Episode 91: The Binary Star Hypothesis
Recap: Some think that our Sun is part of a binary star system, that there is another star out there, gravitationally bound, that does bad things to us from time-to-time. This has some observational data that it can explain. But, what about current data, and what about current searches for such an object? And, where do genuine scientific pursuits cross the line into pseudoscience?
Puzzler for Episode 91: There is no puzzler in episode 91.
Answer to Puzzler from Episode 90: There was no puzzler in episode 90.
Q&A: There was no Q&A in episode 91.
- Reference Material
- Raup, D.M., and Sepkoski, J.J. (1984). “Periodicity of Extinctions in the Geologic Past.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 81, pp. 801-805.
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: Special Pleading, Reductio ad absurdum, Data-Mining / Cherry-Picking, Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence, Argument from Ignorance (Argumentum ad ignorantiam)
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Claim: Our Sun is one of a binary star system.
I normally don't do a broad overview before I get into a single person's claim or a topic, but in this case, it's warranted. I listened to and read about half a dozen different people's claims about the binary sun idea, and each cited a couple different lines of evidence, and each of them had different ideas of what the binary sun was. And none of them actually used basic science or referenced what has been the more scientific idea for a binary companion. So, let's do the basic idea first, some of the classic evidence, and then get into some of the more fringe ideas in what's still probably going to be a shortish main segment.
The idea, at its most basic level, is that our star, the Sun, is one member of a binary star system. The other star is who-knows-where.
This isn't as weird as it might sound when you first hear it. Most stars are binary. When I was going through college, the number thrown around was around 60% of stars are binary. Many Binary Sun people say it's closer to 80%. The actual number is very difficult to estimate because it's trying to prove a negative when you say something is binary: We may just not be able to see its companion. Think of it this way: You have a light on a distant mountain. You take out binoculars and still see one light. You take out a small telescope and still see one light. You could say that to the best of your ability to resolve whatever angle, that it's one light, but if you were perhaps able to get an even more powerful telescope, it might be split into two very close-together lights. For that reason with stars, we can definitely say something IS a binary if we see two stars orbiting each other, but we can't necessarily ever say something is NOT a binary.
By the same token, we have necessary ambiguity with our own star. There are many types of binary star companions that we can rule out, but we can never say for certain that there is not a type of binary companion that we (a) can't detect and (b) doesn't influence us in a way we could detect.
Classic Binary Companion: Nemesis
The classically claimed binary companion star is known as Nemesis, and it was proposed in 1984 as a way to explain what seemed to be periodic mass extinctions on Earth. The star was a red or brown dwarf - so anywhere from about 13 Jupiter masses to half the mass of the sun. It was also about 1.5 light-years away, inside the Oort Cloud, so it would periodically send stuff our way.
The paper was by paleontologists David Raup and Jack Spkosky who looked at extinction events, on Earth, over the last 250 million years. They identified 12 mass extinctions with an average between each of 26 million years. They suggested something astronomical as the cause because we don't know of anything on Earth that should be the cause of something with a set periodicity of 10s of millions of years. A possible case was a companion star with a closest approach of that period that would disturb the Oort Cloud and send stuff our way. But, I should point out that they did not actually suggest this. Here's the closest quote from their paper:
“[We may be] seeing the effects of a purely biological phenomenon or whether periodic extinction results from recurrent events or cycles in the physical environment. If the forcing agent is in the physical environment, does this reflect an earthbound process or something in space? If the latter, are the extraterrestrial influences solar, solar system, or galactic? … [W]e favor extraterrestrial causes …”
This was picked up by two teams of astronomers in that same year, 1984. One was Whitmire and Jackson, the other was Davis, Hut, and Muller. They independently published the idea that an undetected binary companion star could do this. And, this brown dwarf star should have an apparent magnitude between 7 and 12. Note that Pluto has an apparent magnitude of about 14, meaning it's around 10x fainter than the faintest this star would be. So, it would be in star catalogs, but you'd only know it by measuring its distance. Except, since that time, we have measured the parallax of all stars that are that bright, and none have been found to be that close.
The other part of this is that, based on the last mass extinction about 11 million years ago, the star would be pretty much as far from Earth as it gets right about now. Making it harder to detect, but still, it should be obvious in star catalogs.
The timescales may seem long, but we do know of binary stars that not only have periods of just a few days, but others that do have periods - meaning how long it takes the two stars to orbit each other - of several million years. Just because this one has to be around 1.5 light-years away on a 26 million year -long orbit doesn't make it wrong.
Their work was re-examined in a paper from 2010 by Melott and Bambauch who, based on revised dates, found an excess extinction rate every 27 million years that stretched back 500 million years in time, so around 18 different events.
What you'll find buried at the end of the Wikipedia entry for this is that Melott and Bambauch actually said their work was evidence AGAINST Nemesis. They showed that their 27 million year signal was very steady, very periodic. The problem with that is, over the past 500 million years, we've gone around the galaxy twice, and we've had many close passes with other, random stars. Those should have perturbed Nemesis' orbit slightly, so 27 million years should actually be a fluctuating signal. To quote Melott: "It's really too good, it's too sharp and fixed. It's like a clock."
Muller, one of the people on one of the original paper proposing a star for the Raup and Sepkoski findings, disagreed:
“I would agree with most of what he says, but I think he is overestimating the accuracy of the geologic timescale. You get them in the right order, but it’s really difficult to get an actual date, [and in light of that uncertainty], I would say the Nemesis hypothesis is still alive.”
Meanwhile, we have infrared surveys that should also have shown this brown dwarf. There was IRAS in the mid-1980s ... go back to episode 54 for more on that. It found nothing. There was the 2MASS survey from 1997 to 2001, which also turned up nothing Nemesis-wise. Then there was the WISE mission that released its final catalog in March 2012. It was capable of finding 150 K brown dwarf objects out to 10 light-years. This is cooler than all known brown dwarfs would be. And yet ... nothing.
In light of these surveys, most astronomers say pretty much, "No." Nemesis does not exist. When I originally wrote my blog post about this in July 2010, I noted that it would be a fallacy to claim that this absence of evidence is evidence of absence. At least at that time, before the WISE survey came out. And with the WISE survey now showing nothing, my last sentence in that section applies: "If these surveys come up empty-handed, then it becomes much less likely that the star is out there, and a different mechanism will need to be proposed."
Personally, I think we're at that point, and that now you enter the other realm where you require special pleading to keep Nemesis alive. Or, just making stuff up and ignoring other science, which is what many people do.
Binary Research Institute and Walter Cruttenden
Walter Cruttenden runs the Binary Research Institute. I'm talking about them first because, other than Zecharia Sitchin, the BRI and their work is cited by most binary star, um ... "enthusiasts."
Cruttenden was on ... yup, that's right, Coast to Coast AM several times. On Coast, in every appearance, Cruttenden's key piece of evidence was precession. Jason Martell, another fan of the binary star idea, and of Cruttenden's work at the Binary Research Institute, also talked a lot about precession.
The idea advanced by both is a little bit complicated and has a lot of wrong information mixed in with some new age stuff. So let's start with what precession really is, first: If you take a toy top, or if you're Jewish, a dreidel, and you spin it, it probably won't spin perfectly upright, the axis around which it spins will be tilted. And, that direction that the spin axis is tilted will tend to rotate around, pointing at a different location over time. So, the top has two motions: It spins on its axis, and the direction the axis points rotates. If you were now to move it around an object, you'd have all the main motions of Earth and other planets: The spin about the axis is the day, the movement about the center object is a year, and the movement of that axis of rotation is precession. That's why the north star today wasn't the north star thousands of years ago and why we precess through different astrological ages ... for those who follow astrology.
Earth spins on its axis in one day, orbits around the sun in one year, and it precesses once every 25,771.4-25,771.6 years, depending on what paper you read. We know Earth's current rate of precession very, very well. But, we also know that it's not constant, and that's because of what causes precession. In fact, there's an equation that we can use to predict what it was and what it will be IN THE SHORT TERM, but not in the long term, and that's because it's somewhat chaotic. And here, we have to break from the top analogy.
Earth is not a perfect sphere. I've talked occasionally about how it bulges at the equator. But, not only that, it is slightly pear-shaped where it's a little bigger in one hemisphere than the other. The study of Earth's shape is the study of its geoid. Because we're not a perfect sphere - and not even a perfect ellipsoid, various objects in the solar system can pull very slightly on positive geoid anomalies (meaning areas that are a little bigger than the others). In fact, it was the formulator of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to figure out what causes precession, back several centuries ago.
The objects that are most responsible for pulling on Earth are the Moon and the Sun with the Sun being by far the main component here. To understand how, remember that Earth primarily bulges at the equator. The side closest to the Sun is pulled on hardest, while the side farther away gets pulled on a little less. This creates a net torque, pulling Earth's equator slightly. Because of the directions of spin and the directions of torque, the net result is a very slow precession. And, in reality, all objects in the solar system have this effect on us, too, and we on them. But, by far, the biggest is the sun, then the moon, then Jupiter. And, this would not happen if Earth were a perfect sphere.
But, it gets more complicated, and this is why the precession rate changes. Earth's continents move around. The relative positions of the Sun, Moon, and other planets move around. All of these mean that while the cause of precession is well explained by these gravitational interactions, the rate can and does change very, very slightly.
With that in mind, and keeping in mind that it's very slow, taking - right now - about 25,771 years to complete one cycle, it's very difficult to measure, especially for ancient cultures. Glancing through my favorite source that I don't let my students use, the ancient Greeks estimated that precession took around 36,000 years. There's some conflicting evidence that the Egyptians may or may not have known, and the same goes with the Maya. The Indians may have known about it by the 12th century, with a value of about 25,461 years written down in some translations. Chinese astronomers estimated it as taking about 18,000 years based on a fourth century writing, and medieval Islamic astronomers calculated it as taking 25,412 years.
"What does all this have to do with a binary star?" you might ask. I'm glad you might've. Well, Jason Martell, using work by Cruttenden, claims that precession is changing, that it's speeding up, and we don't know what causes it, therefore it's a binary star companion tugging on us. It's an argument from ignorance based on an argument from misunderstanding of science and error bars. In fact, this is pretty much the same exact thing I talked about in Episode 81 on the speed of light changing: Data mining.
If you go to the Binary Research Institute's website, they have a table showing numerous values for precession over the last century plus the ancient Greek's. And, when you look at the table, the period is getting shorter, meaning that precession is getting faster. In his interview, Jason Martell added a number to that, claiming that ancient "Oriential" astronomers claimed precession took about 24,000 years. I'm not sure where he got that because I found 18,000 years. But through some odd reasoning, Martell claimed that it was a period of 24,000 years, and now we're taught incorrectly it's about 26,000 years, but the Binary Research Institute teaches it's actually about 24,000 years now. Which I couldn't really find on their website directly. Regardless, Martell seems to claim the historic data show precession is taking more time, and that's due to a binary companion, while Cruttenden seems to argue on his website that precession is taking less time, and that's due to a binary companion.
So far as I can tell, both of them seem to ignore the fact that this binary companion would have to be exerting somewhat comparable gravity as the sun to affect Earth's precession by that much.
As a gratuitous aside, Martell then uses this to go into ideas about the Anunnaki aliens of Zecharia Sitchin, them giving us the hexadecimal system which is why 24,000 years is important, going on about ancient aliens, and various other things. To me, it really seemed more that the binary star and precession was just his plot device to get to the ancient aliens stuff. As for the new-age part, Jason was big on the day-night cycle affects us, the yearly cycle effects us, and the precessional cycle affects us by taking us through and away from golden ages and various metaphysical things. But, as I said, that's somewhat gratuitous to this episode on binary star evidence.
I mentioned towards the beginning that everyone except the actual astronomers in the peer-reviewed literature have a different model for their star.
A guest going by the acronym name LUCAS claimed that it was on a 3600-year orbit. I'll refer you to episode 23 for why that isn't possible.
Jason Martell seemed to in some places say it was on a 24,000-year orbit, but mostly he said it was on a 3600-year orbit. Either of these would mean that it's much, much closer than the Nemesis researchers put it, meaning that it's even more likely to have been found. And, as I've discussed in Episodes 23 and 71, that's about as close to impossible as you can get in science, given the lack of observations and the stability of the outer planets and asteroid belt.
In a 2008 interview, Walter Cruttenden estimated that the object is a brown dwarf star, it's outside the solar system, and it's about 600-900 AU (Sun-Earth distance) away. That's about 0.0095 light-years ... again, much, MUCH closer than the Nemesis star, it would have a period somewhere around 21,000 years, and again, we would have seen it. Although another idea he had is that maybe it's a black hole. In which case we still probably should have seen its gravitational effects, especially if it's 4-6x the sun's mass which is one range he suggested.
Meanwhile, Barry Warmkessel relied on Tom van Flandern (Episodes 29-30), Zecharia Sitchin, and especially Helena - AKA Madame - Blavatsky for his ideas on the binary sun. He decided it was a magnitude 21-22 object, which is something like 10,000x fainter than what the scientists got for a red dwarf Nemesis star. But, conveniently, he thinks that this object, which he calls Vulcan, is on a 4969-year orbit. Which is just about the year length that Andy Lloyd, back in Episode 71, said that his Planet X was. When I did the math in that episode for a brown dwarf, I calculated that the apparent magnitude of the object should be about +3. Which is about as bright as the faintest stars visible from a normal-sized city. So again, we would have seen it.
I apologize to those listeners who requested this episode and may have thought I came off as somewhat flippant about it towards the end. I think the reason is that I've really covered most of this material before. The various claims by most people for the actual object itself are almost identical to the claims for Planet X, which I've done 8 episodes on so far.
This one does have a bit new about it. One is the idea of precession changing due to a Planet X ... err, a binary star and its gravitational tugs, but that ignores gravitational effects that we should be able to see, but don't see, on the outer planets. It also ignores the observational data that any real, or at least any known type of stellar or star-type object that's been proposed SHOULD be visible to infrared surveys of the sky. This not only dooms the binary star ideas proposed by the people who make it on Coast to Coast, but it also casts serious doubt on those ideas advocated by actual scientists from the 1980s.
Which is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects to this story, as I come full-circle in my wrap-up. This was an idea advocated for by some mainstream scientists based on an observed phenomenon. And, it's not out of the realm of possibility, or at least it wasn't at that time, and it was a possible real solution to an observed set of data, which is still somewhat unknown.
The problem is that, like with any real science, if you propose a hypothesis to explain data, then you have to abide by the results of when that hypothesis is tested. And, when we do all-sky surveys - by this point at least three - that would have been able to observe the proposed object, and we don't see it, then you have to admit that your hypothesis has been falsified, and it's back to the drawing board.
But with that in mind, this is one of those cases where it's very difficult to prove a negative. Yeah, the ideas tossed around by Warmkessel, Martell, Cruttenden, LUCAS, and others are pretty much falsified based on absolutely no data to back up their ideas, or the only data coming from data mining, cherry-picking, and ignoring some basic facts. But, it's possible that there's a binary star companion to our sun that's maybe 3 light-years away. It would barely be gravitationally bound and it's hard to see how it could still be paired after the last 5 billion years and ~20 times around the galaxy, but that's possible ... maybe somehow the WISE all-sky infrared survey somehow missed it. Somehow.
But, at the same time, a companion star 3 light-years away doesn't have the right orbital period to create comet swarms to cause mass extinctions, so you're no longer solving a problem, you're just creating a solution to one that doesn't exist. And, at the same time, you're stepping into the realm of inordinate special pleading to make a case for why we haven't yet observed it.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 5. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:
3:18am on Wednesday, December 7th, 2016
Vulcan's orbital inclination is 48.44 degrees.
Stuart Lyons, CO, USA
10:58am on Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
Dan, I think you're ignoring the majority of what I wrote and focusing on one paragraph. And, even in that one paragraph, I stated that it was a somewhat gratuitous side-note, and even then, the material is stated as a matter of fact rather than passing judgement. It's context for the rest of their beliefs and I am not making fun of them.
Dan Mac New Hampshire
10:45am on Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
If you want to truly debunk a theory you first need to understand it and describe it accurately. You may understand Cruttenden's, but you failed to describe it accurately. I'm no believer in it, but your attempt to debunk it here only serves to make it appear more plausible to anyone who is looking closely. The fact that somebody who likes his theory talks about aliens says nothing about his theory. You should attack his theory with pure science, not character
Dave Devon, UK
10:01am on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
I saw that Cruttenden claims that, due to axial precession, meteor showers such as the Perseids should also be affected, drifting backwards through the year, and should today be peaking around August 5th "or earlier".
2:04pm on Monday, November 24th, 2014