The Earth-Destroying Planet Nibiru! (and Johannes Kepler)

  • Article (blog post)
  • 2000 words
  • Level: all audiences

Christopher M. Graney writes in the Vatican Observatory’s The Catholic Astronomer blog on what the work of the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler (who put hymns of praise to God in his scientific writings) can tell us about the supposed Earth-destroying planet Niburu, and about things like Nibiru that generate interest on the internet.  Graney writes:

It is unclear how many Nibiru enthusiasts believe it actually exists, and how many are just fascinated by the idea.  I first learned about it from a neighbor—a very intelligent musician, director of music at one of the more prominent Catholic churches in my area (Louisville, Kentucky), who holds a doctorate from one of the best music schools in the USA.  It is not that he truly believes in Nibiru, but he clearly finds the idea fascinating, and always asks me about it (in part to provoke an eye roll).  But the fact is, he does not have a scientific education; he seems to feel that he is stuck with either believing or not believing what scientific authority tells him on the subject, and so he likes to play up the conspiracy theory aspect of it (“why are all these people going to the South Pole, huh?  They’re tracking Nibiru, aren’t they?”).  One of the janitors at my college is a little more serious in his inquiries.  He just wants to know.  “I hear about this stuff, but I have a grade-school education,” he said.  “How do I know what to believe and what not to believe?”…

We astronomers might have to accept some blame for nonsense like Nibiru.  We want to tell people about exciting, dynamic stuff—stars being born! stars dying! worlds and galaxies in collision! change! chaos! excitement! THINGS BLOWING UP!!!  Science should be fun, right?  Thus fun, exciting things get lots of emphasis in popular science.  After all, are not thousands upon thousands of years of orbital stability the very definition of boring?  And how boring are Kepler’s Third Law graphs?  How boring is lack of change?  How boring is reading some ancient Greek poet describing the very sky we see today?  Perhaps it is at our own peril that we astronomers talk up the exciting stuff, and gloss over Kepler and stability and clockwork.  And, of course, what is a media outlet like the Washington Post going to be more likely to talk about?  Mysterious planets obliterating things?  Or math and graphs and hymn-singing seventeenth-century astronomers?

Click here to access this article from The Catholic Astronomer, the official blog of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.