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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Will the Earth be destroyed this Saturday? Hint: No.

By Phil Plait
Don't Panic

Oh wow, is it time for the end of the world again?

Apparently so. The latest in this incredibly long list of doomsday-prophecies-that-will-never-happen™ is that the Earth will somehow be destroyed on September 23.

This is terrible! Scheduling it on a Saturday keeps it out of the news cycle.

OK, snark aside — and I’ll admit that’s hard after you’ve debunked dozens of these kinds of claims — this particular cry of doomsday seems to be thriving where such things usually do: breathless YouTube videos and Facebook pages that carry a lot of dire warning but very little in the way of actual evidence.

I’m not sure where this one started, specifically; it may be from David Meade, someone who may best be described as a conspiracy theorist. He’s created a horrid combination of Biblical quotes and Nibiru claims (because, of course; more on that in a sec) and predicts the beginning calamity starting on September 23.

The key Bible passage is from Revelation 12:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

[Note: The exact phrasing of this changes depending on what version of the Bible you read; an interesting problem given that, in many cases on the web, the doomsday promulgators are also Bible literalists.]

Right off the bat, let me be clear: The language in many biblical passages, especially Revelation, is vague enough that interpretation is loose, and it’s not too hard to fit lots of different meanings to the words. If you look around hard enough, you’re bound to find something that kinda, sorta, sounds like it works.

In this case, the story goes, the woman in the passage is the constellation Virgo. “Clothed with the Sun” means the Sun is in the constellation, and “the moon under her feet” means the Moon is nearby, too. That part happens all the time; the Sun is in Virgo for about six weeks every year. The Moon is in Virgo for several days during that time, and even “under her feet” (as the constellation is classically depicted her feet are to the east and her head to the west) for a couple of days.

So, why September 23rd of 2017? The key part, as far as I can tell, is the position of Jupiter. The largest planet in the solar system, as seen from Earth, is also in Virgo, and is supposed to represent the child being born — it’s claimed Jupiter leaves Virgo on the 23rd.


There are several problems with this. The biggest is also the simplest: Jupiter doesn’t leave the constellation on the 23rd. If you want to be pedantic, the constellation boundaries are well defined officially, and Jupiter doesn’t cross into Libra (the next constellation down the line) until November. If you use the classical astrological boundaries for the zodiac constellations, Jupiter already left Virgo in early September. Either way, Jupiter leaving Virgo on the 23rd doesn’t make sense.

Now, you might say, “Well, Jupiter represents a baby being born, so maybe the 23rd is when Jupiter comes out of the part of Virgo where, y’know, babies are born from.”

That would be a nice try, except Jupiter is nowhere near Virgo’s lady parts. It’s way off to the side, and having had some experience here, I can be pretty sure that’s not where babies come from.

So, Bible aside, what’s the deal with Nibiru?

Well, nothing. I mean, literally. Nibiru doesn’t exist.

artwork of astronaut on Moon watching Earth destroyed

According to various conspiracy theorists, though, Nibiru is the name given to a purported giant planet in the outer solar system that sweeps by the Earth every 3600 years causing, well, Biblical disasters (not to be confused with Planet Nine, an as-yet  theoretical planet that could be in the outer solar system). This idea has a long history; it has its roots with the wild claims of Immanuel Velikovsky in the mid 20th century; he figured that Biblical catastrophes described in the Bible were real events, and tried to find astronomical ways to cause them. In the end, his lack of historical scholarship was only outstripped by his lack of astronomical understanding, and he abused astronomy trying to explain imagined historical events (the history of his ideas and how they were treated is fascinating; I dedicated a chapter in my first book, Bad Astronomy, to this).

Still, despite an utter lack of reality, his idea caught on and has been reshaped and reproposed over the years. Zechariah Sitchin used it to dream up a “12th planet” in the solar system, and wrote a series of badly researched books on the idea, and then it was picked up by Nancy Lieder,  who claimed in the 1990s that aliens from Zeta Reticuli were telepathically communicating with her to warn her of the impending destruction of Earth by Nibiru. She predicted very confidently it would come in May 2003.

Despite the lack of an Earth-shattering kaboom on that date, this myth lives on. People who cleave to this idea see evidence of this planet in every photo, every solar storm, everywhere. The fact that scientists (like me) debunk it is only more proof of the conspiracy to hide it from the public. This is what I call a cul-de-sac of logic; once you’re in it, you’ve cut yourself off from any sort of evidence against it. You’re lost.

So, the way Nibiru fits into this weekend’s notpocalypse is that, in the Bible passage, the dragon in the prophecy is Nibiru itself, its immense gravity (which up until now has had precisely zero observable effects on any solar system objects) will drop meteors and comets on us (“Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth”), and so on.

The thing is, Nibiru is supposed to be a giant planet. Jupiter, the actual biggest planet in the solar system, is easily visible even though it’s hundreds of millions of kilometers away; it’s one of the brightest natural objects in the sky. A bigger planet even closer would be far, far brighter. Yet, when you go outside, nothing like that can be seen.


So, this end-of-the-world nonsense is just that: nonsense. It’s the usual stuff from this corner of the ‘net, and I can happily say, “Ho hum.” Nibiru has been the cause of predicted doom and gloom over and over again, and all these predictions have one thing in common: They never happen (remember the Mayan doomsday in 2012?). They can’t happen. As I’ve written many times, if Nibiru were really out there, it would leave an obvious swath of destruction and chaos, altering the planets’ orbits, the asteroids, moons, and everything so profoundly that you could see the effects by simply going outside at night and looking up. Put simply, the solar system as we see it now couldn’t exist in its present form if Nibiru were real.

Therefore, Nibiru isn’t real.

And so, therefore, neither is this next doomsday.

And I’ll admit, this kind of stuff makes me angry. There are people out there who don’t have the experience or astronomical knowledge (or who have mental health issues like anxiety and cosmophobia) to understand just how full of fertilizer so many of these self-proclaimed doomsday prophets are. And these people can get really scared, worrying about a disaster that will never come.

When I look around, I see plenty of very real things to be concerned with. Let’s try to fix the actual world, please, and not worry about ones that are made up out of nothing.