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Friday, July 5, 2002

Rumor of Planet X Debunked by UNM Professor

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    Astronomer Steve Gregory was making the late-night drive back to Albuquerque from the Capilla Peak Observatory in May when he first heard the tale of Planet X.
    As told on late-night talk radio, it goes something like this:
    A giant planet bigger than Jupiter Planet X is churning into the inner solar system. Its rampage will destroy most life on Earth when it passes close to Earth next spring.
    Your government knows.
    Astronomers know.
    They are covering it up.
    How do we know this? The leading advocate for the Planet X hypothesis says a race of space aliens, Zeta Reticulans, told her.
    That might seem too wacky for a serious scientist to touch.
    But people kept calling the University of New Mexico astronomy department asking about Planet X, asking if they should worry.
    So UNM astronomer Gregory, as he has many times before, decided to take the wacky seriously.
    For the record, here is what he found there is no Planet X bearing down on Earth, no threat to humanity, no cover-up.
    The real problem, as he has found many times before, is an uncritical belief in "pseudo-science" false claims draped in a cloak of scientific legitimacy.
    Gregory's is a noble mission, said University of Maryland physicist Bob Park.
    Park has battled for years against pseudo-science, fighting against bogus miracle cures and promises of free energy for all.
    He thinks scientists have a responsibility to help the public distinguish between science and pseudo-science.
    "The responsibility here is with the scientific community," Park said. "We sit quietly while this goes on."
    Widespread belief that Planet X is headed Earth's way has its roots in Internet claims by a woman named Nancy Lieder.
    Lieder, an Internet and talk-radio fixture, has held this spotlight before.
    In 1995, she caused a stir when she claimed there was no Comet Hale-Bopp, that it was a fraud being perpetrated by the government and scientists to distract attention from Planet X.
    As the comet became easily visible, her story changed. A "real comet" had been found, she said, and astronomers had performed a scientific bait-and-switch.
    A former California resident, Lieder said in an e-mail to the Journal that she "left (a) lucrative West Coast job in 1999 to walk my own talk, moving to safer area." Her Web site's Internet registration lists an address in rural Wisconsin.
    The apparent inconsistencies in her Hale-Bopp prognostications do not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of believers, who now eagerly pepper her via the Internet with questions about when Planet X will finally be visible and how to escape its ravages.
    Asked via e-mail how she knows Planet X is coming, Lieder's answer is simple: "The Zetas said so."
    The whole affair has a familiar ring to Gregory.
    Between 1995 and '97, Gregory took on an explosion of apocalyptic tales from Lieder and others surrounding Hale-Bopp, including charges of alien spacecraft and scientific cover-ups.
    The evidence, Gregory found, was a hodgepodge of misinterpreted orbital calculations and telescope images. The comet came and went and looked great.
    There was no alien invasion.
    "Time after time," he said, "they're proved wrong."
    Debunking Planet X is, from Gregory's perspective, a scientific no-brainer. Simply put, if it is as large and deadly as believers claim, you would have seen it by now, no telescope required.
    In her defense, Lieber points to two telescope images taken in January as proof of Planet X. Her critics say the fuzzy blobs she points to are just flaws in the image, noting that an actual planet, reflecting sunlight, would be far brighter and easy to see.
    Relatively small space rocks like a football-field-size asteroid that missed Earth recently are difficult to see, but giant planets approaching Earth are hard to miss, Gregory noted.
    Lieder and other Planet X believers charge that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, along with the world's astronomers, have seen Planet X and are covering it up.
    Park said that is a common feature of pseudo-science claims the allegation of a cover-up.
    Gregory finds the charge absurd.
    "That's what we live for as scientists, to discover something new," he said.
    When they find something new, scientists publish papers and talk about their results at scientific meetings, encouraging other researchers to try to confirm their discovery.
    They also aggressively test their own assumptions.
    "Good scientists ask those questions of themselves from the beginning," he said.
    "What's the difference between that," Gregory asks, "and someone who goes on late-night radio and says, 'I talked to the Zeta Reticulans.' ''
    Gregory takes consolation in the fact that, by next year, scientists and Planet X believers will have their reckoning.
    "A year from now, we can call these people on the carpet," Gregory said.