How to Escape Nibiru
There are many ways that space can kill us. A planet-killer asteroid; a gamma ray burst; a nearby supernova; a wandering star that plows through our solar system. But the Internet has offered one more way: a visit by the speculative planet Nibiru, which might do anything from collide with us for an instant obliteration, to merely flowing past and sending us into a flowery Age of Aquarius. Today we're going to look at this legend of Nibiru, see where the story originated, and what are the chances of it being a real thing for which we may need to form an escape plan.
Nibiru is the brainchild of an author named Zecharia Sitchin, and to understand why people still believe in Nibiru, it's necessary to understand the impact that Sitchin had in various subcultures, including the New Age, the ancient astronaut, and alternative history communities. Born in Azerbaijan in 1920, Sitchin lived in Palestine, in London, and finally in New York City where he endured a dreary career in the shipping industry. During those years, he developed a hobbyist interest in ancient languages, particularly Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, and developed his own translation of it — partly based on its actual meaning, and partly based on his own notions. He also studied the Bible from the perspective of a historical document, and eventually developed an ancient astronaut theory that combined life on Earth with Sumerian gods and Biblical Nephilim, among many other bits and pieces of both real and speculative sciences that he picked up along the way.
He published it all in 1976, in a book titled The 12th Planet. Eventually this expanded into a series of seven books called The Earth Chronicles, along with four additional companion volumes and two more "Expedition" books. In all they sold millions of copies, making Sitchin a wealthy man, who needed to work in the shipping industry no longer.
The Earth Chronicles is a large body of work, a complete alternate history of the Earth and solar system, that is far too deep and detailed to cover here. Essentially, it's a fantasy universe that shares many names and words with actual Earth history, but differs profoundly in virtually every way. It should go without saying that from his New York office, Sitchin did not, in fact, discover real versions of geophysics, cosmology, ancient Earth history, anthropology, and archaeology that are the actually-correct versions which replace all of those actual sciences and histories.
The summary of Nibiru is that a race of beings called the Anunnaki — which was the actual name for a race of gods from actual Sumerian mythology — live on a planet called Nibiru, which has an elliptical orbit around the Sun with a period of 3,600 Earth years, a period of time called a shar. Nibiru is an actual word in the language of the Akkadian Empire, which succeeded Sumer. It means "crossing". About 450,000 years ago (or 125 shar), Anunnaki astronauts flew to the Earth during one of these close passes, and engineered the human race as slave labor to mine gold which the Anunnaki needed. Apparently the atmosphere of Nibiru was breaking down, and gold dust finely blown into its atmosphere would protect it from solar radiation. This doubles as Sitchin's explanation for why modern humans prize gold so much — the desire to mine it is literally engineered into us.
Sitchin never specified a year for when Nibiru last made its closest flyby of the inner solar system or when the next one would be; he only specified the period of about 3,600 years. But when another later New Age author began riffing on his ideas and expanding them, he responded to prove her wrong in his very last publication before his death, appropriately titled The End of Days, and gave its last pass at 556 BCE. This meant that Nibiru would not come again until approximately the year 2900. That math is way wrong, and I did not find a clear explanation for why.
The guiding principle for Sitchin's translations of the Sumerian and other ancient texts was to shoehorn the real writings to fit this narrative. Consequently, scholars who actually do understand those languages have been harshly critical of Sitchin's pseudoscientific work. But no matter; they've been extremely influential in pop culture. Listen to this short snippet from the section titled "Influence" on Sitchin's Wikipedia page:
It hardly needs to be pointed out, but actual scientific evidence is incompatible with Sitchin's fantasy universe. For one thing, the lineage of the genus Homo goes back about two million years, and there was no sudden change 450,000 years ago. Progenitor genera go back millions of years before that, with nary an interruption. For another thing, it's not possible for our solar system to be in its current stable state if there were a planetary body visiting every 3,600 years; its passes would have created tremendous orbital disruption which does not exist.
Earlier I mentioned a later author who expanded upon Sitchin's ideas. This was New Age spiritualist Nancy Lieder, who claims to be in telepathic contact with aliens from Zeta Reticuli. The Zetans, according to her, have omniscient knowledge and communicate to her the doings on Nibiru. Her additions to Sitchin's canon have included that Nibiru would next come around in 2003, when its intense magnetic field would somehow flip the Earth's magnetic pole and cause worldwide destruction. When that didn't happen, she grafted her own folklore onto the popular mythology claiming an end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and said that 2012 was the new date Nibiru would return. Obviously, nothing happened then either; but that, in a nutshell, is basically why pre-2012 people were talking about Nibiru being the impetus for the global destruction allegedly foretold by the Mayan calendar.
Even though the existence of Nibiru was indisputably disproven by the stability of the solar system, predictions for its reappearance continued. The next one came in 2017 from numerologist and far-right conspiracy theorist David Meade, the pseudonym of an anonymous author. Meade claimed Biblical numerology supported a 2017 reappearance, at which time Barack Obama would assume an unconstitutional third Presidential term and would launch global nuclear destruction. For some astounding reason, Meade got lots of press from major news outlets, despite legitimate Biblical scholars disputing all of his claims. Obviously he had no support at all from any astronomers or research institutions, but that typically doesn't matter to reporters hungry to report something sensational. And, as we all now know, 2017 came and went without any of Meade's predictions coming true.
Meade then revised his prediction for April 23, 2018. Nothing happened then either, and you'd think people would have stopped paying attention. In fact, I'm going to lead by example, and stop talking about Meade right now.
There's another important point about the Nibiru story worth knowing, and that's its frequent conflation with the so-called Planet X. Often you'll hear the terms used interchangeably, but they shouldn't be. While Nibiru is a purely fictional idea from the mind of Zecharia Sitchin, Planet X is actually a real hypothesized planetary body.
During the first years of the 20th century, the famed astronomer Percival Lowell hypothesized the existence of a massive planet out beyond the orbit of Neptune which would explain perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. He called it Planet X, and devoted the last decade of his life to searching for it, without success. Pluto was discovered after Lowell's death, but by the latter half of the 20th century, it was determined to be too small to account for the orbital discrepancies. When Voyager 2 passed by, its measurements confirmed that we had overestimated Neptune's mass, and the new measurement was sufficient to account for the orbital discrepancies. So at that point, the search for a Planet X was terminated, as there was no longer any evidence of its existence.
However, a similar concept has since arisen. Observations of a number of extreme trans-Neptunian objects — bodies orbiting much farther out beyond Neptune — have suggested their orbits are being impacted by another as-yet undiscovered massive object. If it exists, astronomers have calculated some constraints on it. There are various hypotheses, but most propose that it's probably a rocky or icy planet, two to 15 times the mass of the Earth, and on an extremely inclined and eccentric orbit. This orbit gets no closer than 200 AU from the Sun, and no farther than 1200 AU. (AU is Astronomical Unit, the distance between the Earth and the Sun.) Its orbital period would likely be between 10,000 and 20,000 years. Due to the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet, the newly hypothesized body has been dubbed Planet Nine.
With those constraints, if a Planet Nine does exist, it would absolutely not, no way, no how, ever be visible to the naked eye, or to have any effects that would be detectable from the Earth — except to the sensitive instruments of modern astronomers. Some have suggested that hey, maybe the Sumerians saw Planet Nine, and that's the original grain of truth to Sitchin's Nibiru story. But we have to remember that there is no evidence in all the surviving writings of the Sumerians that can be correlated with this. Sitchin made up his own translations, they are not correct. He did not work with any astronomers or historians; all of his Nibiru musings came only from his own mind. That a Planet Nine, within plausible parameters, would not have been observable by the Sumerians or Egyptians or any other ancients is a scientific fact, not a speculation.
So by now it may be unnecessary to summarize our final conclusion, that the chances of Earth coming into harm's way due to Nibiru is zero, since the entire thing was pure fiction that never had any remote analog in the world of real science. As we often see with so many urban legends, the interesting thing is not the legend itself, but how it was created and why it sprouted legs and became a widely-held belief. People are often frustrated with reality, and so are sometimes quick to embrace any alternate reality — especially one that thumbs its nose at science and embraces philosophies such as New Age. And so, as long as the world remains imperfect for some, we will always have alternative histories and alternative sciences being invented and shared and warmly accepted.
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