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Episode 151 - The Fake Story of Planet X, Part X - Nancy Leider Redux and Planet Nine Claims of 2016

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Recap: Planet X is one of those topics that keeps coming up in pseudoscientific circles, in part because people who have been claiming it will come by and cause destruction continue to do so, making up new excuses as to why their last prediction failed. In this episode, I delve into the latest claims by Nancy Leider, one of the originators of the Planet X causes doom mythology, and I discuss some of the supposed discoveries and announcements in 2016 in the scientific community about a real extra, as-yet-unseen planet in our solar system.

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Episode Summary

Claim: The main claim that I'm using as a weak excuse to talk about science is the Planet X claims of Nancy Leider. She's still at it, after all these years. You might be thinking that I just did a Planet X episode, but it wasn't a regular episode and there was no actual discussion, it was just reporting on repeated failed and shifting claims; also, Nancy was just on Coast to Coast AM after a five-year hiatus and I want to talk about what she's up to. Plus, I've gotten a few requests to talk about the Planet Nine news that's been floating around this year, so ... let's get to it!

Nancy Leider: Background

By way of background, listen to Episode 51. That was The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 4, where I talked about Nancy Leider's claims from 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2011. In that episode, I discussed how she was primarily responsible for the 2003 Planet X craze, was obviously wildly wrong, and then went through various stages of denial first claiming that Planet X did come, then claiming that the aliens who telepathically tell her things actually told her a white lie and that Planet X didn't come, and then saying that no, it really did come. I'm going to assume in this episode that you've listened to 51 because I will be referencing some of that material and pointing out discrepancies.

You should also listen to Episode 76. In that episode, I demonstrated that, for a woman who says a lot of stuff and makes a lot of claims about astronomy, she has an incredibly poor grasp of astronomical concepts and factoids. To quote one line from that episode, "Besides nothing in her statement being true, it wouldn't be true even if other parts of it were." I'm going to be pointing out additional examples in this episode.

And so with that background out of the way by asking you to listen to other episodes as background, let's get right to it.

Nancy Says She Was Correct in 2003

And, right off the bat in the interview on Coast to Coast AM, the host credits Nancy with this: [Coast to Coast AM, October 19, 2016, Hour 3, starting 02:59]

GN: "Now astronomers are beginning to say that there's something in our solar system, folks, there's somethin' out there. They're finding other planets in our solar system, but I think they're beginning to realize now that the big one really is there. And I just wanted you to know that for, you know, everything you taught over the years, uh, you ought to be commended for sticking to it. Uh, because you've been vindicated, as far as I'm concerned."

NL: "It helps when you know you're right." [laughs]

I wanted to start with that because it shows a ridiculous level of dishonesty and revisionist history. Nancy certainly is among the first to set a 2003 date for Planet X and the hysteria that followed. However, discoveries of other solar system bodies being what Nancy was claiming is like me saying there's a giant pink dinosaur flying around town, for years, no one seeing it, me then claiming it was a hoax but then going back on it, and then because some people have found some large lizards living in the area, me using that to claim I was correct.

Nancy continued in the interview to make fairly standard Planet X claims, like astronomers have known about it for years, it's parked near the sun (somehow in some way that violates physics), it was really discovered in 1983 with the IRAS telescope (see Episode 54 for why that's not the case), et cetera et cetera.

But then the kicker was her current version of what happened in 2003. Remember, Planet X did not come by and cause horrible devastation as she claimed it would in 2003. She then said in 2005 that it was still there, but then in 2007 said it never was there, but then in 2011 sorta said it was. Now, in 2016, she's basically acting as though everything went as she claimed: [Coast to Coast AM, October 19, 2016, Hour 3, starting 04:39]

NL: "And then in the spring of 2003, it was close enough that people took photos of it, coming inbound, cross the Earth's orbit and it went closer to the Sun, preparing to pass the Sun, and at that point got lost in the glare and things changed. It became more difficult to see. People saw brilliant double sunrises and double sunsets on occasion, you know, if they used filters that filtered only for red spectrum light, they could see the complex, but you know, it was tricky you had to take the insert from a floppy disk. You know, and they sometimes saw the moon swirls which are like long tubes. This-this passing planet, Nibiru, is about 4x larger than Earth, 23 times as massive, and it has multiple moons - at least two dozen - that trail behind it and they form long tubes because they get in a dance with each other, and that— the sunlight ricochets down that tube and comes out like a flashlight pointing toward Earth on occasion, and people say, 'Gasp! Bright orbs!' You know around the Sun, and even so bright they would pull over on the highway and try to take pictures. But other than that, it was hard to see because it's so shrouded in red dust."

GN: "Right."

Her claims here are pretty much all new. She never said this in 2005, 2007, or 2011. As a certain television court judge who's now in her 21st season likes to say, usually one's memory is best right after the event rather than improving over time. This is really just another version of revisionist history, trying to capitalize on the craze on YouTube of people posting pictures proving they have no idea how optics work.

Also in this clip, she changes her story of how big Planet X is. In Episode 51, I played for you a clip where she claimed that it's 4x larger than Jupiter and 23x as massive, but now her numbers are the same but she's saying it's relative to Earth. That is a giant change of over a factor of 10 in size and several hundred in mass. I don't think she misspoke in this interview because she repeated the Earth comparison multiple times, and in the previous interview, she repeated the Jupiter comparison multiple times.

Moving on, I'm only going to play one more clip for you, getting them all out of the way early on. The lead-up to this clip is that, with Planet X there, hiding by the sun in a way obvious to all conspiracists on YouTube, she was asked about formal disclosure by some governmental official about it. [Coast to Coast AM, October 16, 2016, Hour 3, starting 06:03]

NL: "Various astronomers are popping up with stuff. They act like bumbling idiots. 'Oh! Maybe it's this, maybe it's that! Why couldn't we see it before!?' Well, the Hubble, the WISE, you know and uh star chart mapping– Kepler, probes, they're looking way far out, and it was right under our feet."

GN: "It was right there–"

NL: "And then they switch to the dark energy survey, which is infrared, run out of Chili, by the ESO [European Southern Observatory], and they see things close in, you know, in 2010, they found several exoplanets closer to the solar system than these other far out, you know, guys like WISE. 'Oh, okay, that explains it.' You know, then we had the retrograde issue, because if you look at the ZetaTalk chart, issued in 1997, uh, [stutters] Nibiru goes into a retrograde orbit as it gets closer in, um, and uh they said, 'Well, now we have Niku, oh guess what, there's this little rock thing, trans-Neptune, you know, and it's in a retrograde orbit, and it's in the inner solar system. They keep– Then they have the business about, the Zetas said way out there is a dead binary Sun of the, of our star, our-our sun, and you know, and that's included because Lund University came up with saying, well maybe Planet Nine is in this weird orbit because another sun stole it from our solar system. So now we got the binaries under discussion! It's all coming out. We are poised at this point to say that Nibiru is parked next to the sun - just where the Zetas said it would be, and they– they're going to find it on the dark energy survey, which they're going over the older charts - say 'Wait a minute! There's an exoplanet, 2003, meh-meh-meh-meh oh right next to the Sun.' You know, And-and, we–we're ready for that! And it could happen today."

There's a lot in that two-minute clip. I'm first going to briefly talk about her bad astronomy ... err, pseudoastronomy, and then spend the rest of this main segment talking about the real science behind the announcements related to a new planet in 2016.

First, she seems to think that telescopes have a focus distance. They don't. In optics, for telescopes, you're in-focus if you focus at infinity. It's a definition in classical optics that goes back to Newton, nearly four centuries ago. In other words, telescopes don't look "near" or "far," they look in a direction and record what they see. That's why surveys that are intended to look for things far away will often find additional stuff like small asteroids within our solar system. It's just a consequence of where they're pointed.

Second, she seems to think that infrared light is the same as dark energy. It's not. I talked last episode about dark matter. Just as dark matter is something that is unlike any matter with which we're familiar, in that is does not in any way interact with light, it only interacts with gravity, dark energy is different from all other forms of energy with which we're familiar. Light is a form of energy with which we're obviously familiar. My cafeteria in middle school was very familiar with infrared light because that's how they kept the three-hour old french fries warm.

Now, there is such a thing as a dark energy survey, which I didn't know until researching it for this episode. But the dark energy survey describes itself as this: "The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our universe."

That's very different from an infrared survey. While the distribution of dark energy - they think - might be revealed by studying the positions of objects, an infrared survey is to look at a specific wavelength of light, in the infrared oddly enough, and just chart objects that emit light at that wavelength. That may seem really similar, but it's not. Infrared is using a specific kind of light to look for objects that are visible in that light. The dark energy survey is trying to build up a large database of objects that may reveal an underlying pattern that could tell them about something invisible that's causing that pattern, if it's found at all. They're as different as me saying that I'm surveying traffic patterns, which are blue. Yes, it almost falls into the category of "not even wrong," but I'll settle with her simply not knowing astronomy.

She also clearly doesn't know what a trans-Neptunian object is, despite it being defined in its name, which is a good way to start to talk about the real science in this episode.

(471325) 2011 KT19 "Niku"

Minor planet (471325) 2011 KT19, or "Niku" as its nicknamed, is a trans-Neptunian object, or TNO. The venerable Wikipedia has a great diagram that illustrates what TNOs are. By definition, they are any minor planet - so, basically anything that's not a star nor a planet - that orbits the sun - so it's not a moon - with a greater average distance than Neptune. Nancy said that this particular TNO is in the inner solar system. That's ALMOST impossible for a TNO, though some comets would be considered as meeting that definition. Anything inside of Neptune's orbit is called a Centaur, and anything that orbits with Neptune would be a trojan of Neptune. Just sayin' for completeness' sake.

That means that Pluto is a type of TNO. Kuiper Belt Objects are TNOs. Even if we ever found an Oort Cloud object, if it exists, that would technically be a sub-type of TNO because its average distance from the sun is farther than Neptune's orbit.

With that in mind, Niku is a TNO that was found in 2015, announced in August of 2016, and linked to an object that was originally discovered, but then lost, in 2011. How do you lose an object? Easy when you don't quite know its orbit, plan follow-up observations, and it's not there where you thought it would be so, boom, it's lost. A standard procedure when you discover a new object after you calculate an orbit is to go through old lost objects and see if the orbit fits, which is what they found here.

What's interesting about Niku is that it, and five other TNOs, all share the same plane in the solar system. That means that if you draw a disk that is the object's orbit throughout its year, these other objects also orbit on that disk. Three of those six orbit the sun in the same direction as the planets, known as a prograde orbit. But, three orbit in the other direction, known as a retrograde orbit.

Presently, there are about 1750 TNOs known, and based on what we know about them, a group of researchers ran a lot of simulations to see how stable these objects are in that orbit. What they found was that there was a 0.016% chance of all six objects staying in that same plane over a long period of time. The reason is that these orbits should move and precess, similar to a spinning top pointing in a different direction except this is the whole plane of the orbit moving. There are also interactions with the giant planets in the outer solar system that should further push them around so they shouldn't share the same orbit.

So, how do you get this happening? The authors of the paper raised a few possibilities. One is that we simply lack enough information about how TNOs really behave, are distributed, and about the dynamical evolution of the outer solar system. Ergo, it could still be coincidence. They don't like that explanation, but I personally do, along with their second possibility which is observational bias, which does go along with that first explanation. To put it succinctly, most surveys for solar system objects are within the broad plane of the solar system, ±20° or so. In other words, we look in the plane of the planets for solar system stuff because that's where we know most of it is. So, there could be TNOs beyond that plane, but we just haven't found many because we simply haven't been looking. If they're there, then that also changes the simulations that they did and could alter the coincidence factor.

Then, unfortunately for Nancy, the authors also put in the hypothetical Planet Nine suggested in a paper by Batygin and Brown from January 2016 that I'll talk about in a moment. The idea is that if you have a large gravitational object, over time, it can corral smaller objects into similar orbits, its gravity keeping them in those similar orbits over time. But, the Batygin and Brown object can't account for Niku & Friends' similar orbit, at all. Nor could a few others that have been proposed. To quote the paper, "All seem to be problematic, as they have great difficulty in affecting the planet-crossing region, due to the small perturbations they exert at such great separations." In other words, these hypothetical planets that have been proposed have to be far away, otherwise we would have seen them. But, because they're so far away, they are too far to affect these TNOs which, though far, are too close to the sun to be affected by these proposed bodies.

However, the authors do propose that if not a coincidence, there still needs to be some sort of other large gravitational body that is guiding these objects to be in a similar orbit. But, they couldn't figure out an orbit that would work to both account for these orbits and to not destroy the orbits of other objects that we know about in the outer solar system, so they leave it an open question.

Batygin and Brown (2016) Paper on "Planet Nine"

But, Batygin and Brown - or I'll refer to them as "BB" for short - did not. They published a paper in January 2016 entitled, "Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System." This is what Nancy was referring to about the slow disclosure over 2016. What they did is to look at Scattered Disk Objects (SDOs). SDOs are a sub-set of TNOs. SDOs in particular have highly elliptical orbits, are tilted relative to the plane of the planets, and they are thought to get into those orbits after close encounters with giant planets that, well, scatter them into these weird but fairly stable orbits. There are over 200 of these objects known, within the >1750 known TNOs.

What BB did was to look at the known SDOs and they observed that the orbital elements of some of them were similar. Orbital elements are things like what plane they orbit in, how close they get to the sun and where in the orbit that happens, how far they get from the sun, their eccentricity, etc. Those kinds of things. In particular, they found six of the known SDOs had clustering that, based on their computer simulations they calculated had only a 0.007% chance of occurring purely by, well, chance. They also discuss observational biases that could have contributed to this clustering, but they also dismiss those as being responsible for such a low chance of this being a coincidence.

What made BB get such notoriety, besides a large press release from NASA and the anniversary of New Horizons' launch a decade earlier, is that they proposed that there was an unseen planet that was responsible. After doing some analytical arguments and then numerical simulations that generated some very pretty graphs that are outside of my field so I just look at them and say they're pretty, they found, in their simulations, a planetary body that would work. The body would have an average distance from the sun of 700 AU - or about 20 times farther than Neptune - it would have an eccentricity of 0.6 which is really big, and it would have a mass somewhere around 10 times that of Earth. That could explain these six objects' clustered orbital parameters.

Stuart's Skeptical Take

I'll be a bit blunt here, and you're getting an admittedly biased host. I discussed this on The Reality Check podcast episode 386, somehow paired with a segment on whether lettuce was worse than bacon and if cats are scared of cucumbers. What I told the hosts was that I am not incredibly convinced by these kinds of simulations.

We know incredibly little about the outer solar system relative to the inner solar system. We know of very, very few of these TNOs: despite nearly 2000 known objects, there should be hundreds of thousands if not millions, billions, or trillions of them. 2000 is a very small and likely very biased sample. We also know incredibly little about the dynamical history of the solar system and how these objects have interacted over time.

This is not to say we know nothing. A lot of good work has been done and is being done to try to better understand these objects and this region of space. But my personal issue is that they are using just a very few objects, sampled from a gigantic population that we know little about, to then hypothesize that there's a missing planet out there.

In deference to last episode, BB's suggestion of an unseen dwarf planet is not impossible, and it's not pseudoscience. As I've explained in previous episodes, it is entirely possible that there are large, unknown objects far out in the solar system. All we have done is set upper limits on how big they could be versus where they are for these kinds of surveys, based on how bright they would appear if that size and that distance versus how faint the relevant survey can detect. This potential dwarf planet that BB found would fit their observations is well below that detection threshold, so it's entirely possible.

Wrap Up

However, for me, perhaps because I'm not a theoretician nor a modeler but I'm an observationalist, I am far from convinced by the statistics that have been done.

And, for all the good that it does, I get very annoyed by headlines that trumpet this as though it's solved science that's been conclusively proven. One of the big things that pretty much every headline left out in January was that the "dwarf planet that was discovered" was in a computer and there were no observations of it directly. Same goes with more recent headlines, like "Evidence Continues to Mount for Ninth Planet" that came out of the same group from January, just a few weeks ago, that proposed that the sun's slight tilt relative to the average of the solar system could be explained by an unseen planet.

But, what they're doing is science, however speculative I may think it may be. What Nancy is doing is fear-mongering, history rewriting pseudoscience. She takes ideas that are out there in the media and abuses them to scare people. Thirteen years after a monstrous failure that caused panic among many people, she's still saying that Planet X is going to cause a 90° pole shift (see Episode 21 for that), giant tidal waves, and that the military has taken over the United States - a claim she also made in 2007. I just wish that people would see her for what she is and stop believing her and stop giving her a platform to spread her misinformation.

Real science is interesting enough. You don't have to distort it to find an audience, and you don't have to scare people to make yourself feel important.

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