Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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 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 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.

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