Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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!

July 7, 2013

An Ancient Crash-Landed Spacecraft on Mars?


Introduction

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

So claims the website “UFO Sightings Daily.” I was alerted to it by Sharon’s Doubtful News site.

I know I said my last post would be my last pre-TAM post, but given that my workshop is on image analysis and how to investigate image-based claims, well, this one was easy and I thought I’d write about it. And I’m going to assume for purposes here that you’ve gone to one of those two links and read a bit about this.

Investigating the Claim: Find Original Images

The first step to investigating a claim like this is to try to find the original image, or the location of the image on the planet. Fortunately, this is a feature on Mars, and the website has provided the coordinates: about 13.5°N and 115.5°W.

As an astro/geophysicist who got his Ph.D. studying images of Mars to study craters, I know of many different ways to find images of locations of Mars. My normal go-to website is Arizona State University’s Mars Global Data portal. It’s fairly exhaustive, letting you use a (admittedly small) map of the planet to find images from over half a dozen different image sources at a huge variety of resolutions. I do not use things like Google Earth because of the way it resamples and stretches images and I don’t like that it caches everything on your computer, taking up hard drive space, and it does not have all the latest data.

What I did was go to the “Webmap” of CTX data. CTX stands for “ConTeXt” Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a very large, almost global coverage of the planet at a very good ~6 meters per pixel scale. Probably around 70-80% coverage at this time (it’s still in operation and returning data). It’s my go-to source for stuff like this and my work in general. After finding the area, here’s the most zoomed-in you get on that area.

The slanted rectangles are approximate image footprints. By clicking the mouse-arrow tool and then clicking on them, little thumbnails show up below the map. You can click on them to bring up the image on its own page. Of the two that might cover the area, it’s CTX image G01_018494_1930_XN_13N115W that has the feature in the upper third of the image.

You can use the Flash-based zoomer, or you can use any of the browse formats to get a smaller version (though larger than the thumbnail). This CTX image has a pixel scale of about 5.5 m/px, but it looks somewhat grainy. I would guess this is due to possibly photographing through a mild dust storm, or they didn’t expose the camera long enough. However, the feature itself is clearly visible.

MOC, THEMIS, Viking, and HRSC have also all taken photos of the feature, visible through the webmap interface, all with different resolutions. THEMIS took a color image, and HRSC has an image at 12.5 m/px.

If I had to guess, it’s that the THEMIS image is what’s used in the Google Maps version shown on the UFO site, and that Google has also just colored it a rusty orange.

Investigating the Claim: Positive or Negative Relief

Various persons on the UFO page and other places that this is being reported say that it’s a positive feature, meaning that it comes out at you like a hill. Others, like on the Ghost Theory site claim that it’s also positive relief, but that the shadows have been played with in the area.

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Given that we can go to numerous original images and not ones that have been mosaicked together, we can look at the shadows of other features. To be scientific, you can use the sun angles given in the data on the ASU site for each individual image. Or, you can just look at the craters. Craters are negative features, going into the surface. Shadows will be on the side facing away from the sun, while highlights will be facing the sun. Using the shadows on the craters, we can clearly see that the shadows of this feature match, and so it is a negative relief feature.

Already, that negates claims made on these sites that it’s a space ship or a big rock. Despite the claim in the article: “This structure also does not go under the ground, but instead is laying on the surface of Mars.” As will be a bit of a theme during our TAM workshop (1A!!!!), when someone says “This is NOT [something],” that should be the first thing you check on.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Crater?

The default for a hole in the ground on most solid solar system objects other than Earth is an impact crater. And you can get highly elliptical impact craters.

However, this does not look like an impact crater: (1) There is no raised rim, (2) there is no ejecta, (3) the walls are very steep, and (4) the floor looks flat (though no topography data is available). Taking these in order …

1. All impact craters start with a raised rim. These do erode over time, but it takes time. Looking at other craters in the same images, they all have raised rims but the floors look like they’re infilled (they’re not as deep as they should be … remember, I got my Ph.D. studying Mars’ crater population). Given that this is on a very young surface (lack of large craters), it’s very unlikely that such a rim would erode to literally nothing: The ground is flat, and then it drops down into this feature. Not an impact crater.

2. All craters eject material when they form. There is no evidence of ejecta – either present or fossilized – and again with the youth of the feature, this would be very surprising for an impact crater.

3-4. Impact craters that are small are bowl-shaped and have characteristic slopes to their walls. This looks much steeper than you’d get with an impact crater, more typical of what I’ll discus later. Similarly, all small craters are, as I said, bowl-shaped, and this lacks that bowl on the floor. This could be explained by infilling so, in itself, that’s not a reason to discount it being an impact crater. Given the other points, it’s fairly conclusive.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Geologic Context

This is on the massive volcanic province of Mars known as the Tharsis region, or Tharsis bulge, or just Tharsis. Massive volcanos resurfaced large parts of it as recently as about 100 million years ago — yes, if the dinosaurs had telescopes and spacecraft in orbit, they would have seen active volcanoes on Mars.

Volcanic vents are fed by lava tubes. When lave tubes are evacuated, they are hollow. You can walk through some in Hawai’i. When they’re hollow, they can collapse. Again, check out Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i.

When they collapse, you can get individual craters (“pit craters”), or if a large portion of the tube collapses, you get graben – a linear feature with a flat floor and very steep sides – typically steeper than an impact crater. (You can get graben other ways, but this is one of them.)

Mars Object with Broad Context

Mars Object with Broad Context (click image to embiggen)

With that in mind, look elsewhere in the CTX, HRSC, or THEMIS images. You will see graben. In fact, there’s a large, long one a few 10s miles/km north of the feature in question. In fact, between that graben and this feature, there’s another one that looks similar to this feature. In fact, this feature runs parallel to other nearby graben. In fact, there is a very shallow graben leading right into the west end of this feature, in the same direction as the long axis of this feature. In fact …

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Collapsed Lava Tube?

… that’s what this very likely is: A portion of a collapsed lava tube. It makes sense given the geologic setting. It makes sense given the orientation relative to other obvious graben in the area. It makes sense given that it’s unlikely to be an impact crater.

I think another possibility (less likely in my opinion) is that it’s a large volcanic vent – another type of crater, a “volcanic crater” (AKA caledera). The reason I think this is less likely is that I don’t see evidence of magma coming out of it – there isn’t anything radiating away. Topography data would help settle that, but given that the flows immediately north and south of it appear to continue as though it doesn’t exist, and then this feature is just right on top of them, I think it’s more likely to be the collapsed lava tube.

What It’s Not

Not a spaceship. Not a big rock. And yet, with the headline of, “Ancient Structure On Mars,” you get all sorts of commenters on the UFO website exercising their amazing powers of pareidolia:

“It even has windows along the sides! It could be a building but more likely it is a vehicle.”

“I sent an email with a photo showing what I believe are tracks, lines of holes in the sand, behind the object, (behind meaning at the fat end). It might be that wheels there are complex, not round but different from wheels on Earth, due to the soft sand. They might have deep knobs on the tires, or something like that.”

And from the original post itself: “Notice the evenness of the lines. The balance of the indents that go all the way down the sides. The back seems thinner a bit than the front…if it is the front. This structure shows lots of signs of being an a spaceship that has long since been abandoned on Mars.”

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. Good to get the juices flowing and prolong my crappy sleep schedule.

The bottom-line here is that this appears to be a very natural, volcanic feature on Mars. To someone who’s a geologist or knows what they’re doing, anyway. I love that Google and other companies make these things available, that NASA is one of the most open space agencies in the world with releasing their image data, and that people love to pour over these images. It helps increase the interest in space exploration and you really do get cases of laypersons finding features that turn out to be major discoveries, like natural bridges on the Moon.

The downside is that this stuff also happens — people see something they don’t understand, and they leap to wild conclusions. And, with the internet, it can very quickly gain traction. An oft-quoted Mark Twain line is, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

I’m not accusing the UFO Sightings Daily website of lying. But, the quote can easily be adapted to replace “lie” with “misunderstanding” or even “paranormal claim.”

Also, as I’ve talked about before, it’s MUCH easier to spread a misunderstanding – or to have the misunderstanding – than to figure out what’s going on. I’ve spent >1800 words going through this claim. Granted, I could’ve probably cut it in half by just cutting to the chase, but it’s late and I’m being verbose and I wanted to do this logically and thoroughly explain my argument. Meanwhile, I’m sure the UFO folks are on to their next Mars pareidolia.

So why do this? Because the more people who are trained and armed with the tools to investigate stuff like this, the harder that misunderstanding is to propagate, and the faster people will be able to call them on it.

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

May 10, 2013

Podcast #74: The True Color of Mars


Conspiracy strikes!
But Stuart says, “Mars’ color
Is natur’ly red.”

This episode is hopefully the last for a few months on image processing gone horribly wrong. I swear.

This one is an episode I’ve been wanting to do for awhile — at least since last year — but I had been putting off because I didn’t want to listen to Richard Hoagland again and take detailed, dense notes. And I’d covered Richard a lot recently. And I’d done a lot of image analysis episodes. The claim is that the color of Mars is fake, that it really should look like Earth. And since no space agency’s photos look that way, they’re all fake color.

The episode includes has two Coast to Coast clips (both Hoagland), Q&A, feedback, and a puzzler! The episode is around 40 minutes long.

May 1, 2013

Podcast #73 – Image Analysis for Skeptics: From Faces to Pyramids (Live Talk)


The mysterious
Veil on phographs, Lifted
in this episode.

This episode was filmed in front of a live studio audience at this year’s Denver Skepticamp last weekend. The episode is a short version of a workshop that Bryan Bonner and I will be co-leading at TAM this summer. As such, feedback is solicited! (as usual)

I’ve posted the materials (slides and two movies) to the shownotes page for this episode.

Since this was a live talk, the normal other segments were not done.

April 8, 2013

Podcast #70: The Ringmakers of Saturn


The Ringmakers of Saturn, a book by Norman R. Bergrun, presents one of the most “out there” ideas I’ve discussed yet on the podcast. But, it’s still a decent teaching tool, worth briefly talking about.

I also have a Q&A, corrections, and Feedback.

February 18, 2013

I’m Goin’ to TAM 2013 (The Amaz!ng Meeting)


Introduction

Yup.

I wasn’t entirely certain based on last year’s experience (it was my first time, and I was pretty overwhelmed, but one’s first time is always kinda special in its own way). To repeat the relevant parts from my post summarizing my TAM experience last year:

I guess the bottom-line question at this point is, based on all the above, was TAM worth the time and the expense? … It’s honestly hard for me to give a giant, resounding, unconditional “yes” that I’ll spend at least $1100 next year to come to TAM. …

With all that said (written), will I go next year? As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “All signs point to ‘Yes.’”

Presenting!

I can’t honestly say that there aren’t some extenuating or special circumstances towards me going this year that a lot of people have helped make happen. Well, one, really … I’m presenting! I’ll be doing a workshop that has, as of this writing, been scheduled for first thing on Thursday morning, Workshop 1A, 8:00A.M. sharp. Someone needs to make sure I’m awake, please. Appropriately, I’m in the “Skeptical Education” track as opposed to the “Skeptical Activism” track.

The workshop title is: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From UFOs to Ghosts, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.” I’ll be co-leading it with a veteran presenter, Bryan Bonner of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society. Bryan was a professional photographer for many, many years (maybe still is? I’m actually not entirely sure what his day job is).

I already have a fairly fleshed out outline for the workshop, and I will be giving at least one short version of it at the Denver Skepticamp in April. But, there’s always room at this point for changes, additions, and deletions.

Rough Outline

To give you an idea at this point …

First third is going to be more of a (I hate to use the word, but …) lecture-style where Bryan and I are going to talk about how cameras and various forms of detectors (film, tape, CCD) work with an emphasis on – especially these days – how cameras cheat and lie about what they really imaged in order to be faster and cheaper that, in most cases, don’t matter, but can result in anomalies that someone will point to and say is Nibiru coming to get us.

The second third is going to be more interactive and focus on purposeful human manipulation. Bryan will talk about old darkroom tricks while I’ll focus more on the basics of image processing in a digital age. We’ll bring in examples of some of the more famous anomalies in images, such as some famous ghost images, UFO photos, and the Face on Mars.

The next third is going to be an in-depth image analysis that will be very interactive. The idea is that we’ll present some images and have you try to figure out what’s going on and how to tell if it’s been manipulated and, if so, how that may have happened … or at least how you can tell if it’s been manipulated. Cue the lunar ziggurat or Hoagland’s pink energy beam.

The fourth third is to leave a block of time at the end for any questions.

Interactivity

Something D.J. (JREF president) emphasized to me is that interactivity should be a major part of workshops at TAM. That’s the point of a “workshop” versus a talk or panel. And I honestly was disappointed last year that many of the workshops were NOT interactive and yet they were two hours long.

This year, we have 90 minutes as opposed to 120. But, I would like to know what you folks think would be good ways for us workshop presenters (myself and Bryan) to better make this interactive. Ideas at the moment are:

  • Obviously questions can be asked.
  • The audience trying to figure out what’s going on in the images.
  • Soliciting people who are going to the workshop to send in photos that we could choose from to analyze during the workshop.
  • iPod/Pad/Phone and/or Android “app” that covers the basics we’ll talk about, and/or a handout.

For that last bullet point, if anyone thinks this is a good idea, please also suggest a programmer who’d be interested in working on this for free. Yes, I’m a part-time freelancer/contractor, and I read the “Clients from Hell” blog, so don’t lecture me about expecting stuff for free being foolish. Ideally the person is already into science/skepticism/education/etc. and so understands that there is no budget for this and it’s community outreach.

Final Thoughts

All that said, I’m looking forward to this but I’m also pretty nervous. This is a big step up from doing a blog, or a podcast, or an interview, or a local talk. After this, I’ll be able to say I did a show in Vegas!

We’ll see what happens. And, over the next few months as TAM gets closer, I’ll be planning this out more and post more details.

So, if you’re planning on going to TAM, and you can manage to be awake at 8AM, please consider coming to Workshop 1A!

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