Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 24, 2013

Podcast #72: Solar System Mysteries “Solved” by PseudoScience, Part 1 – Iapetus


Exploding planets,
Alien spaceships … Why is
Iapetus weird?

The subject of this episode is Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, and two mysteries about it that various branches of pseudoscience have claimed to solve: the brightness dichotomy via an exploded planet, and the equatorial ridge via a spaceship.

This is the first of what I plan to be a series much like “The Fake Story of Planet X” series — different mysteries of the solar system that have a pseudoscientific explanation and may or may not have a real science (agreed upon) explanation. Let me know what you think of the concept. Future ideas for shows are the Pioneer Anomaly and Mars’ crustal dichotomy.

Otherwise, there’s a bit of feedback and then I get into the puzzler from last time and one announcement.

Well, I sorta snuck in a second announcement — I’m headed to Australia, December 18 – January 20. I’ll be centered in Melbourne (which I enjoy pronouncing as “Mel-born-EE”) for most of the trip though should make it up to Sydney (I wanna see the Great Barrier Reef!). So, dinner in each city if I can round up enough interest. I’m slowly learning that Australia is not just a 5-hr drive across, so I’m less likely to make it to the eastern half. We’ll see if I can increase my Australian listenership in the meantime to make a dinner here or there worth organizing.

April 17, 2013

Podcast #71 – The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 6 – Andy Lloyd’s “Dark Star”


A dark star could save
Sitchen’s Anunnaki claim
But problems it has.

When I upload the RSS feed for the podcast, I have to provide both a “subtitle” (short description) and “description.” I use the “description” from my 3-4 sentence summary I post for every episode. I never know what to put for the other. I’ve decided to start posting haikus related to the episode.

Anywho, this episode is yet another in the Planet X saga. It covers Andy Lloyd’s idea, which is an offshoot of Zecharia Sitchin’s Anunnaki-hosting planet Nibiru from his interpretation of Sumerian tablets. Andy’s major change is to stick the planet around a brown dwarf star. In the episode, I do actual math and show why what he proposes is impossible.

There’s also a puzzler (yay!), new news item, and two announcements. The episode is also a bit longer than normal, coming in at a bit over 37 minutes.

Regarding the second of two announcements — Brian Dunning, the guy who does the Skeptoid podcast, has pled guilty to wire fraud. Based on this material, he is likely facing jail time. I greatly admire his skeptical work and think that clearly still stands on its own, and this does not diminish what he has done for our community.

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.

April 1, 2013

Podcast #69: The Solar Neutrino “Problem”


I was all set to do a few other episodes, and I was re-kajiggering the schedule of episodes for the next several months. I realized that – gasp! – I had almost nothing planned picking on young-Earth creationists! And it had been about 20 episodes since I had last done it.

Clearly, I had been neglectful, so this episode deals with one of the more technical but one of my more favorite topics in young-Earth creationism: The Solar Neutrino “Problem.” Listen to the episode, especially towards the end of the main segment, and I think you’ll see why I like it so much.

Otherwise, in this episode we have the solutions to the past two puzzlers, a new puzzler for this one, and three announcements of upcoming talks: Colorado School of Mines on April 12 (Apollo moon hoax), Denver Skepticamp on April 27 (image anomalies), and TAM in mid-July.

February 16, 2013

Podcast #65: José Escamilla’s Movie “Celestial”


A fantasia of pareidolia and misunderstanding image data, the movie “Celestial” gets a quick review on this roughly 24-minute-long episode.

There’s a Q&A, Puzzler (and solution for last time), and even a correction for the last episode and announcement for this one:

The episode for March 16, 2013, should be another interview with the pseudononymous Expat, who was my first interview ever back in Episode 10, for November 1, 2011. Expat will be returning to talk about the many conspiracy theories of Richard C. Hoagland related to politics and some technology at NASA. The reason I’m announcing this so early is that this topic garnered a lot of interest on the Facebook page for the podcast, and so I wanted to let you know early so that if there’s a specific question or topic you’d like me to ask Expat about, you can send it in. You can do that in any of the half-dozen ways there are to get in contact with me.

February 1, 2013

Podcast #63: Clip Show #1


It was bound to happen at some point, that episode that’s just a hodgepodge of short, random bits of crä-crä that I put together as a clip show. This one features five bits of silliness — or maybe six, I lost count. Big-name stars you may remember from other episodes are Brooks Agnew and Gregg Braden, but making their first time appearance we also hear from Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, Ken Parsons, and Jeffrey Grupp. Coast to Coast AM clips feature heavily, so if you don’t like ‘em, you may want to skip this episode.

Other segments were Announcements and a Puzzler. You’ll need to go to about 24 minutes into the episode for the puzzler, it’s not in the usual place.

January 24, 2013

Podcast Episode #62: Interview with Bill Hudson About 2012hoax.org


The Alexa web traffic tracking service currently has 2012hoax.org as among the top 120,000 most-visited sites in the world. (In contrast, my own domain, sjrdesign.net, is currently #3,578,209. whitehouse.gov is #1644 in the world and 435 in the US.)

In episode 62 of my podcast, I interview the man behind 2012hoax.org, and we discuss his motivation behind creating it, some of the stats, most contentious articles, and his favorite 2012 back-peddlers (so far). We also discuss his latest work, Cosmophobia.org (where 2012hoax.org is redirecting).

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts


A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

January 9, 2013

How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing


Introduction

This post was prompted by a bit of discussion both at work and on my blog lately.

Regarding the blog, the question has come up of when people have known different things, and laypeople going to popular press to determine when stuff has been discovered.

Regarding work, an e-mail was sent out yesterday with one of the senior scientists wondering what the big deal was with a press release claiming to have discovered something new, but he pointed out a paper from 1984 that said the same thing.

So I thought I’d talk a bit about why the media (and official science organizations’ press offices) keep announcing a “new discovery” when it’s, in fact, a very old discovery.

Example from Yesterday: “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega”

On January 8, 2013, NASA released a press statement #13-006, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.”

If you read it, the very first part of the very first sentence states: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets (looks like at least 35 from a Google News search as of posting this).

I’m not trying to minimize these researchers’ work, and if you want to read their paper, it’s posted here.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years.

Why?

Listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, I have definitely become somewhat jaded with news reporting. Having had my own press release come out about some of my work last year, I have had my own issues (a simple comma missing in the final copy – removed after I had approved it – completely changed the meaning to make it seem like I was talking about ice volcanoes on Mars).

Given my experience, my best guess is that it’s the press officers’ job to get as much publicity for their subject as possible. And we’re lucky if we get to see the final version before it gets sent out. A press release with the headline, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Re-Find [or Confirm] Stuff Found 30 Years Ago” is not going to stoke public interest.

For a topic closer to my own research, it’s the same case with water on Mars. We had darn good evidence back in the late 1960s and ’70s after the first spacecraft images were returned that there had been large amounts of surface water on Mars in its past. But, every few months it seems, a press release comes out stating that a new study has “discovered” water on Mars (or in Mars, or recently on or in Mars, etc.). It’s become something of a running gag during weekly science discussions.

Final Thoughts

To those who did the original (or previous additional “new discovery”), it’s frustrating they don’t get credit. It’s also somewhat insulting. The new Vega paper in this case doesn’t even cite Weissman’s work.

To be fair, this isn’t a huge issue. It’s not media misreporting something major, it’s just a short memory span. But, to those of us who do research in the field or closely related fields, it’s another example of marketing spin taking precedence over honesty. And for laypeople trying to figure out when something was known or discovered, it makes it seems as though everything was much more recently known than it actually was.

January 7, 2013

No, Asteroid 99942 Apophis Won’t Kill Us This Week


Introduction

Unfortunately, the UK’s The Guardian has a misleading title in an article that came out today (January 7, 2013): “Apophis – a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid – flies by Earth on Wednesday.”

Now, technically, the headline is correct. For awhile, asteroid 99942 Apophis (or just “Apophis” for short) was potentially dangerous with as much as a 1 in 37 chance as calculated in December 2004 of striking Earth in 2029. Then, the worry was that in 2029 during a close approach, it might pass through a very narrow region in 3D space that would alter its orbit so it would come back in April 2036 and strike Earth.

Apophis’ Orbit

To be clear, from hundreds (if not thousands) of observations at this point, the chance of it striking Earth in 2029 is as close to 0 as you can get, and the chances of it striking in 2036 is about 1 in 250,000. Yes, 2029 will be a very close approach, with estimates being it passing by at only 5.6 times the radius of Earth. But that’s not a hit.

So what’s all this then about 2013?

It’s just a close approach. It’s the closest approach in awhile and it will let us refine its orbit even more.

Why do we need lots of observations over a very long time to get a better orbit? It’s like watching a hot air balloon in the sky: If you observe it for 3 seconds, you can get a very rough idea of how fast it’s going and where it’s headed. But if you watch it for 3 minutes, you’ll have a much better idea. And if you watch it for 3 hours, even better. It’s the same idea with asteroids, or really anything else.

That’s why this Wednesday, January 9, with its closest approach in awhile and for awhile, is important. The closer it is, the better we can pin-point its position and so the more accurate orbit we can derive in the future. We can also get a better estimate of its size. But, this approach is perfectly safe – Apophis’ closest approach this year will take it about 37-38 times farther than the moon.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t even going to comment on this, but I’ve already seen people asking on various forums based on The Guardian‘s headline. So, there it is. Yes, technically Apophis is “potentially dangerous” because, based on our current orbit estimates, there’s a 0.0004% chance of it striking Earth in 2036. But no, the world is not going to end in 2 days after just “narrowly” surviving the “Mayan apocalypse.”

I’m hoping that the author of the article, Stuart Clark, didn’t select it. He’s written popular astronomy books and various other things, so he should know better unless he was trying to drum up page views. I’m guessing it was some editor.

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