Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online


This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia


First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )


Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.

June 23, 2014

Podcast Episode 113: The Blue-Haze Limb of Mars


While the color of
Mars is red, some photos show
Blue on the limb. Why?

While I’ve already addressed the True Color of Mars (episode 74), one remaining – and unmentioned – twist is the blue haze limb that is sometimes visible as the upper atmosphere in color images taken from Earth orbit; this episode addresses those. And, it’s a completely different phenomenon than just a crappy understanding of image analysis. Real science ensues!!

Feedback makes up over half of this episode. I talk about Episodes 112 (why Russell Humphreys thinks that magnetic fields should decay to begin with and how he made his prediction), 109 (a follow-up interview of Marshall Masters from just a few days ago), and 111 (general feedback and criticisms of the Cydonia movie).

Finally, TAM is less than 2.5 weeks away, and I’d love to meet my adoring fans you folks who tolerate listening to me every now-and-then. Please let me know if you’re going AND interested in meeting up. Otherwise, I may have to spend all my time with a Hershey chocolate -lover, and we don’t want that now, do we?

And über-finally, I got a special e-mail while I was recording this episode. Listen to it all the way through to hear it. :)

Oh, and super-düper-finally, about the release schedule: Some of you may have noticed has been a bit off lately. The excuses are the usual, but ostensibly, the podcast is “supposed” to come out on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month. And that’s how I date them in the RSS feed. But, in the intro, I state that this is an episode for a certain third of the month, so that’s been the justification in my head for being able to get it out a little late. And looking at my upcoming schedule, I think that you can probably expect more of the same at least until September. They should be on or about the 1st, 11th, and 21st, but won’t necessarily be exactly on those dates.

May 31, 2014

Announcing Vodcast 1 and Podcast 111: The Cydonia Region of Mars


Anomalies do
Abound, but, are they really
That rare, unus’al?

Welp, this is it! My first new attempt to create a video that I’m reasonably proud of and shows things the way I’d like them to be shown. On YouTube: You can click this link. Or, there’s a link to the 720p version here. And, of course, the link to the shownotes for the podcast version.

The differences are: On YouTube, you can view up to 1080p (“Hi-Def”), while the version released to the podcast feed is 720p, fewer pixels. The podcast (audio, episode 111) itself is an audio extension of the movie, explaining some of the math (or “maths” for peeps “across the pond”) in more detail and discussing one or two deleted scenes — additional bits that weren’t central to the story so didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie.

As I say at the end, I really do want feedback on this. If negative, then make it constructive. If you’re a fan of Richard Hoagland’s work, and you disagree with the movie, then let me know WHY, not just that you disagree because I’m wrong. That gets us no where and is useless.

And, if you like the movie, then make sure to share it around. Delusions of grandeur don’t manifest on their own, gosh darnit!

May 14, 2014

New Project Announcement: The Cydonia Region of Mars


Today, I am releasing the trailer for a project I have been working on for the last month. I’ve said for a long time I want to make more movies/animations related to the topics I discuss on this blog and podcast, and this is the first entry into that.

The movie itself will be about 15 minutes long, and I have been working with over a dozen volunteers who’ve been offering feedback to put this out come the end of the month. With a near-final version of the movie (just tweaks at this point), it’s a “for-sure” that I can get it out on May 31, so I’m putting up the trailer now.

Thanks to Steve Gibb for the quite dramatic music for the trailer. We wanted to have fun with the trailer, while the actual movie will be much more serious.

May 1, 2014

Is Camera Noise Evidence for Ancient Advanced Civilization on the Moon?


Introduction

Richard C. Hoagland. Yes, another post about some of his claims (not him). Things had been quiet from Mr. Hoagland for several months, apparently because of his latest work, spending 4 months attempting to show that the Chinese lunar mission, Chang’e 3 (嫦娥三号), and its rover Yutu (Jade Rabbit, 玉兔), had found evidence of the same thing he thinks he sees in Apollo photographs (that was likely dirt on his scanner): Ancient glass towers on the horizon.

Where to start? What to address? His “paper” on the subject, which you can find at his “Enterprise Mission dot com” website (sorry, I’m not going to link), is massive. And has 136 markup errors and 23 warnings according to the W3C markup validation service. It is nearly 14,000 words long, Richard says it has over 100 photographs, and if I were to print it from Safari would come out at 86 pages.

That is a long way of saying there’s no way I’m going to even come close to addressing it all, or even try to. There’s even so much I could write about the specific topic I want to talk about – image noise and sensor non-uniformity – that I’m only going to be able to talk about in broad brushstrokes, but hopefully it’s understandable.

What I’m Not Talking About

Richard has been making the circuit of the late-night paranormal shows, podcasts, etc. Tonight he was on Jimmy Church’s show, the one I was on two weeks ago. I think that, given that I heard his Coast to Coast interview, his “The Unexplained” interview, and “Fade to Black” interview, I have a reasonable idea of his argument (keep in mind, that’s about 5.5 non-commercial-hours of listening to Richard talk about this, so forgive me for not reading another 13,700 words).

I’m not going to talk about his numerology:

  • 19.5° … anything.
  • Landed at 19.5° … LONGITUDE, not latitude.
  • Landed at 44°N which was a message to the 44th President … Obama.

I’m not going to talk about his conspiracy and symbolism:

  • Obama made some mention of carrot seeds in a gift to the Pope, which was a hidden message about the Jade Rabbit lunar rover.
  • All his previous NASA conspiracy stuff coming in.
  • Disclosure is going to happen within a few months (I seem to recall him saying 2010 was the Year of Disclosure and then in 2011 when being called on it (a rare instance of being called out), he said it was, we just hadn’t noticed it).
  • Brookings Report

I’m not going to discuss his pareidolia, since that doesn’t really play much a role in this set of claims (to the extent it does with grids, that will be discussed).

And so, of the four things that comprise the vast majority of Richard Hoagland’s claims (numerology, conspiracy, pareidolia, shoddy image analysis), it will be the image analysis that I will delve into.

Why not this other stuff? Why isn’t that as important? Because none of it is actual objective evidence for anything. It is supposition, ancillary to the claimed photographic evidence that I’ll be discussing in the rest of this post. Since the photography is the only (or the most) objective part, that’s what’s important to examine.

The Images (One of Them)

Here is the hallmark image that Richard has been sending to radio hosts. And I have included the original caption.

Richard Hoagland's Lunar Glass Towers from Chang'e 3

“Equalized version” of another official Chang’e-3 lunar surface image, revealing another set of the Moon’s startling “glittering glass towers” standing only a few miles northeast of the the Chang’e-3 landing site. Careful examination of the image will reveal an amazingly coherent geometry to these ancient, heavily meteor-eroded glass structures … including, the surface placement of the still-glowing “colored blue and red panels” appearing at these structures’ base and to the extreme right — apparently energized colored panels “embedded in the ancient glass.”

Noise

Ah, noise. Most of us are familiar with audio noise. Turn speakers on, when they’re not connected to anything else, and put the gain up all the way. You will hear static. That’s random electrons being picked up by the circuitry and being amplified as, literally, noise.

The same thing happens with digital cameras. They work by converting photons (little packets of light) into energy, and recording how much energy is recorded. Some pixels are more sensitive than others. Some pixels are always on, some are always off. Usually, because of the manufacturing process, it’s entire rows and/or columns of pixels that will be slightly more sensitive than others. And there’s the statistical fluctuations that have to do with counting statistics.

When cameras get warm, the molecules have more energy (definition of heat), and are more likely to randomly emit an electron that will be recorded … as in, noise. That is why professional – and even enthusiast – astronomy CCDs are cooled, sometimes with liquid nitrogen. It reduces the noise. If your sensor is unevenly heated, that can cause uneven noise across it (more noise where it’s warmer). Just a degree temperature difference will do it.

All of those mean that ANY digital detector will have noise – I don’t care how good it is, how much you paid for it, how many pixels it has, if it’s color or B&W … whatever about it – it will have noise. The fact that it has a temperature above absolute zero means it will have noise.

Here is an excellent tutorial on image noise. If at this point you don’t know what I’m really talking about, please read it, or at least look at the images. There is a small link to a part 2 at the bottom. Going forward, I’m going to assume that you have a a reasonable grasp of noise. This is already a long post.

What Is “Equalization”?

“I just brightened up the images a little bit.” –RCH

This is a hallmark of much of Richard Hoagland’s types of claims. Brightening the image, increasing contrast, increasing saturation, etc.

Equalization itself can have innumerable types of algorithms, but the basic idea is this: Many photographs of a typical scene have a little bit of dark, a little bit of bright, and a lot in the middle. That’s not how you have to shoot a photo, but that’s typical (go to this post and look for “Histograms”). What Equalize does it want to put the same number of pixels at every brightness level.

So, in that example, it will move some of the slightly darker middle colors to be darker, and it will move slightly brighter middle colors lighter. That way, if your image has 256 pixels, and you’re in 8-bit mode so there are 256 levels of brightness, one pixel will have a brightness 0, one will have a brightness 1, one will have a brightness 2, and so on.

Inevitably, this has the effect of stretching at least some brightness levels in the image. More on that in a bit.

This can be good! You take a wedding photo and Equalize can help bring out detail in both the bride’s white dress and the groom’s black tux (if we’re talking about a Western-style heterosexual marriage). That’s because the image, as-shot, would have a lot of dark pixels and a lot of bright pixels, so Equalize will bring them more to the middle.

But this can also be bad or silly, as I show in the next section.

Stuart’s Example

Below is an image I took of the moon last year.

Example of Why Equalization Is Sometimes Stupid

An original image of the Moon showing what happens when you “Equalize” blackness and the structure of noise.

The top image shows my nice, well-exposed photograph of the moon.

Then I saved the image as a JPG. The middle row shows what happened when I pressed Photoshop’s “Equalization” option. The left column is from the original image, before I saved it. The right column shows what happened when I pressed Equalize on the JPG-saved image. The bottom row is what happened after I converted both to greyscale, just for completeness.

So, what is this showing? Noise! (The pixel noise I talked about before and the JPG compression artifacts, though I’m not going to talk about those JPG artifacts in this post.) As I talked about above, different rows and columns of pixels are very slightly more or less sensitive than others. It doesn’t matter how good your sensor is, it will still have imperfections.

Since this particular sensor is three-color (RGB pixels), then different rows and columns of colors have different sensitivities, hence the red/pink checkerboard feature. The green pixels in this sensor apparently had better noise properties than the red and blue.

Notice also that it’s brighter around the moon. As if it’s surrounded by tall glass structures! After all, all of this stuff is showing perfect rectalinear geometry.

But why did I say that using equalization on this is silly? It’s because it is. The moon was surrounded by black sky. If you go to the original image on my computer (please don’t hack me), the pixel values – the number of photons recorded – scaled between 0 and 255, is 0-2 in that dark area. That, dear reader, is noise.

What about close to the moon? It raises to 8-20. (The Moon itself is 150-230.) The 8-20 pixel brightnesses are both noise AND, more importantly in this case, scattered light. This gets to another thing about optics: I don’t care how good your optics are, what kind of special coatings it has … unless you are in a clean room with ZERO dust, and perhaps using the clearest of crystals as your optics, your optics are not perfect and they will scatter light. Meaning the light won’t just pass through as it should, a few photons will be deflected and go somewhere else.

What that means for this case is that the moon is a bright circle on this image. A few of those photons are going to scatter within the optics of my camera and the probably 15 different pieces of glass that form the lenses. Probably, they won’t scatter far. That’s why right next to the moon, it’s 8-20 photons. But just 10% of the image away, we’re back at the background level of 0-2.

This all gets back to Richard’s images. I can’t figure out exactly which image Richard used as his main one, but another he uses comes from here, the bottom one with the caption 嫦娥三号着陆器地形地貌相机拍摄的“玉兔”号月球车照片。(Chang’e 3 lander topography camera “rabbit” No. rover photos. –via Google Translate).

Here’s how Richard presents it:

RCH's Processing of a Chang'e 3 Image

There — from the institution which forms the foundation of China’s very 21st Century existence–
Was the ghostly … repetitive … glistening glass geometry of “an ancient, Mare Imbrium dome …”–
With the official “Chinese People’s Liberation Army” logo plastered right on top of it (below)!

When I look at the image, the pixel values in the sky on the left half are 0-5. The right half is 5-10. The lunar features being around 100-250. It’s the same on a higher-resolution image that “Dee” found and posted over on Expat’s Dork Mission blog. Again, noise. And, I think some scattered light.

The moon is dusty. And even if it weren’t, the scattered light in the right half makes sense, getting back-scatter from the sun coming from the right, scattered in all directions but a bit more back to the right, and into the camera lens on that side. Another explanation is that the right half of the sensor was very slightly warmer than the left half. That will also give you noise of this exact type.

And, if these are glass towers, one must also ask why they stop just above the horizon!? On Richard’s “Enhancement” via Equalization, he shows the lunar surface, and just above it is a black line, and then are his glass towers.

But back to Equalize, what happened? Well, about half the image is really dark, pixel brightness values between about 0 and 10. Half the image is middle to bright, with brightness values between about 100 and 255. Because Equalize demands that the same number of pixels be at every level of brightness, it has to make a lot of those dark pixels brighter. Since half-way between 0 and 255 is about 127, it barely has to do anything to the lunar surface part. It’ll make some of the pixels a little darker, and some of them a little brighter, but the most drastic change will be to the sky area because that’s half the image, and so that half the image now must be mapped instead from 0-10 brightness to about 0-127 brightness. (Since it’s a little less than half, it only gets mapped up to 90, but you get the idea.)

Richard Says it Could Be Noise, But It’s Not Because It’s Geometric and Not Below Horizon

Richard said words to that effect at about 9:04 PM on Jimmy’s radio program (just over 2 hrs into it). He said it could either be noise or glass structures. He said it’s not noise because it’s geometric and because it doesn’t show below the horizon (the surface of the moon).

I reject both of those as explanations for why it’s not noise. The geometry argument because of my example above with my image of the moon, and see that tutorial on banding noise. If he thinks that image noise is not geometric (the noise from the sensor and noise from JPG compression), he is either more ignorant or delusional than I thought or, well, not telling the truth. Sorry, it’s hard to listen to him for 3 hrs and write 2800 words and not get in a small ad hominem.

I reject the part about it not showing below the horizon as evidence it’s not noise because of … the numbers. Even Richard often says, “It’s about the numbers!” In this case, you are talking about pixel values of about 5-10 brightness. Let’s say that’s noise. Just give that to me for a moment. Now look at the actual lit part of the moon. Pixel values 100-250. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 0 is HUGE. Noise of 5-10 photons on top of 100-250 is miniscule. In other words, I say that the noise is still there in the part below the horizon, you just don’t see it.

Again, I’ll refer to the tutorial I linked to, specifically the first two images. The top one shows the same noise level, but a large signal (like the lunar surface). The second one shows the same noise level, but a very small signal (like the sky, though I’d say there’s no signal, it’s all noise).

Other Relevant, Miscellaneous Statements

“The data are replicable” therefore the fact that he sees this in Apollo and the Chang’e 3 images means it’s real, it’s “stunning confirmation.”

Yes, it certainly does mean that image noise is real and banding noise is also a real type.

“The Chinese have gone to the Moon and sent back the message — ‘Hoagland was right.'”

This one in particular struck Expat from the Dork Mission blog. I kinda agree. I find it typical of a decent number of claims by conspiracists in general and (personally) I find it somewhat arrogant to think that THEY are the only ones who can decode these secret messages, and even that the encoders are speaking directly to them!

Other “Enterprise Mission scientists” agree with him.

That is not peer review, that is an echo chamber. There’s a reason that Richard Hoagland is making the circuit on the paranormal shows and not anything else with this stuff.

Since the images are still up on the various Chinese websites, even after Richard Hoagland’s disclosure last week, that means that they are admitting that this stuff is real.

No, it means that most of us laugh this off as not understanding anything about photographic noise. Those of us among the very small community of scientists who actually follow these kinds of topics.

Where Are These “Miles-High, Miles-Across” Features in Meter-Scale Orbital Photographs?

As with the lunar ziggurat saga, and even as Richard stated (just his example doesn’t qualify), science demands repetition of objective data. Richard has claimed that these features are massive, miles across and miles high and miles wide. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Narrow Angle Camera records images with pixel scales of around 0.5 meters. Wide-Angle Camera is ~60 meters per pixel. The Japanese Kaguya craft had a terrain camera that recorded images at ~10 meters per pixel. And that’s just in the last few years.

But, none of these craft show these features. Even Richard hasn’t pointed to any of these images that would allegedly show them.

And yet, Richard claims that they are shimmering, glittering, multi-colored, glassy … and miles across. Where are they in other imagery? Yes, you’re looking down from above, but glass refracts light (index of refraction is 1.5-2.0-ish) so we should see weird distortions. And, he says it glitters, so we should see specular reflections, especially off the parts that are “damaged” (as he put it) and haven’t been repaired yet by robots (which he said are there in the C2C interview).

So either they should be there in the other images, or they don’t exist. Or, massive conspiracy. *cough*

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t going to talk about this stuff. When I first listened to it on C2C last week, my almost knee-jerk response was, “This falls into the category of Not Even Wrong.” In other words, there is simply so little correct, so little grounding in reality, that (a) there’s no way to even start to address it all, and (b) there’s usually not any reason to.

As RationalWiki put it, a Not Even Wrong statement is not of the form “2 + 2 = 6,” but rather, “2 + zebra ÷ glockenspiel = homeopathy works!”

Then I saw how much press he was getting on these various shows. On “The Unexplained,” he made a comment to the effect that he can reach 2% of the population (US population? world population?) “without breaking a sweat.” And he’s right. Or at least close to it. If the audience numbers that I’ve heard reported for these various shows are correct, he’s probably easily reached over a million listeners at this point, or 1/3 of a percent of the US population.

I don’t believe for a Plank time that all those people believe what Richard says. I also, honestly, don’t think it’s incredibly important whether they do or not. But, the credulity that even entertaining this kind of “analysis” fosters transfers into other fields. Like medicine. Or believing in a soon-to-be apocalypse. And there, your choices, your belief in various “alternative” views, can kill you. Or, in cases of psychics, astrologers, and others, they can bankrupt you.

April 21, 2014

My Interview on “Fade to Black” from April 16


Introduction

has been posted. I start after about 30 minutes, though the host, Jimmy Church, intros / prefaces the interview during the first half hour. You might as well just listen to the whole thing. :)

(And for some reason, my audio seems a bit quiet relative to the host’s (Jimmy Church) … sorry ’bout that).

Emphasis

My goal during the interview was to provide plausible, science-based explanations for, well, whatever we talked about, to show that the scientific explanation is at least as plausible as the conspiracy or pseudoscience one, and to be reasonable.

I think I sounded a bit like a broken record towards that effect, and I probably could’ve said it a bit less often. But, for those who aren’t going to listen, let me re-state it now in print: I would love for lots of the stuff common to paranormal radio programs to be true. I would love for there to be aliens visiting us and sharing or giving us advanced technology. For there to be bases on the moon, or other kinds of artifacts on Mars that provide evidence for ancient “high technology” beyond a reasonable doubt. But, the evidence that has been presented simply doesn’t meet that threshold, in my opinion.

If the best evidence for aliens is a mesa that at high-resolution looks like a natural eroded rock formation, or a few bright pixels that can be explained as a camera defect because it doesn’t show in other pictures of the site taken at the same time, then that simply does not meet my own personal threshold. It may meet yours. It obviously meets some peoples’. But, that is why the scientific community, as a whole, does not accept these things.

Would I Have a Conspiracist / “Alternative” Person on My Podcast?

No. I was asked this a little before the first hour (of the three-hour program). It was in the context of would I ask Bart Sibrel on the show. The answer, again, is no.

The reason that I gave is that the purpose of my podcast is not to be sensationalist, not to present a false balance or appearance of balance. It is a science-based podcast that addresses claims that are “out there” in general or promoted by specific persons. They are up against the entirety of science and evidence to-date. Ergo, a true balance would be to let them have, perhaps, a single second out of my normal ~half-hour show.

Ad hominems Versus Claims a Person Makes

I think it’s important that whenever one addresses this kind of stuff that they address the claims and not the person. Yes, sometimes it’s important to give context. But in the end, the claims should stand on their own. That’s also why, when I was asked around the 1hr 12min mark, about “what makes a hoaxer” and why they do what they do, I honestly replied that I didn’t know and tried not to speculate too much.

In the interview, I tried to do that. I realize it sounds, a few times, like we were bashing on Richard Hoagland. That was not my intent. The reason that Richard was the proponent of several of the claims we talked about is that he is simply one of the main proponents of space-based image-based claims out there, and he has a huge back-catalog of claims spanning at least 30 years. If you get into addressing fringe astronomy claims, you will with almost 100% certainty run into Richard C. Hoagland.

I hope that comes across that I was focused on his claims and not him, himself. If it doesn’t, I’ve restated it here for the record.

And, since the interview, at least one person has said that Richard should get a “right of reply.” Also for the record, I have no control and no say in that. That is up to the host, producer(s), and Richard himself. I know that Richard is friends with the producer (Keith Rowland), so that may play a factor. That is also why I tried to be particularly sensitive to addressing the claims and not the person.

What follows are some of my musings and observations after listening to my interview again, and perhaps some things I wish I would have stated differently. This is not comprehensive to the interview, so you will not be able to get a guide to it by reading this post, nor will you get a flavor for the tone/tenor or total content. For that, you need to listen to the 2.5 hrs I was on.

Planet X

We talked about this for about 20 minutes at the beginning. I referenced the WISE survey with respect to the latest all-sky survey of faint infrared surveys. Here is the press release / story / paper that I was referring to.

Also I mentioned the common claim that IRAS discovered it in 1983. Here’s the episode of my podcast (#54) where I addressed this claim. Oh, and IRAS = InfraRed Astronomical Survey.

Apollo Moon Hoax

Going into this, I should have been better prepared. Jimmy had interviewed Bart Sibrel, one of the major four proponents of the hoax conspiracy idea, and the only one who is still alive. It was one of the five interviews (that’s still 15 hrs) I had listened to in preparation for my interview on his show. And, it made me mad. I had posted this to the BellGab internet forum (Art Bell fans) after I listened:

Ug. I wish I knew about the show a month ago. Listening to Sibrel is painful, and every single one of these claims have been debunked.

The whole psychology stuff? Utterly unconvincing. Why do the astronauts punch or kick Sibrel? Because they’ve spent 40 years dealing with jerks like him accosting them in public about this stuff. Forty years later (well, maybe 35 at that time), you have Sibrel, a tall, relatively young guy, marching up to an older Aldrin and demanding he swear on a bible while calling him “a coward, and a liar, and a thief,” … what would you do, especially after having been lured there under false pretenses?

Or Armstrong looking depressed or upset at the news conference right after the landings … how would you feel if you just spent three days in a tin can, a day on the friggin’ moon (wow!), but then another three days in a tiny tin can. Your every move scrutinized, in the same clothing, having to urinate and defecate in small bags, eating crappy food, and then you finally get home and you’re dragged on stage to talk to a bunch of people when all you want is a shower and bed (and a real toilet)? I don’t know about you, but I don’t do well the first few days being in a HOTEL (I have issues sleeping in a new bed for the first 2-3 nights), let alone in a tiny capsule for a week. I’d be miserable.

Sorry Jimmy, your analogy of just coming off the Super Bowl win doesn’t hold in this case. It would if you then stuck all the players (before they’ve had a chance to shower or change clothes) in a tiny room for three days – give ‘em a few bags of freeze-dried food and a few bags to “do their business” in – and THEN have them go talk with the press.

Sorry if I come across as P.O.’ed, but Sibrel and his ilk really tick me off by playing these one-sided games, giving you outright lies (yes, we could certainly read the original tapes if they were found), mis-statements (van Allen belts are NOT as dangerous as he portrays, or the stuff about lunar rocks from Antarctica), misdirection (see van Allen belts, or statements about why TV stations couldn’t read the raw feed, or even his statements about how many hours in space the Russians had (it’s quality, not quantity)), or these kinds of “well what would YOU do?” psychology things that leaves out the whole story.

Especially if you want to play that whole human psychology stuff, then actually put yourself in the WHOLE situation, with all the crap (literally) they had to deal with, how tired they would be after getting back, etc. As opposed to, “Hey, they are the first people to get back from the moon, they should be excited and want to tell everyone about it!” Remember, these are people, not robots.

I could go on, but I think I need to relax a bit, and that I’ve made my point. […]

Since I had posted that, very obviously I should have been prepared to discuss it. And I could discuss practically any aspect of the Moon Hoax stuff at any time, except for the van Allen Belts. Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) and I do not get along. I hated the three semesters I studied it in college, and I did not go into solar physics in grad school because of it. And, he asked me about the radiation.

In my tiny defense, there had been a bit of feedback in my headset up to the point when Jimmy asked the question. That disappeared. And it seemed as though he ended the question a word or two short (at 1:03:54, he says, “So, how do you say?” prefaced by talking about the radiation … to me, since the feedback cut out right about that time, and it really does seem as though there should be a few more words to that question). So, I was fumbling trying to pull up a link where I had discussed it before to get my talking points (not realizing I hadn’t actually done a blog post on it), all while also looking at my network transfer speeds and Skype to make sure I was still connected. But, I sounded like a flummoxed moron, and I think it was by far my worst moment during the interview.

For the record, here is my podcast episode (#5) when I discussed this. There’s also Clavius.org and Phil Plait who both debunk this.

Otherwise, I think I did reasonably okay in this discussion, and I think that my end point should be emphasized again: Conspiracy ideas are easy to make because you just need something that doesn’t make sense to you, and you can state a conspiracy in 5 seconds or less. Debunking them requires a huge amount of specialized knowledge in various fields and takes much longer than 5 seconds. Meanwhile, if I were to satisfactorily explain away every single claim but one, then you would still believe in the hoax because of that one claim. Instead, you should be thinking, “Wow, all of those were bologna, maybe that other one is, too, and Stuart just gave a crappy answer. I should investigate!” I said as much in what I thought was a shining come back for a few minutes around 1hr 17-20min.

What I find truly disingenuous of hoax proponents, though, is all this stuff has been pointed out to them so many times. And yet, they keep making the claims without acknowledging any of the refutations.

Finally, something I thought of after the show that I should have responded with when Jimmy kept coming back to the technology claim is this: It’s very easy to say, “But they didn’t have the technology!” But, that’s a very general and vague statement. What specific technology is needed? Can there be any substitutes? Now with that list, let’s see what they did have.

Scientists and the Status Quo

It is a frequent refrain by any non-mainstream person that scientists just want to uphold the consensus, they don’t want to find anything new, they don’t want to upset the apple cart, blah blah blah. I talked about this in the “Fear and Conspiracy” section of my last post on the lunar ziggurat, but I wrote an entire post on it in 2010, as well.

Do I Think Intelligent Life (Aliens) Have Visited Us, and/or Are “Out There?”

I think Jimmy was frustrated with my very qualified answer to this, starting around the 1hr 35min mark, so let me give a slightly more thought-out response.

For me, there is a difference between “think” and “believe,” the entire subject of another 2010 blog post. I don’t think there is any evidence for this. But, I want to believe that it is true. If I ignore my “thinking brain” part, I, like probably most people, have a desire to know if we’re alone or not. I believe the universe is too vast to not have other intelligent life out there. I’m not sure I believe there’s any reason for them to visit Earth at any point in our past versus any other of the countless billions of planets in the galaxy, but sure, it’s possible.

But then that concrete part of my brain kicks in when I’m asked this kind of question, and I try to look for evidence. And, I just don’t see any good evidence for it.

So yes, I want to believe, I would love for it to be true, but all of the evidence presented so far is not good enough, it does not meet the very high threshold that I hold for such a spectacular and important “thing.” And, some of that evidence has been discussed previously on this blog and/or my podcast.

Face on Mars and Other Stuff on Mars

We spent a lot of time on this, starting around 1hr 50min. I don’t really have too much to add, except that I did an in-depth two-part podcast series on the Face on Mars (part 1 || part 2). Jimmy also said that we would have to address “19.5°” at some point during the evening, which we didn’t get to — I did podcast and blog about it in the past.

We also talk about the layout of the “city” and other stuff in the Cydonia area; that is something that I have yet to blog or podcast about, but it is something I’m working on for some as-yet-undisclosed projects (undisclosed because I seem to disclose stuff and then it never gets done; this way perhaps I’ll finish something and then disclose it).

Bright Spot in Curiosity NAVCAM

Around 2hr 30min, for several minutes, we talked about this bit of news. That I blogged about here. As promised, about a half hour after we got off the air, I sent this e-mail to Jimmy with more examples of bright spots in the images:

Here are a couple images, most of them courtesy of the scientists who are actually discussing what this could be (as opposed to UFOlogists / anomaly hunters over on UFO Sightings Daily who first came up with this), via the Unmanned Spaceflight forum: http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?showtopic=7825 . There’s a lot of discussion on there about what people think it may be — I suggest skimming through the thread (like posts 20 and 21 or 95).

First, here’s the original left/right where it only shows up in one: http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NRB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ versus http://curiosityrover.com/imgpoint.php?name=NLB_449790582EDR_F0310000NCAM00262M_ .

Second, here’s another left/right NAVCAM image that shows another one. Same camera was the only one to catch it, though if real (“real” = actual feature on Mars) it could be because of perspective/parallax: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NRB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588 versus http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=NLB_449700848EDR_F0301254NCAM00252M_&s=588nor . When people talk about “the other one of the same site from a different day,” this is what they’re talking about — and no, it’s not the same site.

Here’s another pair of another bright spot in right but not in left: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NRB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG vs http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/proj/msl/redops/ods/surface/sol/00568/opgs/edr/ncam/NLB_447920587EDR_F0291020NCAM00295M_.JPG

Next, here are two images that show a hot pixel with a HUGE amount of blooming, exact same spot on the two images, but they are completely different images of different places: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00582/mcam/0582MR0024340330400325E01_DXXX.jpg and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00580/mcam/0580MR0024070490400044E01_DXXX.jpg

And, here’s a lone cosmic ray hit (or whatever artifact is plaguing apparently the right NAVCAM more than the left): http://www.midnightplanets.com/web/MSL/image/00107/0107MR0682028000E1_DXXX.html (click the image to enlarge it, bright spot is vertically in the middle, horizontally on the right side).

Here’s one of the guys who built/engineered the cameras saying it might be a light leak: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/nasa-explains-martian-flash-its-not-what-you-think-n74931

Bottom-line: I’m not 100% sure it’s a cosmic ray. I think it’s likely. When most of us astronomers saw it, we immediately went to “cosmic ray” just as aliens people said “alien artifacts.” I do think it’s a bit coincidental to be right on that horizon line. But, I still think it’s more likely to be an imaging anomaly than spot lights or a city. I would love for it to be evidence of that. But, I don’t think it’s good enough when there are other explanations. And as I said, I think the process should be to figure out all the things it *could* be, what fits with all the evidence, and then decide what you think is most likely.

Longitude

Here’s an article describing how the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°) is defined on Mars. And here’s Dava Sobel’s excellent book Longitude.

Fin

As I said, this is not comprehensive of what we talked about. But, it’s about all I wanted to follow-up on. If you listened to the interview and have a question, let me know, I can respond to you in the comments and/or append this post.

April 10, 2014

Alien Lights or Cosmic Rays on Mars


Introduction

I was not going to talk about this because I didn’t think I had much to add. And I thought it was stupid. And, I’ve had run-ins with UFO Sightings Daily before (well, one).

But, people keep talking about it, so it at least deserves a mention here.

Origin Story

Everybody likes a good origin story. Wolverine made quite a lot of money.

The timeline, so far as I can tell, is that UFO Sightings Daily “discovered,” on April 6, 2014, and then posted, on April 7, 2014, the following:

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

An artificial light source was seen this week in this NASA photo which shows light shining upward from…the ground. This light was discovered by Streetcap1 of Youtube. This could indicate there is intelligent life below the ground and they use light as we do. This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process. Look closely at the bottom of the light. It has a very flat surface giving us 100% indiction that it is from the surface. Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery life, but there to stall its discovery. SCW

Houston Chronicle Posts

It would’ve been relegated to everything else of random bright spots in images except that the Houston Chronicle‘s reporter Carol Christian decided to write a story about it.

And then two people posted to my podcast’s Facebook page (thanks Linda and Maryann). And Doubtful News picked it up, as did Phil Plait.

What Is It?

It’s a cosmic ray. >99% chance. Here’s what happens: High-energy particles constantly stream throughout the universe. We’ve been detecting them for decades, and their energy varies considerably.

Electronic imagers typically work when a photon – a bit of light – kicks up an electron within a pixel. Those electrons are counted after the exposure is done, and that’s how you get your image.

When high-energy particles randomly stream into a detector, they are higher-energy than the photons we’re usually trying to collect, and they appear as bright streaks. Digital cameras that you use for normal photography have algorithms to remove those as known noise sources, so you typically never see them. We also see them more rarely on Earth because many are blocked by the atmosphere.

Those of us who use research-quality cameras on telescopes, however, see them all the time. In fact, Phil said the exact same thing: “I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time.” (It’s nice when we agree.)

Right now, some of my research is focusing on using images from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit of Saturn, studying some of Saturn’s moons.

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Here is one image of Rhea, taken by the ISS camera. It’s a raw image, about as original as you can get with respect to almost no processing has taken place. And look at all those stray bits of light! Pretty much every single one of them, including the two long streaks, and including the dots, are cosmic rays.

More evidence? Courtesy of Phil Plait, we have an animation:

Light, No Light (Phil Plait)

What’s nice is that this is from Curiosity’s NAVCAM, which has a pair of cameras. From the right camera, we have the bright spot. From the left camera, we don’t. The reason that you’re seeing a small shift in position is due to parallax between the two cameras (by design, since this helps tell distance). (FYI, Mike Bara, who addressed this just a half hour ago on Coast to Coast AM, claimed that the cosmic ray was the least likely explanation, and while he posts the parallax GIF on his website, he said he refused to name the source because “I dislike him [Phil Plait] intensely.” Despite showing a another image that Phil linked to, so clearly he read Phil’s blog. Mike’s seemingly only explanation for why it was not a cosmic ray is that he said it didn’t look like other cosmic rays people are pointing to. That’s like me saying that a rose is not a plant because all the examples of plants you’re showing me are trees. It’s a class of object, every cosmic ray on a detector looks a little different, especially when you have blooming factored in (see the next section).)

Why a Rectangle?

Either the cosmic ray hit at an angle, so we see it as a streak (see above example ISS image), or, as is also common with CCD images, when an individual pixel collects too much light, it tends to overflow, and spill over into neighboring pixels, almost always along columns. We call this “blooming.”

But Wasn’t It Seen In a Second Image in the Same Spot a Day Later?

Mike made this claim, and I saw it from a commenter on Phil’s blog. Thus far, no one has actually posted or linked to such a second image that I can find. If anyone has seen this claimed image, please let me know. And by “please let me know,” I mean providing the NASA image ID so I can find it. I know that Mike put an “Enhancement of April 3rd image” on his blog, but it’s useless for proving anything without the ID it came from.

Anything Else?

Maybe? This post might be slightly premature, and it’s a bit stream-of-consciousness, but I wanted to get it up before bed. The station on which I was listening to Mike on C2C decided to cut out the second half hour because of some crash somewhere, something about people dying, breaking news, etc. When I get the full audio, I may add to this, but it sounded like George was taking the interview in a separate direction after the bottom-of-the-hour break, though a caller may have brought it back up.

Let’s be clear about a few things, though:

1. The object is seen in one camera, not in another, despite the two cameras taking an image at the same time of the same spot.

2. There is a claim that it showed up in another image a day later, but so far as I can tell, this is just a claim and no one has pointed to that image. If it exists, I’d like to see it and I’ll re-examine my curt analysis.

3. We see similar artifacts in other Mars images, and we see them all the time in space-based cameras, and we see them generally in all electronic cameras (at least those that don’t get rid of them for us).

4. The story comes from UFO Sightings Daily and only became mainstream because a reporter at a somewhat mainstream paper picked it up.

So, what could it be? Aliens? Architecture that glints just right so it’s only in one camera of two that are right next to each other imaging something a few miles away? An impact flash from a crater forming? A dust devil reflecting the light just right? Lens flare?

Or a cosmic ray? I don’t think any of those previous explanations are likely, I think this is most likely.

Bara, as with other UFO / aliens protagonists, say that Curiosity should live up to its name and drive over there and investigate. Yup, take days, power, money (gotta pay the ground crew), and investigate what is very likely to be a high-energy particle that made it through the atmosphere and onto a camera’s CCD.

What do you think?

Edited to Add (10 hrs later): Per Phil’s latest blog post: “Except not really. Another expert on Mars hardware said it may have actually been a “light leak”, a bit of sunlight that somehow got into the camera through a hole, or crack, or seam somewhere in the hardware. He also says it may be a sharp reflection of sunlight off a glinty rock. Those are certainly plausible, though right now we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure which of these explanations may or may not be the right one.” Yup, another possibility. As is a defect in the camera sensor itself (see discussion in the comments to this blog post).

January 25, 2014

Episode 99: The Saga of the Lunar Ziggurat


Lunar ziggurat
Keeps on giving and giving …
Is there end in sight?

Sorry this one took so very, very long to get out. Jet lag is not fun. I gave two talks while I was in Australia, and both were versions of this, “The Saga of the Lunar Ziggurat.” The audio this time is from a recording at the Launceston Skeptics in the Pub event and a group about two weeks later in Melbourne. It was “live” and hence of variable quality, including street noise. But, the quality isn’t bad.

September 5, 2013

Public Talk Tomorrow at the Tellus Science Museum (Georgia, USA) on Imaging UFOs, Ghosts, and Other Stuff

Filed under: image analysis — Stuart Robbins @ 7:30 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m sorry for the incredibly late notice. Stuff happens, as we all know.

Stuart Robbins Tellus Science Museum Talk Title Slide

Stuart Robbins Tellus Science Museum Talk Title SlideTellus Science Museum Talk Title Slide

Anyway, in about 22.5 hrs, Friday night at 7PM (EDT) on September 6, I will be giving an abridged version of the TAM 2013 workshop that Bryan and I did two months ago. A teeny bit of new material, but a lot had to be cut to bring it down to 45 minutes. I think it’s still an interesting talk, features a live camera demo illustrating image noise, and it goes through lots of common phenomena that occur in photos today that have mundane explanations (which I’ll demonstrate) but that many people claim are PROOF (with a capital “P”) of ghosts, UFOs, a binary companion to the sun, reptilians, and various other things.

If you’re in the greater Atlanta, GA area, anywhere near the Tellus Science Museum, come on by! There will be a ~15-minute Q&A and the museum will be open extra-late and I’ll chat with everyone I can who wants discuss the talk or related stuff!

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