sites is a recent advertising technique called viral marketing, analogous to computer viruses.

The Nibiru 2012 hoax was initially spread by the Internet. Now at least one TV cable show per week deals with this coming apocalypse. Most of these seem to be on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Much of the recent coverage focuses on Nostradamus (who else?), who is now credited with predicting doomsday in 2012. The story has also been reported on Fox News, and I anticipate intensified media coverage over the next three years.

The doomsday scenario is spreading internationally; about half the questions I receive about Nibiru/2012 on my Web site now come from outside the U.S. Many write from India, saying they read about Nibiru in the newspapers. A journalist said that many people in Russia “are anxious by problem Nibiru.” A correspondent from Pakistan wrote, “The propaganda of 2012 is rising day by day. Why is NASA is not condemning these hoax?” The theme of censorship is often raised. One woman asked “why you and your government dont put a ban on the TV shows and report telecasting about Nibiru and 2012. If US can step to protect the world physically from terrorism, why can’t it protect us mentally from these news, if they are hoax?” Another woman pleaded, “I have four little babies and I think all of the human race deserves to know the truth from you ‘experts’. If it’s real then do the right thing; if not quit letting these hoaxes confuse true issues please.”

I continue to receive several email questions every day about Nibiru and 2012, sent to the NASA Web site “Ask an Astrobiologist”. See the sidebar for some examples received during just two weeks in May 2009. Many questioners are frightened, angry, or both. To my surprise, I have not seen much evidence that other scientists or skeptics are concerned about this growing outbreak of pseudoscience. More than a hundred past replies of mine are posted on the astrobiology Web site and also referenced on the NASA home page. A few news blogs such as Yahoo also provide truthful answers, but these are drowned out by the 2012 hysteria. I give credit to Wikipedia, which has several entries on Nibiru, including a very good overview of the pseudoscience under “Nibiru collision.” But questions keep streaming in, and I fear this will not be my last update on this subject.

David Morrison

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David Morrison is a long-time NASA senior scientist and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow. He now divides his time between the SETI Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He hosts the "Ask an Astrobiologist" column at NASA's website.