“I’ve always liked Saturn. But I also have some sympathy for Pluto because I heard it’s been downgraded from a planet, and I think it should remain a planet. Once you’ve given something planetary status it’s kind of mean to take it away” – Jared Leto
If I was an ancient Sumerian, I would definitely be saying “I told you so”. Luckily, I have health insurance and nobody is demanding I build them a ziggurat or dig them a canal, so my life expectancy is considerably longer. For those of you who live in a cave (no judgement, it’s a legitimate lifestyle choice, which I in fact aspire to. Don’t give me guff, I was born this way), Caltech astronomers recently announced that they have a strong suspicion that there is a 10th planet orbiting beyond Pluto (for those of you traditionalists who maintain that Pluto is a planet, since up until 2006 that’s what we were taught). Given the fact that as the resolution of our telescopes keeps improving, we keep discovering wackier and wackier stuff out there in the universe, this should come as no surprise. The curious aspect about it is that the Sumerians have been insisting on this for several millennia. Well, not exactly insisting, since your average Sumerian is deader than a mackerel and long ago turned to dust, but they did scratch a few pointed opinions in cuneiform back in the day regarding a 10th planet they called Nibiru. All sorts of doom and gloom have been subsequently associated with Nibiru ever since, for as a species we seem to be overly concerned with the imminent apocalypse. If Armageddon is in the offing, I figure on falling way outside the statistically rapturable, so I try not to dwell on the moral implications. Instead, I’m imprudently concerned with the math as it relates to folklore. That’s how I roll. This of course explains why my dates are few and far between. Okay, my marriage interferes with it a little bit, but my wife is so confident that nobody else could tolerate me that she might applaud the success of such an endeavor as an existential triumph for nerds everywhere. Stay strong, my brothers and sisters. At any rate, there were a few discrepancies between the Caltech discovery and Sumerian mythology that concerned me, and I decided to superficially tackle the problem, because, well hell, on the internet “nobody knows you’re a dog” and if I happen to be right, I look like a misunderstood genius.
Let’s start with the Sumerians. It’s a good place to start as they were the first hairless apes to start taking notes, not to mention coming up with awesome ideas like agriculture and monumental architecture. Sumerians and Babylonians were also busy collecting star catalogs as early as 1200 B.C., and may have been jotting down observations as early as 3500 B.C. While we don’t know much about their planetary theory, we do know they were positively obsessed with mathematically predicting where stuff would be and when. Life is tough enough when you’re a god-king, so it’s nice to have accurate astronomical observations in your pocket when you need them. Curiously, archaeologists unearthed Sumerian clay tablets which are presumed to depict 10 planets in the solar system, which we could write off to theological fantasy, if it weren’t for the fact that the Sumerians appeared to be effectively obsessive-compulsive when it came to astronomical calculations. Of course, the fact that nobody had invented calculus yet hampered their efforts, but they did their primitive best.
We’ve long been aware that something gravitationally weird was going on out there in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, since a wide swath of space we would expect to be filled with interstellar detritus seemed puzzlingly empty, as if something with serious gravitational mojo was cleaning things up (referred to as the “Kuiper Cliff”). Nobody has as of yet observed a planet lurking out beyond Pluto directly, but savvy astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown have done the math, and it is highly suggestive that something odd is happening out there in the farthest reaches of our solar system. The gravitational anomalies they noted could be explained if there was a 10th planet (9th if you’re one of those Pluto “purists”), ten times the size of earth and orbiting the sun once every 10,000-20,000 years. Birthdays must suck on the 10th planet. You’re dead before your first birthday.
Birthdays are your special day, so obviously this bothered me. Lacking a degree in astrophysics and my math skills plateauing somewhere around Calculus 2, I nonetheless figured I better get busy. So, I started staring at the proposed orbits for the mysterious hypothesized Planet X until my eyes started to bleed. This happens more frequently that one might expect. Maybe I should see a doctor. Anyhow, Sumerian mythology suggests that the orbital period of the 10th planet would be something on the order of 3,600 years, which of course is far shy of the 10,000 year orbit that modern astronomers have projected for it. Then again, the Sumerians didn’t really have telescopes. Let’s assume that this funky Planet 10 does orbit the sun once every 10,000 years or so. Then, let’s check out the crazy orbit that astronomers have suggested for it.
Now, that’s a pretty eccentric orbit, with a whole lot of time spent outside of what was likely the viewable range of even the most talented Sumerian astronomer. For example, let’s imagine that the earth’s orbit around the Sun was more or less circular in comparison to that of the 10th Planet, and that we could chop the orbit of the 10th planet up into convenient parts. Sumerian civilization would have risen and fallen in the period of time that it would have taken them to potentially observe the planet twice, given you can only see so far out there into space, the elongated elliptical orbit of the proposed tenth planet, and the fact that these pesky little Sumerians were just getting over the whole pastoral nomad thing and experimenting with becoming urban hipsters.
This doesn’t require ancient aliens or strange occult powers, just good timing and a scrupulous attention to detail. If you redact all the nasty nonsense associated with Nibiru, Planet X, and the end of the world, is it that hard to believe that some canny Sumerian astronomer, steeped in what should appear in the sky at any given moment happened to notice an anomaly and record it? Then again, maybe we’re all going to die like the mythology says. Just saying.