Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 21, 2016

On the Hubbub Yesterday About a New Planet X


I’m assuming you’re living in a box if you didn’t see the headlines yesterday, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But … it was announced in many headlines, based on a paper appearing in the Astronomical Journal (yes, a real journal), that dynamic evidence of an unseen planet had been found in the outer solar system.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media got it wrong. I saw headlines such as, “Researchers Find Possible Ninth Planet Beyond Neptune.” That’s wrong.

And, of course, the pseudoscientists get it wrong, too, with some claiming that it proves hyperdimensional physics (whatever that means) and the fission model for planet formation (that planets are spat out of the sun in twins). You can probably guess who’s talking about that.

But here’s what really happened, for people are sending me lots of links (seriously, you can stop sending me links about this). We have a few observations of a few objects out beyond Neptune. I think the number of known, observed Kuiper Belt Objects is around 400. That’s not a lot when models suggest there should be billions to trillions of these objects.

But, based on those that we have observed, there are six in particular that have some similarities in the orbits. And an unseen planet, somewhere around 1-10 times the mass of Neptune, on an elliptical orbit that takes it as close as 7 times farther from the sun than Neptune (so 200 times farther than Earth) and as far as 600-1200 times the Earth-sun distance, could cause those similarities. The two astronomers who wrote the paper calculate there’s only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the similarities in those six objects’ orbits is random chance.

Color me skeptical.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like these dynamical arguments. They rely on many assumptions based on very few things being observed. These particular scientists are about as mainstream as you can get, but one of them, Mike Brown, is well known for being provocative to the point of stirring up upblic controversy to promote his work. For example, he wrote the book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.” It also might not be purely coincidental that the news came out the day after the New Horizons spacecraft’s tenth anniversary of launch.

The bottom-line is that this is not an observation of a body. This is dynamical arguments suggestive of a body based on numerous assumptions based on very few observations of a suspected population of bodies.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. And CalTech’s PR machine has been working over-time to pump this story out as much as they can, which also perturbs me.

12 Comments »

  1. Meh, does this take it to possible or probable on the whole chances of something out there?

    Comment by Bruce b — January 21, 2016 @ 11:04 am | Reply

    • Mike Brown and his co-author would probably argue “probable.” I would not.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 21, 2016 @ 11:05 am | Reply

      • Ok. Would the evidence even rate as possible?

        Comment by Bruce b — January 21, 2016 @ 11:10 am

      • Sure, it’s possible.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 21, 2016 @ 11:14 am

  2. I agree. Nothing has been found, merely hypothesised. I looked into all the times such analysis has been wrong over on my blog. Proof can only come with an actual image, and the search may well draw a blank.

    Comment by Matthew Wright — January 21, 2016 @ 11:47 am | Reply

    • I read somewhere that the team is going to be using Subaru in March to start the search. We shall see what they find, but I doubt it will be anything spectacular that soon.

      Comment by B. Doyle — January 23, 2016 @ 10:57 pm | Reply

      • I expect it’ll take many months, probably years (not least because they’ll have to shuffle the ‘scope time’ with other users). Reality seldom matches the ‘instant spectacle’ expectations of the media!

        Comment by Matthew Wright — January 24, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

  3. Seems to me it’s going to be extraordinarily hard to observe this hypothetical thingie. At that distance, even observations spaced a year apart would only show a tiny movement.

    Comment by expat — January 21, 2016 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  4. I agree a lot of work needs to be done before we get too excited. It is fun to consider the possibilities though, just have to always point out this all hypothetical. At least until more evidence is brought to light. This would be an amazing discovery, if it can be shown to not be planet vaporware.

    If I may try to answer Bruce b, very tentatively possible. No where near probable.

    Comment by shelldigger — January 21, 2016 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  5. I’ll admit it, I’m excited by this possibility. I would dearly love this to be true. It would be awesome!

    I am a tad disappointed by the reality check you’ve given Stuart, I had thought that the data was more positive than you’ve presented. Maybe I’ve let my wish for this to be true cloud my judgement?

    Anyway, thanks for your ever welcome voice of reason, even if it doesn’t always give the answer we want🙂

    Comment by limey — January 22, 2016 @ 3:16 am | Reply

    • I also had the disappointing talk with myself about how it is simply a predictions more so than anything else. I also had the same discussions with my friends later on.

      It’s a disappointing discussion I have to admit. But one must see it for what it is, simply a prediction.

      Comment by amillennialsmind — January 24, 2016 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

  6. “…which also perturbs me.” Well played, sir. Well played.

    Comment by Pat — January 24, 2016 @ 11:20 am | Reply


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