Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 19, 2010

Upcoming Public Talk on 2012 Doomsday – Fiske Planetarium, CU-Boulder, Colorado


I rarely do plugs on my blog, but this one has two parts to it so I thought I’d go ahead. I’ll be doing a public lecture / planetarium show this Friday, July 23, starting at 8:00PM at Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus. The show will be about 2012 with the short title: “Doomsday 2012.” In the talk, I will be discussing:

  • History of the 2012 phenomenon.
  • Geographic Pole Shifts (and Planet X).
  • Magnetic Pole Shifts.
  • Galactic Alignments.
  • “Something” on the Sun.

Should be fun! The poster advertisement is shown in the image on the right. It was hastily put together by me after a misunderstanding today. I had seen a cool image that the planetarium was using to advertise the program, and I figured they had made their own poster, even though I had told them I wanted to make it (since, personally, I hadn’t been a fan of their posters in the past). Since I saw this image advertising the event on their website, I figured they had just forgotten. And also, I liked it, so I didn’t say anything.

I went to practice the talk today at the planetarium (and work out timing for various effects and use of the star projector) and noticed that the poster wasn’t hanging up. So I sent an e-mail asking about it and asking if I could have a copy for personal use. The reply came that they thought I was doing the poster. Sigh.

So I said that I was planning on it, saw they had one on the site, and assumed it was all done. Nope, that was just a small image they’d found online and was about 100×150 pixels … not quite the right size for a 20″x30″ poster. And their graphics guy was out until Wednesday.

So, I spent an hour this afternoon and came up with what you see. It’s not great, and it’s not as cool as the one they had found online, but it gets the message across.

Anyway, another reason (that second one I mentioned) for this post is that I had my fourth interview with a news paper in the last few years. The local newspaper, the Daily Camera contacted me last Friday and asked if they could interview me for a “5 Questions” column about the show. The reporter actually asked me 9 questions and chose the shortest 5 or so, leaving out a few that I thought were much more interesting, but that’s typical of news reporters. There are also two language issues I have with the introduction.

First, he calls me a “self-proclaimed skeptic” which to me sounds similar to a “self-proclaimed [insert topic of your choice].” I dunno, maybe I’m just being over-sensitive. The other is that he makes the ever-common mistake of referring to 2012 doomsday proposals as “theories” instead of “hypotheses” or really just “random nut-job suppositions.” Oh well.

The local skeptics group (Mile-High Skeptics) will be at the show and I’ll be joining them for drinks (FOOD) afterwards. So, if you’re in the area, come on by! I do have to mention that ticket prices are $6 for adults, $3.50 for children/seniors, and $5 for students with ID. Not that expensive, and – come on! – what else are you going to be doing on a Friday night?

November 3, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why Gilbert Eriksen’s “Wormwood” Won’t Be Showing Up


Introduction

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted more “research”-type information on the whole 2012 and Planet X nonsense that abounds upon the internet. I was looking through my notes and came across some notes I made while listening to the June 29, 2009, episode of Coast to Coast AM that had an interview with Gilbert Eriksen.

Eriksen is big on Biblical prophecy (given the name he uses for Planet X, “Wormwood,” you could probably guess that). I will not be addressing his links to the Bible in this blog post as that is for someone else to do and is not the subject of this blog, nor is it my area of expertise. Rather, I will focus on the astronomy/geology/physics that he brought up in his interview on the radio show. If for some reason you are more interested in his work, you can visit his website, The Millennium Prophecy.

All posts in this series:

Eriksen’s Sense of Wormwood / Planet X

Eriksen claims several specific things about this object. First off is its orbit. During the second hour of the program, about 11 minutes in, he claims, “[The solstice] line is the line that Wormwood comes in on, arcs up over the sun, and goes back out on. It follows the solstice line produced.” About 12 minutes in, we also have, “Its transit time is about 1800 years … outbound … [so a round-trip of ~3600 years].”

Another area of interest for any astronomical body is its mass, which Eriksen says about 12 minutes into that second hour is “about 60 times Jupiter’s mass, it is about 1/17th of a solar mass.”

What about its diameter? “From the best that we can tell …, military sources, they think that it’s the size of Saturn, possibly as large as Jupiter.” (~12 min. in)

And what about the composition of this giant object? “[I]nstead of being a gas, it’s an iron-oxide [rust] ball – just a big giant iron ball. And it’s really heavy.” (~12 min. in)

But, this conflicts with what kind of object he claims it is: “Wormwood is a brown dwarf star, it is the sun’s binary companion.” (~12 min. in)

And, from what I can tell of his diagrams, he thinks that it is right now within the orbit of Jupiter.

Problems with this Basic Data

Let’s forego the very basic fact that if an object the size of Saturn or Jupiter were within the orbit of Jupiter that everyone on Earth would know about it. I’ve addressed this elsewhere. To be fair, though, he does claim that an amateur astronomer “can probably find it [Woormwood] now.” And it will be visible to any southern hemisphere observer. Of course, none have found it, which to any honest researcher would be a big clue that they should re-examine their hypothesis.

Let’s also forego the idea that an object with a 3600-year orbit in our solar system can’t work, either, as I’ve also already addressed that claim.

Rather, let’s look at his description of the object – a brown dwarf star, but also an object made of solid iron – and the size and mass.

Let’s get the math over with first. The density of pure water at room temperature at sea level on Earth is 1 gm/cm3 (this is by definition). The density of Jupiter is 1.33 times this. So it would sink. The density of Saturn is 0.69 times this, so it would float. Earth’s bulk average density of 5.52 gm/cm3.

Eriksen claims that his object is 60 times the mass of Jupiter. But its volume is somewhere between Saturn’s and Jupiter’s. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt in this calculation and say that it’s the volume of Jupiter. That would mean that the density of the object is 60×1.33 = 80. That’s right, 80 times the density of water. And yet, the density of iron is 7.85 times the density of water.

For comparison, the average density of the sun is 1.41 times that of water. Though, to be fair, the core is about 150-160x (depending upon what model you trust). But still, having such a high average density is an untenable situation. for an object with the features he claims.

Eriksen’s Claims of Activity

Besides the basic parameters of this object, part of the crux of his argument is that this Wormwood has active surface geology: “It’s probably volcanic. It throws massive amounts of iron oxide dust out, which are distributed through the inner node rings.” (~12 min. in)

And then we get to the real pseudo-science (as opposed to fake pseudo-science … or as opposed to what he claimed before) about 16 minutes into the second hour of the program:

What causes the grief is …this thing will spin, too. … This object has a very powerful baryonic field – you know, it has a lot of mass – and you spin it, it develops a node ring or ‘distortion field’ like a series of concentric hula hoops. These concentric hula hoops are then reflected back from the dark matter / dark energy of space (the dark soup, you know), and what you end up with are these concentric rings. Where those rings are around the sun, that’s where the planets orbit. Where the rings are around the Earth, that’s where the moons are. The same thing for Jupiter, Saturn. … If you take a planet like Saturn and really rev it up fast … then the thing will not only generate node rings for moons, but rings for ice and junk and all sorts of stuff. And the Cassini space craft got some excellent pictures. … Each one of the rings are spinning at a different speed with the fastest ones on the inside and the slowest ones on the outside. So spinning bodies generate these gravitational distortions. … And that’s where the asteroids and the space junk orbits Woormwood.

Huh?

Let’s attempt to dissect what Eriksen is claiming in that long quote. He’s basically saying, (1) Objects that have mass and that spin will generate “concentric nodal gravitational rings;” (2) it’s on the sun’s rings that planets orbit, on the planets’ rings that moons orbit, etc.; (3) these rings are also duplicated and made more complicated via reflections off of dark matter and dark energy; and (4) it’s on these rings that space junk orbits and will cause destruction on Earth.

Let’s address the foundational claim, that of the very existence of these concentric rings. Now, I took 14 physics classes in my undergraduate career, and I took 10 astronomy classes. I don’t happen to remember any mention of such a thing as gravitational nodal rings. But, I did a quick Google search just to see if my memory was failing at my ripe young age of 20-something. A Google search of “gravitational nodal rings” turns up only references to 2012, Planet X, Wormwood, or the like. Now, I don’t mean to dismiss this out of hand on that evidence, I suppose it’s possible that such a thing exists (perhaps they are thinking of gravitational waves that are thrown off by very massive objects like colliding neutron stars or spinning black holes?). But, the fact that the only people who are talking about them on the whole of the internet are Planet Xers should tell you something.

So then why (2) do the planets and moons orbit where they do? Because it’s where they happened to have formed or evolved into a resonance with another object. For example, three of the four main moons of Jupiter – Io, Europa, and Ganymede – orbit in a 4:2:1 resonance meaning that for one full orbit of Ganymede around Jupiter, Europa orbits twice, and Io orbits four times. The system probably didn’t form that way, in fact there’s evidence that Ganymede didn’t make it into that resonance until about 1-2 billion years ago, but it has nothing to do with gravitational nodes or rings.

As for (3), Eriksen is throwing out scientific-sounding terms when he has no idea what he’s talking about. Dark energy has to do with the expansion of the universe and is not something tangible that something can reflect off. Dark matter is non-baryonic material (you are made up of baryonic material) that we can only detect via its gravitational effects … again, not something that a mystical gravitational node ring could reflect off.

Since I’ve effectively explained why 1-3 are ridiculous, I really think we can eliminate (4) as there’s no longer anything to base it off.

What Destruction Does Eriksen Claim?

Like any good doomsday-sayer, Gilbert Eriksen of course makes specific claims of how this is going to destroy Earth. He has 6 specific claims that he makes during the second hour of the radio show, between about 18 minutes and 25 minutes. The first is taken as a quote from the radio show, while 2-6 are quotes from his website:

  1. “Number 1, a great earthquake. this is where the node rings of Woormwood take ahold of the Earth and just shake the livin’ liver out of it. … I think the first [earthquake] was the [December 25/26, 2004] tsunami, and that grabbed ahold of the plates down there.”
  2. “We get volcanic activity at tectonic plate edges … rims of fire that eject high tonnages of ash plume into the upper atmosphere that block out the sun light over large areas of the earth.”
  3. “Wormwood throws large tonnages of iron oxide dust and debris between the Earth and the moon or into Earth’s atmosphere. When we look through the veil of iron oxide dust, the moon takes on a blood red color.”
  4. “Wormwood throws asteroids and various forms of space junk into Earth’s atmosphere that impact on the surface as meteorites. Expect some severe tsunami events if there are impact pieces landing in the ocean that are of significant size.”
  5. “At least one of the volcanic eruptions will be a large pyroclastic explosion … a volcanic cone that will “blow its top” like Mt. St Helens in May, 1980. The blast concussion feels like the sky is ‘splitting apart’ anywhere within sound range of the cone. The curling action of the mushroom cloud when viewed from below looks like a scroll when it is allowed to spring back into the rolled up position.”
  6. “Tectonic shifting from the Wormwood node ring earthquake will shift the mountains and islands into different places. Displacements may be measured in tens or hundreds of feet of difference but the shifts will be measureable [sic] with modern surveying equipment. Again, with major earthquake activity and island movements expect severe tsunami events to follow for various coastal cities.”

For good measure, at 29 minutes into the program, he also states, “It can reach right through the Earth … and pull a continent down under the waves on one side of the Earth and pull a continent up out of the waves on the other side of the Earth and do it in 20 minutes. Does Atlantis ring a bell? What about Lemuria? There’s a very good chance you’ll see Atlantis rising in 2012 – that’s Woormwood talking.”

Are We Going to See This Destruction?

In a word, “no.” First, #1, 2, 4, and 5 are very general claims. Earthquakes happen. Space junk falls to Earth and we see meteorites landing on a daily basis. And volcanos also blow their tops. It just happens.

#3 won’t happen because in the previous section I explained his entire mechanism is fallacious, which then also applies to why #6 will not happen. As for Atlantis? I’ve addressed Atlantis before, too.

Final Thoughts

Gilbert Eriksen is another doomsday proponent with a Biblical twist that has a book to sell for $16.95, people to scare, but nothing to back him up except a lot of misunderstood terms at best and outright deceit at worst. He has no training in relevant physics, astronomy, nor geology fields, but rather is a “psychologist, linguist, and former helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.”

What’s strange about him is that he makes specific predictions that are demonstrably false, some now (such as the visibility of this object), and some in the very near future (claiming, for example at 15 minutes into the interview, that in “May/June/July [of 2010] … it’s gonna get close enough to exchange atmospheric gases with the Earth”).

October 11, 2009

Planet X and 2012: “Even the Maya Are Getting Sick of 2012 Hype”


Introduction

Despite “finishing” my series on Planet X and 2012 over 6 months ago, new news stories and questions and interviews on Coast to Coast AM keep rolling in. The news stories are at least half-way decent, and a friend sent me the one I’m addressing today, “Even the Maya are getting sick of 2012 hype: Apocalypse Next? Experts trace fears to modern, not ancient sources.”

All posts in this series:

The Good

Most of this article is very good. I’m quite impressed with AP reporter Mark Stevenson. Well over 70% of the article is dedicated to pointing out the false prophecies and foolishness related to 2012 doomsday, and nearly half of it is dedicated to actually getting the point of view of a real live Mayan. I know — getting the opinion of someone who actually follows the religion/culture that you consider yourself an expert in … who’d’ve thunk it?

The Bad

The article does make one major mistake, though: “Once every 25,800 years, the sun lines up with the center of our Milky Way galaxy on a winter solstice, the sun’s lowest point in the horizon. That will happen on Dec. 21, 2012, when the sun appears to rise in the same spot where the bright center of galaxy sets.”

As explained in my post, Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012, there is NO ALIGNMENT WITH THE CENTER OF THE GALAXY.

The sun will lie very close to the galactic equator on the winter solstice in 2012, but the actual alignment with the equator was in 1998, and the sun at no time gets anywhere near the galactic center, AKA core. And, even if it did, an alignment means pretty much nothing. This is like saying that when I close one eye and move my finger in front of it to block out a very distant street light, or building, that suddenly disaster is going to strike me or my eye and I’m going to ¡poof! disappear, suffer a pole shift, die, or something else. In other words, even if the sun DID align with the galactic center, nothing would happen.

Oh, and for completeness’ sake, I feel as though I should also point out that the sun does align with the galactic plane 2 times every year. Perfectly aligned. Twice. Every year.

Conclusions

I suppose you may sense a bit of sarcasm in this post. Well, it being my first after coming off of a posting hiatus, me still being busy, and being a tad annoyed at all the 2012 hype that’s sure to reach a frenzy next month when the eponymous movie comes out, well, can you blame me?

February 6, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why a 3600-Year Planet X (Nibiru) Doesn’t Exist


Introduction

Those of you reading the title of this post may be wondering why I choose to address such a specific and odd-sounding claim: Why would I claim that there isn’t a Planet X coming around that has a period (its year) of 3600 Earth years? That seems like such an odd claim.

However, it features very prominently in Zecharia Sitchin’s claims of Planet X (which he calls Nibiru), its alien population known as the Anunnaki, and them coming to steal all our gold in 2012. He was pretty much one of the infamous founding fathers of the modern Planet X movement (at least as it relates to aliens) by his reading of interpretation of Sumerian texts.

I still haven’t quite decided whether or not to devote a post to his claims because I’m not a Sumerian scholar, I don’t play one on TV, and most of his claims deal with aliens’ desire for gold and not with actual astronomy claims. But, he claims that the year of this planet lasts 3600 Earth years, and that the Anunnaki’s planet last came around nearly 3600 years ago.

All posts in this series:

First Off, Why There’s No Planet X Coming in the Near Future

Rather than repeat myself, I will refer to the two posts on this topic that I’ve already written: “Planet X and 2012: The Real and Historical Story of Planet X” and “Planet X and 2012: Why Planet X Is NOT Coming in 2012.”

Why Planet X Didn’t Visit (Almost) 3600 Years Ago

Disclaimer: This is another case of proving a negative, which you really can’t do in astronomy. However, the evidence that I can present that it didn’t come by should either convince you or cast serious doubt on much of the other evidence that people present for it having come by.

And that’s really in this simple statement: Planet X folks place huge emphasis on the skill of ancient civilizations to make astronomical observations. The Mayans had their amazing calendar and knew everything about Venus’ orbit. The Chinese have the oldest records of comets. All 15 major civilizations in 705 B.C. apparently revised their calendar within the next 5 years due to observing Earth’s year had switched from 360 days per year to 365. These are all major pieces of “evidence” for various claims in the Planet X and 2012 doomsday scenario and conspiracy.

So let’s assume that’s correct.

If that is correct, then these same civilizations, a mere 3600 (nearly) years ago must have observed something as large as a planet that reached – if nothing else – as close as the inner solar system. After all, the Chinese could see comets, much smaller than a planet. They could see Saturn, much farther away than Mars (by a factor of around 25 times). And they knew that these objects were different than regular stars. They recorded them. Practically every civilization knew about them.

And yet, somehow, there exist no records whatsoever of a planetary body encroaching on the inner solar system.

If nothing else, this is the blatant logical fallacy of “inconsistency.” They were great astronomers. Yet they all managed to miss this gigantic event.

The only efforts I’ve seen that attempt to explain this simply are required to resort to conspiracy theories: The evidence was there but every single shred of it, and everyone who knew about it, has been kept hidden by the world governments. Except for those token few who manage to get the truth out, past the Army of Darkness, to be brought into the Light. (Yet somehow they are not subject to attempts of silencing.)

Final Thoughts

It occurs to me that in my blog, of late, I’ve strayed a bit into resorting to some sarcasm and a teensy bit of ad hominem attacks. I really haven’t done the latter, at least not directed at any one person. I’ve simply examined the claims directly and only based tests of validity on them. Not said they’re wrong based on the person (or group) making them.

However, I fully admit to the sarcasm seeping into the blog. At least as I continue to explore the 2012 and Planet X claims. I think it’s because I’m starting to get a little weary of the topic when the claims are so demonstrably wrong and not internally consistent (an example of the former being the galactic alignment, an example of the latter being this post). It’s difficult not to get a little snarky, as I did in the last paragraph of the last section.

But the point remains: If you’re going to tell a story, be consistent. A theory has to explain the evidence. The evidence can’t contradict itself. And you can’t selectively look at some evidence and not other evidence. So you simply can’t say ancient civilizations three millennia ago were stupendous astronomers and yet they somehow missed a giant planet that swung by.

February 4, 2009

Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012


Introduction

Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, I already addressed the claim that the sun will be aligning with the galactic center on December 21, 2012 (the winter solstice). However, it occurs to me that I made some vague remarks of this galactic alignment not actually being any alignment what-so-ever, despite people saying it is, without actually going into the details of the situation. I wanted to clarify this with a diagram that, in fact, there is no alignment on December 21, 2012, with even the central plane of the galaxy, let alone the center of the galaxy.

What The Sky Looks Like

The Sky on December 21, 2012 (Click to Enlarge)

The Sky on December 21, 2012 (Click to Enlarge)

The above picture (click to enlarge it) shows what the sky looks like on the winter solstice on December 21, 2012 at 11:12 AM GMT (note that the time often quoted is 11:11, but that is not the case). In this section, I’m going to explain what is shown, while in the next section I’ll explain what it means.

The bright white object on the left side that intersects the green line is the sun.

The green line is the line of the ecliptic, which is the line traced out by the sun in the sky. Alternatively, it is the plane of Earth’s orbit through the solar system.

The red grid is the celestial coordinate system, which I briefly alluded to in the previous post. It is really an extension of Earth’s latitude and longitude system projected into space. Declination is the equivalent of latitude, while Right Ascension is longitude. Unlike longitude, which is measured in degrees (360°), right ascension is measured in hours (24 h in the sky). This is because it takes one hour for an object to move one hour of right ascension.

The purple grid is the galactic coordinate system. The horizontal lines are lines of galactic latitude, where the galactic equator (running through the middle) is really the, well, galactic equator – the plane of the galaxy. The vertical lines are the lines of galactic longitude, with the galactic meridian going through the center. Where the galactic meridian and the galactic equator intersect is defined as the center of the galaxy.

The definition of the winter solstice is when the sun is on the 18th hour line of right ascension. That occurs – in 2012 – at 11:12 AM GMT. (Summer solstice is when it is on the 6th hour of right ascension. Spring equinox is when it’s on the 0th hour line while autumnal is when it’s on the 12th hour line. By definition, it is always on the ecliptic.)

What Do We See from This Diagram?

No galactic alignment.

First off, the sun isn’t anywhere near the galactic center. So strike that one right off the list.

Second, the sun isn’t even on the galactic equator. It is 10.86 arcmin (0.181°) away from it. Though in the interest of full disclosure, the sun’s limb will be on it since the sun does have a finite size in the sky.

But, the closest approach to when the 18th hour of right ascension intersected with the galactic equator intersected with the ecliptic was the winter solstice of 1:50 AM December 22, 1998. The sun was only 0.30 arcmin (0.005°) off of the galactic equator. Funny … I don’t remember any doomsday happening then. Granted, I was in high school and not paying much attention to the news at the time, but I think I would have noticed if the world had ended.

Final Thoughts

As you can clearly see, there is no galactic alignment on this date. It already happened. And nothing happened. And in reality, the winter solstice has absolutely no relative importance in astronomy, just like alignments have no importance in astronomy (in the context of affecting Earth in a doomsday-like scenario). So, even if there were going to be an alignment – which there isn’t – it would have no importance anyway. It would happen every year. In fact, the sun crosses the plane of the galaxy twice every year … and yet nothing happens.

I know I’ve berated this claim many times now, but it’s important. I still see people making the claim. Please take note: It is baseless! And even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

All Posts in This Series

The main blog posts:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012 and Planet X:

And podcasts on which I have been interviewed on 2012:

February 3, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why Planet X Is NOT Coming in 2012


Introduction

Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main categories of claims deals with the amorphous “Planet X.” I use the adjective “amorphous” instead of “mysterious” or “elusive” because nearly everyone has a different hypothesis about what “Planet X” really is (and I’m going to drop the quotes for the rest of this post because it’s faster to write without them). Is it a large asteroid? Or a rocky planet? Or a gas giant planet? Or is it another star? Or is it something completely different?

I’m going to save going over those claims for another post. I’m also going to save the claims dealing with what will supposedly happen with Planet X for other posts, or ones that I’ve already covered (such as the Pole Shift). Rather, this post is really aimed at nipping Planet X in the butt before I even go over the specific claims – I’m going to show why we know that there is no Planet X coming for us in 2012 – or the near future, in general.

All posts in this series:

The Main Premise Behind Planet X

The basic idea behind Planet X is that a large object is currently approaching Earth and it will get very close to us towards the end of 2012. Doomsdayers disagree as to what exactly the object is, from where it’s approaching (as in within or above/below the plane of the solar system), and what exactly it will do to us. But, the real heart of the claims is that Planet X is out there, and either we just haven’t found it yet (even though it’s only 4 years away) or we have found it, but Big Government won’t let you know about it.

Knowing What’s In the Solar System

I discussed in my first post in this Planet X & 2012 series the real historical history behind the solar system’s Planet Xs. The basic idea is that the planets didn’t behave quite as they were supposed to given the gravitational forces by the other known planets in the solar system. Hypotheses were made about where the hidden mass would be coming from, the region was searched, and planets were discovered.

Today, we have very accurate models that take into account objects in the solar system ~1000 km in diameter and larger (this includes dwarf planets and some moons). These are used to calculate orbits which are included in every piece of astronomy planetarium-like software (such as Celestia, Starry Night, and The Sky on the freeware / commercial side).

Orbits are computed to even higher accuracy for space programs such as ESA, JAXA, and of course NASA, which have to know how everything is going to affect a spacecraft’s trajectory, how much fuel will be needed, and how and when it will get to its target.

The point that I’m attempting to make here is that if there were a large object out there, we would have to know about it.

What Do We Observe?

The claim has often been made that it’s out there but we just haven’t observed it yet — after all, the sky is a big place!

But, this claim is just wrong. We don’t have to observe the object with telescopes to know it’s there. After all, we don’t observe dark matter, but we know it’s there (and I will cover dark matter denialism in another post). We know dark matter is present because we observe its gravitational effects. And so if there were an unobserved, unseen Planet X that was fast-approaching Earth – even if it were 4 years away – we would know about it. Spacecraft would be slightly off-target. Planets would be where they’re supposed to be.

There are thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers out there who are searching the sky every night to look at known objects or looking for unknown objects. If a planet were experiencing the gravitational effects of an incoming planet or star, the masses of people who rely upon calculated orbits without that object would notice that something was wrong.

The argument that amateurs wouldn’t know any better is also fallacious because quite often, amateur astronomers are better-versed with the sky than most professional astronomers. A professional astronomer – even if they are an observationalist, may know a few constellations, but likely they will only know where their object or objects of interest lie (I’m speaking from experience here). Amateurs, on the other hand, are very well-versed with where objects are in the sky, what you can see if you look in a certain patch, where asteroids will be, and where comets will be. So amateurs are more likely to notice the perturbations than professionals.

The other claim is that Planet X is known about but Big Government is hiding it from You. In other words, the “conspiracy theory.” But again, this is really not possible. For the same reasons given above that many thousands of amateur astronomers would see the gravitational effects of this object, they would also very likely find the object. Amateur telescopes can observe asteroids that are as small as a few tens of kilometers across (the size of a city). There’s no way that they would miss a planet – or especially a star – that is only 4 years away from hitting us. And there’s no way to keep many thousands of amateur astronomers from all over the world quiet.

Final Thoughts

The claim that Planet X is out there and is going to hit us soon is easy to propagate because astronomers are constantly finding new objects in the solar system. New asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are being discovered weekly. But people who are lead to believe the Planet X claims don’t take into account what it would really take to “hide” such an object from the tens to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who observe the night sky. The gravitational effects from the object would be observed, and it should be bright enough – being only 4 years away from reaching us – that it should be plainly visible in the night sky.

And yet, it’s not observed. Its effects are not observed. So Planet X proponents resort to conspiracies to explain it, or they resort to simply ignoring the lack of evidence for it, effectively taking the “oh yeah!?” approach and not answering the questions or criticisms leveled.

As a final piece, in the interest of full academic honesty, I should note that it is not really possible to prove a negative. It is very remotely possible that there is a Planet X out there and we haven’t observed its effects for one reason or another. However, the likelihood of this being the case – as I have pointed out – is as close to 0% as is scientifically possible.

February 1, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Geographic / Spin Axis) Explained and Debunked


Introduction

Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main claims of what will actually happen is termed a “Pole Shift.” Sounds scary, huh? The Earth’s pole(s) … shifting!?

But what does it actually mean? Well, Earth actually has two sets of North and South Poles – the geographic and the magnetic. Most of the doomsdayers that I’ve heard seem to imply that they are talking about a geographic pole shift, but some also talk about a magnetic pole shift. Since both are completely different, and since they are significant enough topics by themselves, I am doing separate posts on them. This one addresses the geographic pole, also known as the rotation axis.

There are actually a few different specific versions of this scenario that various doomsday folks have created. The one that I know the most about and will address in this post is that of Brent Miller, founding member of the “Horizon Project,” and the statements that he has made on the November 10, 2008 and January 11, 2009 episodes of the Coast-to-Coast AM radio show. I am not going to use many quotes because there is no transcript for these shows and it’s an awful lot of typing and pausing and typing and pausing for me to supply a direct quote for each claim.

All posts in this series:

Main Premises

Basic Premise of a (Geographic) Pole Shift: The basic premise that Brent Miller argues for is that Earth’s spin axis will change. At present, Earth revolves such that the north geographic and south geographic pole stay stationary with respect to the stars, always pointing at the same location in space. The rest of the planet rotates around this axis. In a “pole shift” event, the geographic location of this axis would change such that two different locations would stay fixed with respect to the stars while the rest of the planet rotates around that axis.

Milky Way’s Black Hole Creates a “Dark Rift:” I addressed this more in-depth in my post about the pseudoastronomy of galactic alignments, but in brief, Miller thinks that the Milky Way’s black hole spins out gravity waves that create a “dark rift” along the center plane of the galaxy.

Properties of the “Dark Rift:” Miller claims the main property of this is an intense gravitational force that (a) will cause Earth’s poles to shift, and (b) contains a lot of “junk” material (my words, not his) such as asteroids that could impact Earth.

Earth’s Continents Are Kept “Afloat” By Earth Spinning on Its Axis: Miller points out that because Earth spins on its axis, the equatorial diameter is 42 km greater than the polar diameter, and that this is proof that the continents are above sea level because they are “pushed out” by Earth spinning. If Earth stopped spinning or if it started to spin around a different central axis, then the continents as we know them would sink because there is no longer the centrifugal force keeping them “out.”

This Has Happened Before and there’s Proof Its Happening Now: He goes through many apparent points of evidence to show that this has happened before (around 11,000 B.C. and something like it in 705 B.C.) and shows apparent evidence that it is starting to now.

Dissecting the “Evidence”

Milky Way, Black Holes, and “Dark Rift:” This is not correct, mostly for the reasons I pointed out in this post. There is no “dark rift.” If the Milky Way’s central supermassive black hole is throwing off gravitational waves, at the location we are, they will bend and flex us by less than the width of an atom.

Miller also claims that his “astrophysicists” have now verified we’re moving into the galactic plane (which we’re not) and his “quantum mechanics guys” have shown what the effects of the gravity waves would be. Because I want to really harp on this, here is the quote (from hour 4 of the Jan. 11 program at about 31 min 15 sec into the program): “Pretend the calendars never existed. Independent of the calendars, the quantum physicists have already confirmed that the center of our galaxy really is a super-massive black hole, they’ve confirmed the location of the galactic plane, uh, the astrophysicists have already mapped out the time in which we are going to be crossing the galactic plane, and they estimate it to within 2 or 3 days of [when the Mayans said it would happen] at the end of 2012.”

This really shows that the people who work with him (a) don’t know what they’re doing, (b) don’t read the scientific literature, (c) don’t contribute to the scientific literature, and (d) that he doesn’t know what someone in the fields he’s quoting should be doing. None of this has to do with quantum mechanics. Mapping out the galaxy is for astronomy. Finding “when” we’ll cross the actual galactic plane is for an astrophysicist. Finding the supermassive black hole in the galaxy’s center is for astronomy. Gravity waves are for general relativity (the opposite, pretty much, of quantum mechanics). And gravitational effects are Newtonian mechanics (classical mechanics). So really, this is an example of throwing out very important-sounding terminology and having no idea of what they actually mean, besides the actual information being wrong.

In sum, this will not be, “just like going into the black hole,” as Miller claims. And, as a consequence, his “theory” has now been shown to have absolutely no physical mechanism.

Earth’s Continents Staying Afloat: It’s difficult here to not resort to ad hominem attacks because this simply has no basis in reality. Pretty much the only thing correct in this entire argument is Earth’s equatorial diameter is 42.6 km greater than its polar diameter (from NASA’s factsheets). And it is thought that this is due to Earth’s rotation, that there will be a bulge around the middle that’s the effect of billions of years of rotation.

But other than that, nothing he says about this is correct. The continents don’t “float” such that if Earth’s spin were altered or stopped they’d suddenly sink (he quotes timescales of several hours or days for an entire landmass to sink). Centrifugal force does not keep them above water. Rather, they are less dense than the rock underneath. The average density of continental crust is 2.7 g/cm3. The average density of ocean crust is 3.0 g/cm3 That’s why at zones where oceanic meets continental crust, the oceanic crust goes underneath the continental crust. In addition, the continents have a “root” that goes between 20-70 km down, making an indentation into the underlying lithosphere.

What that all boils down to is that the continents are not tenuously kept above water just because Earth rotates. Claims that they are are incorrect and have no basis in what is the accepted structure of Earth as shown through models and evidence (such as gravity mapping and mapping of the interior structure via earthquakes).

So at this point I’ve now shown that his basic mechanism for a pole shift is wrong, and that his claim of what would happen as a consequence wouldn’t actually happen. But there’s more.

Examining His Historic Evidence: There are many, many points of apparent historic evidence for this that Miller points to To try to organize them a bit, I will address them as bullet paragraphs:

  • Continental Drift – Miller claims that we’ve all been taught that continental drift (the continents moving around on the lithosphere) takes millions of years. He says this is wrong, that it happens very quickly. The evidence he points to is that the crust in the Atlantic Ocean is about the same age – has the same amount of dead animals and mud and silt – as the crust in the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, they must be about the same age, indicating that the Americas separated from Eurasia and Africa very quickly. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of plate tectonics – specifically subduction. While the Atlantic Ocean is growing and the mid-Atlantic Rift is creating new crust, the Pacific Ocean is also creating new crust, but it is sinking once it spreads to the continental plates. The image below shows this reasonably well, and it is color-coded with the age of the seafloor. The dark, solid lines indicate either spreading or subduction zones. So, even if you don’t necessarily trust these ages, you should at least start to doubt the evidence and Miller’s interpretation of the evidence (an interpretation which is not supported by the scientific community).

  • Mayan Prophecy and Legend of Atlantis – Miller claims the Mayans foresaw this event. I have already addressed that in a few posts (here and here, mainly) and so will not do so again here. But Atlantis is a new one. But it is a tired one – Atlantis was introduced by Plato in the same sense that the Empire was introduced by George Lucas in Star Wars: “A long time ago on an island far, far away.” Miller uses the argument ad populum logical fallacy to say that because everyone around the world has this legend of an advanced civilization that had flying machines that all died out, they must have existed. And his twist is that they must have died out because of the pole shift causing their own island continent to sink into the ocean because Earth’s spin no longer kept it afloat. I don’t want to get too much more into Atlantis here since it’s not the focus, and so I will refer you to this 8-minute podcast of the SGU 5×5 for more information.
  • While talking about prophecy, I should mention that he also uses Nostradomus and Casey prophecies, which I won’t address because, as with most “prophecies,” they are so non-specific that they can be retrofitted to fit any event.
  • The Mississippi River Delta – Miller claims that the age of the Mississippi River can be estimated based upon the amount of sediments in the river delta in the Gulf of Mexico. I did a cursory internet search on this and couldn’t actually find much other than various young-Earth creationism claims, so for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s correct. He claims the estimates are to around 11,000 B.C. He says that the river must have formed when the pole shift happened and it shifted the way water flows. Well, how about a different explanation: The last ice age ended 10,0000-15,000 years ago, and retreating glaciers carved out the landscape to form the river. That’s the scientific consensus, in general, that the current Mississippi River owes its course to the last ice age, and it has nothing to do with a pole shift.
  • 705 B.C. Event – Miller claims that in 705 B.C., something happened to cause the Earth to stop spinning, rotate backwards for 10 hrs, then spin back the right way again but slightly slower such that the year had 365 days instead of 360 days. He claims as evidence for this that all 15 “major” calendar systems at the time were all revised “within just 2-5 years” of the event and that a few civilizations recorded it, such as the Chinese astronomers recording that the “sun set twice in one day” on that day. However, other than quotes from Miller, I could find absolutely no evidence to support this claim. And while I’m not saying that is proof against it, one should always be cautious when you cannot independently verify a claim. I would think something that significant would be out there, and so this also gets back to the point I made above that his people don’t publish any of their “findings” … they just sell them in DVDs for $24.95. I should also mention that the mechanism he thinks made this happen is a Planet X. But for reasons that I discuss below in the next section on “What Would it Take to Shift the Poles?” a “Planet X” passing could not do this. In addition, the claim is inconsistent. He states that so many people recorded that this event happened, and that many of them were excellent astronomers. But, they must have been incompetent astronomers if they didn’t notice a giant planet passing very close to Earth (since all ancient civilizations knew about Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn which are much farther away). So this would be the simple logical fallacy of inconsistency.

Examining His Present-Day Evidence: Just as there are many apparent lines of “evidence” of previous pole shifts that I’ve now at least cast serious doubt on if not outright debunked, there’s the question of his present-day “evidence.” However, what this “evidence” amounts to is an attempt to anomaly hunt and claim whatever anomalies one finds (or makes up) are proof of their hypothesis:

  • Chandler Wobble Stopped and Became Erratic – The Chandler Wobble is actually a kinda neat phenomenon and is a genuine pole shift. The wobble is where the rotation axis changes by up to about 0.7 arcseconds (where 1° = 60 arcmin and 1 arcmin = 60 arcsec) which translates to a physical movement of about 15 meters. The wobble has a period of about 433 days and is caused by Earth not being a perfect sphere, but rather more pear-shaped (Since, besides the equatorial bulge discussed above, the north and south hemispheres are slightly asymmetric). Miller claims that the Chandler Wobble was very steady until we entered his dark rift, and then it stopped, and now it’s erratic due to the gravity in the rift. However, he is wrong. There’s simply no other way to put it – he’s wrong. The wobble has varied since it was discovered in the late 1800s, and it has been measured since then and you can download the data for yourself. I graphed the x vs. y position of it since 1980 (shown below) and while it has varried in size, at no point during the last 30 years has it stopped, nor is it now behaving erratically. The only explanation I have for his claim is that either (a) he is completely ignorant of the actual data (perhaps one of his “quantum mechanics” told him wrong, or (b) he’s outright lying.

    Chandler Wobble, 1980-2009

    Chandler Wobble, 1980-2009

  • More and More Earthquakes – This has been a claim of doomsdayers for many years, that the frequency of earthquakes is increasing. This is not true. It’s our ability to measure and locate them that is increasing and hence they can be recorded. The large earthquakes – magnitude 5-6 and above – have remained steady for well over a century. This is according to the USGS (here and here), which is the data that Miller claims to be using. So again a case of inconsistency and just being ignorant of what’s really going on.
  • Weird Weather – This is another catch-all claim by doomsdayers, drawing attention the weird weather around the world (first snow in Baghdad in a century, record flooding and hurricanes, etc.). However, the scientific consensus is that this is due to global warming, where the few-degree temperature increase can easily cause global weather patterns to change, and it has nothing at all to do with the effects of a “dark rift.”

What Would it Take to Shift the Poles?

First off, let’s assume Miller’s basic mechanism of a gravitational event happening “to Earth” is real (assuming this for argument’s sake, and because it’s believed by many others, though they have different causes such as Planet X). If Earth entered a gravitational field of some sort, there is simply no mechanism to shift it (as in a pole shift). While, yes, Earth does rotate on its axis, this axis is an imaginary construct, there is nothing physical to pull on. This is where the analogy of a top spinning fails. And yes, while Earth does bulge at its equator, there is again nothing to really pull on it.

This is especially true when you consider that the field that Miller is proposing would take Earth 20 years to move through. You would need something incredibly focused (think tractor beam on Star Trek) in order to exert a torque (rotating force) on an object in order to spin it. A gravitational field could theoretically move Earth, but the type of field that Miller proposes could in no way exert a specific torque on Earth’s axis to shift the poles a certain amount and then stop.

What about a “Planet X?” Again, even a planet-sized body would exert a tug on Earth as a whole as opposed to through a specific axis and so could not effect a pole shift. I will address this further on a post specifically about what a Planet X could do.

So what would it really take to shift Earth’s poles? Well, in order to rotate something in any direction, you need to apply a force. That force has to be specifically in that direction on the part of the object to make it rotate in that way. For example, if you have a billiard ball and you want to spin it, you normally push it from a side (such as the top). You have provided the force to make it move. Now, if you were to apply that same force to the opposite side of the ball (so push away from you on both the top and the bottom), then it would just move away from you and not spin.

So in order to get Earth to rotate in a new direction, or to “shift” its poles, one would need to apply a lot of force in one direction on only one side. The easiest way I can think of doing this would be a planet-sized asteroid impact. As I have shown now on at least two other threads, even an impactor that is 100 km in diameter would be like a grain of sand plowing into a car. Sure, you’ll get a little dent (and wipe out some life), but the planet as a whole will not care. You need something that is much more comparable to Earth’s mass in order to really shift the poles. Something the size of the dwarf planet Ceres would do the trick – and that object is about 1000 km in diameter (Earth is about 12,900 km in diameter). And I should note that we know where all Ceres-sized objects are that are close enough to cause that to happen within the next few centuries. (Again, I will address that more on a post specifically about Planet X.)

Final Thoughts

This is by far my longest post over the last 4 months, over 50% longer than the previous record. And yet, again, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface of just this version of the pole shift idea. Perhaps it’s because I’ve now listened to 4 hours of Coast-to-Coast AM (the two episodes for the 3 “hours” each that Brent Miller talks) three times each to really get down the bulk of his claims and ideas. And there is still more to get into from him, but for now I want to leave him and let this post stand on its own since it really covers the bulk of his claims. As I’ve stated on other conspiracy-related posts, it’s impossible to get into every single claim because more crop up as soon as you debunk one (much like conspiracy theories).

Hence I have tried to give you the basic information to be able to figure out why the idea of 2012 somehow coinciding with an event that will cause a geographic pole shift has no basis in reality by both debunking or calling into question all of his claims, as well as talking about what it would really take to shift Earth’s rotation axis. If you come across (or have) a claim that I haven’t addressed within this topic, please leave a comment!

January 30, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Proof Earth Is Not Experiencing a Pole Shift


Introduction

Between my posts on the magnetic pole shift and geographic pole shift (since I left my notes on the latter in the office and so will have to write that post tomorrow), I’m going to address the claim that people make that our planet, right now is in the middle of a pole shift, that it’s already started to happen, and The Government doesn’t want you to know.

I’m going to show you why this is very obviously wrong, and what you can do yourself on any clear night to prove that this is wrong.

All posts in this series:

The Premise

This premise is NOT unique to this particular website, but it’s the one I’m using to illustrate the point for this post. The author clearly states, “Earth’s axis tilt has recently increased by an additional 26 degrees.” He also provides an illustration of what Earth’s orbit should be (top) and what it actually is (according to him) (bottom).

Background

For background, we’ll actually use his first (top) diagram. Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5° relative to the ecliptic. The “ecliptic” is defined as the plane that Earth traces out when it orbits the sun. So the tilt can also be described as the tilt that Earth’s axis makes relative to the path it takes around the sun.

Now let’s define “axis.” Again, this may seem elementary, but it’s important we get all the definitions straight. There are two points on Earth – the North and South geographic poles – that are always* pointed at the exact same locations in space. If you were to draw a line between these two points and follow them to other stars, the North pole line would come fairly close to what’s popularly known as the “North Star,” or “Polaris.” This common name comes both from medieval Latin polaris meaning “heavenly,” from the original Latin polus meaning “end of an axis.” Fairly apropos.

That is very important here – the poles are always aimed at the same spot in space, regardless of the time of day, regardless of the season. And Polaris sits 66.5° above the ecliptic (90°-23.5°= 66.5°) – or just about (since it’s actually slightly off of the axis, but it’s close enough for our purposes here).

The rest of the planet rotates – spins – around an imaginary line that runs through the North and South geographic poles (those two stationary points relative to the stars). This means that everywhere else on Earth, the stars rise and set throughout the day and night as Earth rotates under them. At either pole, the same stars just move in direct East-to-West circles without any rising or setting.

* There is a ~26,000-year precession (wobble) of the pointing of Earth’s rotation axis. The axis stays the same relative to Earth, but it moves relative to the stars in a rather large circle. 13,000 years ago, the North Star would have been the very bright star Vega. However, this should NOT be confused with a pole shift. This process is very slow and steady, and it has nothing to do with the claims of the 2012 doomsdayers.

Why This Pole Shift Claim Is Demonstrably Wrong

I’ll admit, this is fairly low-hanging fruit. You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out that these claims are wrong. And you should also be wary when the very first words on the guy’s website are, “Order your copy today” (of his book). You should also be careful when the guy’s Ph.D. is purely honorary and in the “the field of Energyinformative Sciences, from the Academy of Energyinformative Sciences.” Notice something missing? Yeah, anything related to astronomy, geology, or physics … not that a degree in those automatically makes all your ideas suddenly believable.

With that in mind, what would happen if the pole, well, shifted? Well, it would not look like this person’s diagram, partly because the plane of the ecliptic does not rotate with the axis of rotation. Earth’s orbit around the sun is independent from its rotation about its axis. But the major problem with the diagram is how he has drawn the day/night sides. Because the ecliptic would stay the same as it is now, the day/night shading should run vertically through the image.

What would the consequences of this be? This is where his claims are very easily demonstrably wrong in two very simple ways.

First, let’s look at this tilt and where the day/night line should be. If Earth has tilted an additional 26° as of now, it would be tilted 49.5° relative to the ecliptic. That means that all latitudes North of 49.5° N or South of 49.5° S would experience 24 hours of daylight during their summer solstices and 24 hours of night during their winter solstices. England, Norway, Canada, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, parts of Australia … I think they would have noticed this. I don’t think that governments could really cover something like that up.

Second, let’s look at the stars. He claims, “The star layout would only be a miniscule change which the average person would not notice.” This is factually wrong and very easy to see for yourself. Just go outside with a camera that can have a shutter speed of a minute or longer and a tripod. Aim it towards the North, and take a 1-5 minute picture (or longer if you’d like). What you will see is the stars making little arcs through the picture, but there will be one reasonably bright star that appears to not move at all. That star is Polaris. It may look something like the photo below, which was taken for about 30 minutes. The bright star towards the lower right corner is Polaris.

Sorry Southern Hemisphere folks, there is no pole star for you guys, but you can still accomplish the same effect and see stars moving around the Southern Celestial Pole.

What does this relatively stationary star show? It shows that Earth’s axis is still pointed towards Polaris. If it had tilted by 26° — even if it had tilted by 1° – that star would not stay in the same place, but it would move along with the others.

In addition, tens of thousands (or more) telescopes rely upon knowing exactly where Polaris is relative to the North Celestial Pole. Without it, they couldn’t keep keep track of objects, “go to” telescope systems wouldn’t work, and everyone who has any telescope that tracks the night sky would notice.

The Conspiracy

And so we get to the conspiracy”

“Why has no one mentioned the shift of the Earth’s Axis? Surely they would tell the public if something this major had occurred. Surely the scientists or meteorologists would have said something? Surely the media would have mentioned this?

“Wrong!!!! Global Panic! Economic Meltdown! Panic Hording!

“Meteorologists, Media CEO’s, astronomers, astrophysicists and other experts worldwide seem to have been silenced. A common gov’t control procedure in wartime or cataclysmic situations with severe penalties for those who fail to comply… Threats of Gitmo or being discredited & unemployed would be persuasive. Remember what happened to Bob Lazar for revealing Area 51 secrets? The gov’t destroyed him.

“The gov’t successfully persuaded thousands of workers & scientists to keep their silence when building the A-bomb in the 1940’s, so let that be an example of how it is possible to silence an entire industry of tens of thousands, if needed.”

Again, these claims are demonstrably wrong because anyone can check Earth’s polar alignment by going outside and looking for the North Star (or Southern Cross), and anyone can tell you that southern Argentina doesn’t experience 24-hr daylight around the summer solstice. And, being an astronomer, I can say that I certainly haven’t received my hush money, otherwise I’d be driving a nicer car (or have a nicer camera system, more likely … or maybe live in a nicer apartment).

Final Thoughts

This represents one of the more silly claims (remotely) related to the Planet X and 2012 doomsday scenario / conspiracy that’s out there. But it is related under the category of a “pole shift,” and so I have included it in this series. The idea that Earth is currently experiencing a pole shift is easily shown to be incorrect, and with that, I hope to lay this topic to rest – at least to those of you who have read this blog.

January 29, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Magnetic) Explained and Debunked


Introduction

Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main claims of what will actually happen is termed a “Pole Shift.” Sounds scary, huh? The Earth’s pole(s) … shifting!?

But what does it actually mean? Well, Earth actually has two sets of North and South Poles – the geographic and the magnetic. Most of the doomsdayers that I’ve heard seem to imply that they are talking about a geographic pole shift, but some also talk about a magnetic pole shift. Since both are completely different, and since they are significant enough topics by themselves, I am doing separate posts on them. This one addresses the magnetic pole.

All posts in this series:

Earth’s Magnetic Field

Most people have either seen in-person or in video a crane in a junkyard that, instead of a hook at one end, has a large metal plate. They have then seen that metal plate “activated” by something, and it becomes a strong magnet – strong enough to lift multi-ton cars. What you have just witnessed is called an “induced magnetic field.”

Induced magnetic fields are created by electricity moving in circles. It’s the principle behind all electromagnets (most medical imaging today relies upon it) and electric motors. It’s also what our planet’s magnetic field is created by.

Earth’s magnetic field is called a “magnetic dynamo” because it is produced by liquid metals moving around in Earth’s core. As these metals move, they induce currents, which create magnetic fields. Since the planet has a net rotation in one direction, the created magnetic field is built up and roughly aligned with that axis of rotation.

Earth’s magnetic field is in the form of a “dipole,” meaning that it has a “North” and “South,” or “positive” and “negative” side to it, much like a bar magnet. The field breaches Earth’s surface at the south magnetic pole, extends into space in what is known as the “magnetosphere,” and dives back into Earth at the north magnetic pole, as illustrated in the figure on the right.

Polar Wander

In 2001, Earth’s north magnetic pole was at coordinates 81.3° N by 110.8° W. But in 2004, three years later, it had moved to 82.3° N by 113.4° W. And a year later, in 2005, it was at 82.7° N by 114.4° W. Similarly, the south magnetic pole shifted, as well.

But, how could that happen? Earth’s magnetic field should be stationary, just like the geographic poles, right? Isn’t this evidence of something catastrophic happening?

In a word: No.

Earth’s magnetic poles appear to wander throughout time, and not just due to the continents drifting. “Polar wander” refers to it moving, while “true polar wander” refers to it moving relative to a fixed coordinate system that takes the continents’ movement into account. The field strength also is not constant with time, varying by location and by year. It also varies on much longer timescales, flipping over entirely (north becoming south and vice versa). The last time it flipped occurred approximately 780,000 years ago. (Evidence for this is found in the magnetic field of relatively fresh ocean crust, among other places.)

It is unknown at this time what causes Earth’s magnetic field to wander, vary, and occasionally flip. Modeling the field is very difficult, and all of the physics of it is not yet understood. The oft-portrayed simple magnetic field, as shown in the diagram above, is not correct. The field is much more complex, and it was featured in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day in November of 2002, shown on the right. The magnetic field lines are a tangled mess and only when you average over them to you get the dipole magnet that most of us are familiar with.

What Happens When the Field Shifts?

Nothing of importance. As I explained in the above section, Earth’s magnetic field has been shifting at a rate of over 1° per year for many years, with data going back well over a century. And, alas for the doomsdayers, nothing bad has happened.

What Happens When the Field Flips?

This scenario – which we are almost certain will happen again since it has happened many many times in geologic history – is a little more dangerous, but that is mostly because we are an electronic society.

In terms of humans and biology, again, nothing of importance will happen. The magnetic field is relatively weak, and if you go in for an MRI you are exposed to fields many orders of magnitude larger than Earth’s. And nothing bad happens unless you’re wearing metal. Birds may be a little confused, but they existed prior to the reversal 780,000 years ago and seem to have gotten through it just fine, as anyone who lives in a city and deals with pigeons on a daily basis can attest.

In terms of what would happen to the field, it would not just shut off one day and then come back the next in the opposite direction. It won’t shut off at all. It will decrease in its strength while more magnetic field lines in the north start to turn “south,” and more in the south start to turn “north.” When more than half are the opposite of what they were, then the net effect will be that the field has flipped over.

So what will happen to us in a decreased magnetic field? Well, the main problem is that the magnetosphere will shrink. This “protective bubble” that shields us from the sun’s streaming charged particles will no longer extend as far into space. So, very high-orbit satellites will be exposed to more radiation, and consequently they will be more prone to failure, especially during any burst of solar activity, unless we have developed better ways to shield their electronics. Similarly, a burst of solar activity can induce magnetic fields in power lines (and railroad tracks) on Earth, causing surges that can short out the grid. This can (and likely will, as it already has in the past) cause blackouts, as happened in 1989 in Canada.

Does this mean the end of the world? No. It means we need to upgrade our power distribution systems around the world and keep them updated as opposed to how they’ve been languishing for decades. In fact, just today (January 28, 2009), the American Society of Civil Engineers released their 2009 annual report card, giving the US’s energy infrastructure a “D+” (the average grade was a “D”). They state:

Progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005 and substantial investment in generation, transmission and distribution is expected over the next two decades. Demand for electricity has grown by 25% since 1990. Public and government opposition and difficulty in the permitting processes are restricting much needed modernization. Projected electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.

Now, contrast what I’ve explained the effects would be with what doomsday folks are saying, such as this article:

“As the shift approaches, things begin to go out of balance, and the magnetic field begins to fluctuate significantly over a very short period of time (about 3 – 6 months). This would be like a full moon getting bigger and bigger every day. What happens then is that people start to go crazy emotionally. This breaks down economical and social structures on the planet because it is only people who keep these structures together.”

A very quick analysis shows: We’ve got a false analogy (magnetic field changing has nothing to do and is nothing like the moon changing size), an assumed effect without any causation, and then a reducio ad absurdum when they just take the assumed effect to extreme levels.

What Would Cause This Magnetic Pole Shift That You’ve Said Won’t Happen in 2012?

Good question. The mechanisms proposed – that I’ve heard and read about – really amount to nothing but misunderstandings, numerology, or conjecture founded in superstition. They include: Earth’s rotation switching directions, Earth getting whopped by an asteroid, The sun’s magnetic field flipping ours, Planet X (Planet X seems to be able to do anything, as I’ll talk about in future posts), and some various mystical things.

I wish I could state, “needless to say, these (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.” I can still say it if I chop off the “needless” part. The fact that when I just did a Google search to try to find folks’ mechanisms for this the first few pages were nearly all doomsday pages should tell you that these are very popular ideas in popular culture. So, I really do need to say: “These (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.”

Without addressing each individual claim, I will broadly address the two categories of claims – a large external physical force, or a large external magnetic force. The basic reason why neither of these will happen in 2012 is that there is nothing that we know of that has enough force to affect Earth’s field on a global scale. Let’s say, for example, we get hit by an asteroid. An asteroid that’s huge – 100 km in radius (all of which have known been identified and have known orbits). Assuming the asteroid is the densest and heaviest – an iron-nickel asteroid (a composition which only 10% of asteroids are) – then it would have a mass of about 4.2·1015 kg. That’s a lot. But Earth has a mass that is 6.0·1024 kg … over 109 times more. It would be like a grain of dust hitting a car. NOTHING will happen to the Earth as a whole. Yes, it would be bad for us and for life, but the planet really wouldn’t care. Now, if another planet were to hit us, then Earth would be in trouble.

So what about a large external magnetic force? There’s nothing large enough that’s nearby. Sure, if we were to pass by a magnetar, we’ll be in trouble. Those have magnetic fields on the order of ~1015 times stronger than Earth’s. But the sun’s magnetic field really shows no evidence of affecting ours to the point of flipping it. There is no evidence at all – historic or validated theoretical – to show that the sun’s magnetic field, which is only up to ~10x stronger than Earth’s, can flip ours. After all, if it could, then it would every 11 years, since that’s how often the sun’s field flips.

So I’ve now given two ways that this really could happen – if a planet-mass object or an extraordinarily large magnetic field were to hit us or come near us, that could affect Earth’s rotation or magnetic field to the point where we would get a magnetic pole reversal (or, I guess a really big “shift”). However, we now again get to the question of evidence: There is none. We would know of a planet-sized (or larger) object that is close enough to come near us in 4 years (the end of 2012), or even 40 years. You can read my post on the Real Planet X for more information on that. Similarly, we would see effects of a gigantic magnetic field nearby that’s close enough to affect us in the near future, something we also do not see any evidence for.

Final Thoughts

Despite this post being over 1800 words – another long one – I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. That’s mainly because there are nearly as many variations of what’s “predicted” to happen with the magnetic pole shift as there are people making the predictions. In this post, I’ve tried more to focus on the background information – the state of the science – and then point out why many of the main predictions are not correct nor feasible when confronted with what we can actually observe. It’s impossible to get into every single claim because more crop up as soon as you debunk one (much like conspiracy theories).

Hence I have tried to give you the basic information to be able to figure out why the idea of 2012 somehow coinciding with an event that will cause a magnetic pole shift has no basis in reality. If you come across (or have) a claim that I haven’t addressed within this topic, please leave a comment!

January 25, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Real and Historical Story of Planet X


Introduction

This is the first post in what will become a series of posts over the next few days/weeks about the oft-portrayed mysterious, dangerous, possibly alien-harboring, Earth-destroying object touted as “Planet X.”

This being a blog about pseudo-astronomy, you should not be surprised to learn by reading it that there is no dangerous Planet X out there that’s going to cause a pole shift as Earth goes through the “dark rift” of our galaxy in 2012. However, in this first post, I’m going to describe what the real Planet X was in astronomy, a mystery that was created with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, and didn’t end until we precisely calculated the mass of Neptune in 1993.

All posts in this series:

Finding Uranus

Until 1781, the solar system was known to consist of Earth, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, along with the moon, some other moons, and some unexplainable and unpredictable comets. That was it, and it wasn’t until William Herschel observed a ball-like object (not star-like) moving among the fixed background stars.

It took two years for Herschel to admit that he had really discovered the first planet in recorded history. But since it was discovered after Newton created Calculus and Kepler the Laws of Planetary Motion, various astronomers and mathematicians were able to observe it and predict its orbit based on its distance from the sun and the gravitational interactions with other planets.

The First Planet X

One of these people was Alexis Bouvard, who published tables of dates and coordinates that predicted where Uranus should be at a given time. These were based on the known laws of physics. But, Uranus refused to follow Bouvard’s tables.

In 1843, John Couch Adams (from Britain) calculated the orbit of a hypothesized eighth planet that could account for Uranus’ odd orbit. But no one really seemed to care about this undiscovered Planet X.

Two years later, a Frenchman by the name of Urbain Le Verrier did the same thing, but more precisely. Again, no one seemed to care. That was until Le Verrier sent his calculations to the Berlin Observatory’s astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. A then-student at the observatory, Heinrich d’Arrest, convinced Galle to look for it.

That evening, September 23, 1846, Galle looked for this mysterious planet, responsible for Uranus’ weird orbit, and he found the planet within 1° of where Le Verrier thought it would be (for reference, the moon on the sky is 0.5°). This was within 12° of where Adams thought it should be.

At the time, there was no real debate that this object was a “planet,” as they had been looking for it and thought it was massive enough to account for Uranus’ orbit.

The Second Planet X

However, there were still some unexplained perturbations of Uranus’ orbit. These persisted for 70 years, to the time that Percival Lowell became interested in the problem and wanted to search for a now possible ninth planet at his observatory in New Mexico. I think that he was the one who really first coined the term, “Planet X.” Lowell searched for 12 years, 1905-1916, until he died, without finding it.

The search resumed in 1929 when the then-director of the observatory assigned the task to a young, 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh. After a year of fruitless searching, Toubaugh found an object moving against the background of stars from two photographs he had taken in January of 1930. Pluto was discovered, Planet X, that was supposed to solve all the orbital problems.

A Third Planet X? — Nope, Just Fixing Neptune’s Mass

When Pluto was initially discovered, it was assumed to weigh in at several times Earth’s mass. However, estimates over subsequent decades were refined down, not up, and it was realized that Pluto could not account for Uranus’ orbit. The present-day mass estimate is about 20% Earth’s.

The search half-heartedly didn’t really continue for a mystery object that could explain planets’ orbits.

In 1989, the space probe Voyager 2 flew by Neptune. Calculations based on the orbital changes from that gravitational interaction were published in 1993 by Myles Standish, and they revised Neptune’s mass downward by 0.5%. This revised mass, when put into the calculations for the orbits of the outer planets, was then able to precisely account for Uranus’ orbit. No mystery object was needed, nor found, and as a result, nearly all astronomers today discount its existence.

Modern-Day “Planet Xs” (The Real Ones)

To be sure, I do not mean to imply that there are no more large objects out in the solar system. But “large” is always a relative term that needs to be qualified. The proton is gigantic relative to an electron. A sequoia tree is large relative to an oak. And Neptune is large relative to Pluto.

What I mean by “large” in this context is 100s to possibly 1000s of kilometers in diameter, icy bodies much like Pluto. These are the Kuiper Belt Objects, or at least the large members of the Kuiper Belt Objects. To-date, (January 2009), 4 are large enough such that the International Astronomical Union has termed them “Dwarf Planets” (Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumeamea). These objects are “large,” but they are smaller than our moon (our moon is 3,474 km in diameter). And, since density is related to volume which is the cube of a linear measurement, the actual mass of these objects is much smaller than that of a planet.

But, But, But … There Could Still Be Giant Things Out There!

Maybe. But they would have to be very far away from the 8 planets and inner Kuiper Belt Objects. Remember, even with the technology over 160 years ago, astronomers were able to calculate that Uranus, an object 19x farther away from the sun than Earth was being very slightly perturbed by an object 30x farther away from the sun than Earth. And these were both objects that weigh about a dozen times more than Earth – fairly small compared with what modern-day Planet Xers are claiming (that will be addressed in future posts).

Nothing in science is locked in stone, so-to-speak, and it’s impossible to prove a negative. However, keep in mind now that we can explain all the orbits of the planets with known, observed solar system objects. For there to be another object out there, it either has to be very small, or it has to be very far away. And when things are very far away, they take a very long time to move. Even a comet out by Jupiter heading towards us would take at least a year to get to Earth. And we could see it. The idea that there is a massive, planet-sized object that will hit or pass by Earth in just 4 years is ridiculous, unless you invoke the supernatural or physics that we don’t know about that can somehow shield even gravity.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a historic basis for the present-day Planet X claims, as well as some preliminary information on why we “know” (as far as science can know anything) that there is no doomsday planet headed for us in 4 years, I will actually address the various fear-mongering premises that have been posited about Planet X, and how it is supposed to destroy Earth (or not?!), land ETs on Earth that want all our gold, or will cause a pole shift (another ridiculous idea that has its own problems), or whatever else people have invented throughout the past few decades.

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