Why Planet 9 Isn't Going To Destroy All Life On Earth
"We're All Doomed!" It's a good headline that grabs people's attention. It's much catchier than "Orbital Geometry Suggests The Possibility Of A Distant Ninth Planet, Maybe!" which is how the headlines were worded when the story I'm covering today first broke a while back. Unsurprisingly, it didn't cause much of a stir in that form. It wasn't until University of Louisiana's Professor Daniel Whitmire warned of our impending and imminent doom that articles like this one ...
There's a damn good reason Flavor Flav didn't trust the New York Post.
... started to get passed around, claiming the existence of a giant, killer planet known as Planet X.
Suddenly, all those weird Planet X people started popping up out of nowhere: "I knew it was real. It was just a matter of time before they found some proof. Doomsday, man!" For those unfamiliar, what those lunatics are raving about is a theory called the Nibiru cataclysm, which is at least widely believed enough to have its own Wikipedia page. However, you need only to read as far as the beginning of the second paragraph of that page, where we learn that the theory was started in the mid-'90s by a website operator who claims to receive her knowledge by way of a brain implant that allows her to communicate with extraterrestrial beings, to know exactly how much science is behind this theory.
Believers in that theory heard "ninth planet" and immediately took it as a sign that their dreams and/or nightmares are finally coming true, as seen in the closing paragraph of this article from the U.K. tabloid The Sun:
But they're usually so reliable with science news!
The problem is, even if Planet X really did exist, it has nothing to do with Planet 9. So, in the words of a great American wiseman, "Settle down, Beavis."
Caltech researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown discovered Planet 9's potential existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations, but they haven't seen it directly. No one has. If it exists, it's way out there beyond Neptune. But that "if it exists" is important, because it's purely hypothetical at this point. Of course, that's the perfect time for attention-starved sensationalists to get nuts and declare, "It will kill all of us! Sell everything you own and initiate The Purge!"
Imagine looking through a telescope to the top of a mountain miles away -- a place no one had ever seen -- and spotting a vague, dark splotch. It moves just enough to give you a pretty good idea that it is 1) alive and 2) a primate. Then imagine the person next to you starts shrieking, "It's a man! He's got grenades! He's coming to kill all of us! Just like he did the dinosaurs!" That's essentially what this is.
The fear that Planet X is heading right toward Earth makes no sense. If it did that every 27 million years, as they claim it does, how would Earth have survived all of these encounters? We're just a punching bag that gets blasted every now and again by a giant planet, yet Earth somehow stays together and keeps orbiting the sun like nothing happened? "Oh, I fell down some stairs. Don't mind me, everyone. My dinosaurs? Oh, I'm not sure what happened to them." A collision with a planet that large seems like it would destroy Earth, or throw it way off orbit, or send it hurtling into the sun while we all give nature one last collective middle finger.
What Whitmire is claiming, and what makes people confuse the existence of Planet 9 with the possibility of Planet X is that they both theoretically travel through the Kuiper Belt. He is convinced that every 27 million years or so, this giant, evil planet goes bashing through that field of icy objects and debris and sends those objects flying toward Earth. Like a cue ball barreling into thousands, perhaps millions, of billiard balls that go scattering across an endless pool table. And Earth in this scenario is just some hapless fool twirling around to its own beat on the outer edges of the table, unaware that it is about to be clobbered yet again by shrapnel from this scheduled collision.
Like you running a stop sign because you're really into the new Ariana Grande
and getting T-boned by the 2:45 bus.
It's a reasonable thought, and he is a physicist. It's not crazy, and there have been extinction-level events in Earth's history, but all of life isn't consistently wiped out every 27 million years. The dinosaurs were around for 165 million years before the big event wiped them away. Planet X could have sent meteors at them five times during their run, and they just held the newspaper in front of their faces with their tiny arms the next morning and shrugged and said, "I am so sick of these damn asteroids plinking into our home. Another giant wave washed up and took away our friends. I have just had it!" That scenario is equally as plausible as the existence of Planet X, because there has been just as much evidence to support it as there has been of dinosaurs being voracious readers.
Some people might point to the Planet 9 evidence and say it also supports Planet X, but it does not. Planet 9 has a theoretical orbital period of 10,000 to 20,000 years, not 27 million. And its trek through the Kuiper Belt is quite the opposite of a billiard ball plowing through a field of balls. Rather than finding that all the objects were sent speeding away, Batygin and Brown noticed something called mean-motion resonance, which showed that several of the objects in the field had a similar orbital angle. They had aligned themselves so that Planet 9 could pass through and they could all maintain their respective orbits. "Still, I was very skeptical," says Batygin. "I had never seen anything like this in celestial mechanics." This is the guy who discovered it, and he was skeptical even after seeing proof.
Probably didn't help that you could see many similar artists' renderings on drug dealers' vans.
That's the way it is supposed to work. "I can't believe what I'm seeing, but there it is." As opposed to, "A guy selling hemp jewelry told me this, and it makes a lot of sense." It's more fun to hold on to harebrained theories and try to bend them until they become rational, but there is nothing that suggests Planet X exists or is heading straight for us or has smashed through the Kuiper Belt and unleashed a shotgun-like blast of comets and meteors upon us. And even if it had, didn't everyone see Deep Impact? We'll arm our nuclear weapons and blast them out of the sky like shooting skeet. It will be fun and maybe even unite the entire world as one entity rocket-punching space in harmony.
So we could all be rational and logical and wait until there is some actual proof of the existence of this giant destroyer planet, or we can keep listening to people who get most of their information from crystals and go running into the streets yelling about doom and Armageddon. Whitmire is not one of those people, but by making these kinds of claims, he does give them plenty of fodder. Science, well Batygin in this case, says things like, "A good theory should not only explain things that you set out to explain. It should hopefully explain things that you didn't set out to explain and make predictions that are testable." And that is incredibly boring. Just wait around until we get evidence? No way. I'm getting my foil hat, and I'll race you to that secret underground bunker the government clearly built under the Denver airport.
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