There are a lot of reasons Caltech physicist Randall Smith didn't recently announce that a rogue planet named Nibiru is going to destroy Earth this weekend — not the least being that "Randall Smith" of Caltech doesn't exist. That's the same reason — the doesn't-really-exist reason — that NASA spokeswoman Heather Cartwright didn't publicly confirm the fictional Smith's findings.
And as for Nibiru itself? It ain't real either.
That's not the way the fever swamps in the more remote regions of the Internet have it, of course. According to the stories bubbling up online, Nibiru is real and it's a bruiser — a world with 10 times the mass of Earth. NASA has known about it for years but — surprise! — has kept it a secret, according to the make-believe Cartwright. But the jig is up because the planet is on a collision course with our world and the end will come on Sept. 23, or this Saturday. No word if it'll happen before or after the 3:30 kickoff of the Duke-North Carolina game, but take Duke and give the points just in case.
The end-of-the-world theory — despite its high preposterousness quotient — has legs. Google "Nibiru" and "end of the world" and you get 1.27 million hits. NASA, as if it doesn't have more important things to do, has publicly debunked earlier Nibiru stories. Snopes.com, which gets out of bed in the morning for exactly this kind of silliness, has debunked this newest version of the tall tale. And yet there are still a lot of people out there sweating what's coming.
There's no definite source of the origin of the current rumor — any more then there's been one for any of the uncounted end-of-the-world scares that have been coming along practically as long as there's been a world to end in the first place. Nibiru does sound suspiciously similar to the informally named Planet 9, a theorized planet announced last year, which may orbit the sun at 20 times the distance of Neptune and, like Nibiru, have 10 times the mass of Earth. The possible existence of the planet was based on a well-conducted study showing that only the gravitational influence of a world with that mass and orbit could account for the behavior of a cluster of smaller bodies in the solar system known as Kuiper Belt Objects.
Giving more explicit voice to the warnings of a Saturday checkout time for all of us is conspiracy fabulist David Meade, whose YouTube video making his end-is-nigh case has amassed 3.2 million views so far. His reasoning, such as it is, has something to do with the Bible, something to do with the number 33 and something to do with the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, because...why not? Oh, and last month's total eclipse is involved too because, well, it was just laying around and you don't want it to go to waste, do you? Other faux sources, notably News4KTLA (the four call letters were snatched from a legitimate Los Angeles station), picked up on Meade's tale last year, and that account is being folded into this year's 2.0 version.
All these rock-solid sources notwithstanding, you can probably feel safe keeping your Saturday plans. For starters, consider the size of the fanciful Nibiru. If a bit of protoplanetary gravel like Pluto could be discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1930 using the limited technology of the time, a marauding beast like Nibiru would have been spotted by telescopic eyes all over the planet — not to mention orbiting above it — long ago.
What's more, a great flying world with so much mass would exert a powerful gravitational influence on anything around it. Send it tearing through the solar system and it would scatter the planets and moons it passes like ten-pins. What's more, since Nibiru is said to have last passed this way just 3,500 years ago — barely an hour by cosmic standards — the solar system would not remotely have had time to rearrange itself into the orderly pattern of orbital wheels within wheels that exists today and has in fact existed for billions of years.
The solar system was here long before cat videos, Facebook memes and Internet fruitcakes selling Internet hooey — and the odds are pretty good it'll outlast them all. The real planets can feel free to go about their business and have a pleasant weekend — and so can the rest of us.