Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 28, 2009

Horoscopes … Ah, the Joys of Not Thinking

Filed under: astrology — Stuart Robbins @ 9:40 pm
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There isn’t any introduction to this post other than to say I am still not going to directly address astrology yet, but I just watched something that deserves to be quoted.


Do any of you remember that short-lived, 4-season series from the mid 1990s called Cybill? I do … I used to watch it with my mom, and recently I discovered that it has come out on DVD. My favorite character was not the title character, but her best friend, Maryanne, played by Christine Baranski. I’ve been going through the series and just started season 2 episode 22, “Pal Zoey.”

In it, Cybill’s cousin from Arkansas comes to town to be in The Price is Right show. Why? Well …

Cousin: Last week, my horoscope said, “Libra, the time is right.”

Maryanne: So, you plan your life around a line in the newspaper. Bravo. [Cousin nods.] Relieves you of all that pesky thinking.

Cousin: I’ll say.

Final Thoughts

Well, that about wraps it up. 🙂


June 27, 2009

Astrologer Arrested in Sri Lanka for Predicting President’s Ejection

Filed under: astrology — Stuart Robbins @ 10:28 am
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This is what blogging is all about – responding to current news, and offering my own never-humble opinion about said news. But, this is really only one out of a half dozen or so posts on current news items. Alas.

Anyway, this post is about this BBC News article, “Sri Lanka Astrologer Is Arrested.”

I have so far avoided writing any posts – save my 2009 predictions – about astrology, since that’s a whole different can of worms than what I’ve addressed so far and would require significant background research on my part that I have not already done. But, I can still respond to current news on the subject.

News Article

Sri Lanka is a relatively small country in the Indian Ocean, just off the eastern coast of India. It boasts a population of about 20.2 million people. The country’s government is a “Democratic Socialist Republic,” meaning that it is fairly democratic, but the politics lean towards socialism. The current president is Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Of interest to this blog, the country is one of several in the world where the pseudoscience of astrology – the belief that the stars and planets can and do govern our personalities and world and local events – is taken very seriously on the national stage. It is taken so seriously that many of Sri Lanka’s politicians have their own personal astrologers to tell them when to do anything important (does this ring a bell for anyone regarding Nancy Reagan?). This includes the president. And that’s what got Chandrasiri Bandara arrested.

Bandara “announced last week that the government would flounder in September and October because of political and economic problems. … [He] told an opposition meeting that the prime minister would take over as president on 9 September and the opposition leader would become prime minister.” This is despite the president’s high approval ratings and the president’s victory against the Tamil Tigers, which brought an end to almost 26 years of civil war.

As a result, he was arrested on Wednesday, June 24, to “investigate the basis of his prediction,” according to police.

One may ask what the basis is of his prediction. The answer: He “predicted that a planetary change on 8 October will be inauspicious for parliament and the government may not be able to contain rising living costs – a forecast which correspondents say has already been made by private economists.”

What’s Wrong with This Picture

I have three basic problems with this. The first is that this guy got arrested for saying something that everyone else already says. I don’t think the government arrested every economist who made the same forecast.

The second problem I have with this is – even if astrology were true – this is a basic freedom of speech issue where, at least in most Western countries, would be covered fully.

The third is that astrology is not a science. There is no physical reason for any of its fundamental ideas to hold true (how can a random collection of stars that looks one way only from a certain vantage point in the universe have any sway over someone’s personality?). It has never made predictions about things at above-chance level that could not have been predicted by looking at real trends (such as in the case with Mr. Bandara). And yet, a man was arrested for it because he has predicted the downthrow of a government. If every person in America who predicted the downthrow of its government were arrested, our prison system would likely hold well over a quarter of the country’s population.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, this guy should have been ignored. If nothing else, perhaps ridiculed. Or, if nothing better, perhaps it should have been pointed out that this guy is following what the economists are saying and is probably going for a fairly likely “hit” while adding his own political bias.

Oh, and I guess I’ll take the really low-hanging fruit: If he’s an astrologer and predict all this stuff, he really should’ve seen this coming.

June 25, 2009

The Apollo Moon Hoax: Why Haven’t Any Pictures Been Taken of the Landing Sites?

The Claim

Before I start to really explore the main claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax proponents, I thought I would give an overview of one of their only lines of “evidence” that isn’t anomaly hunting: When claim after claim is refuted, many of the Hoax proponents will ask the apparent stumper – “If the landings really happened, then why hasn’t NASA or anyone else taken pictures of the landing sites? Hubble can see to the edge of the visible Universe, but it hasn’t even been used to photograph Apollo?”

Update on 7/17/2009: NASA has released the first photographs from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing most of the Apollo landing sites: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Images Apollo Landing Sites.

All posts in this series:

Basic Optics

The reason that, as of the time of this writing, the sites have not been imaged is that there simply has not been a telescope that can image them from that telescope’s location.

Very basic optical theory says that the best angular resolution – the smallest angle that a telescope can resolve – is θ = sin-1(1.220*λ/D). In this equation, θ is the angle in radians, λ is the wavelength of light, and D is the diameter of the telescope’s primary light-gathering optic (either the front lens or the primary mirror).

(I didn’t make this equation up, it can be found in any optics or even basic physics text, but I am not going to derive it here.)

How Big Are the Apollo Relics?

In physics, we like round numbers. We have some rovers up there, some instrumentation, a few flags (that would now be destroyed because of the sun’s UV radiation), and some lunar module feet. Let’s actually round up and say that the largest object we left has about a 5 meter-diameter footprint.

The moon is 384,400,000 meters away, on average. This sets up a right triangle with one leg the distance to the moon, and the other leg being half the size of our Apollo relic. The angle that relic makes is then θ = tan-1((relic)/(distance)) = 3.726*10-7°. That’s really small.

Let’s convert this to something astronomers use a little more often, arcseconds. 1° = 60 arcminutes = 3600 arcseconds. So, our relic now subtends (extends over) 1.34*10-3 (0.00134) arcseconds from Earth. That’s really small.

For reference, the full moon subtends ~30 arcminutes, while Venus at its smallest is a little under 10 arcseconds.

What Can Telescopes Resolve?

Now let’s use Hubble and see what the smallest thing is that it can see. Hubble has a 2.4-meter primary mirror, and it looks in the UV, visible, and near-IR light. Let’s pick a green wavelength, a nice, round 500 nm (5000 Å). Hubble is basically at Earth, so we don’t need to re-calculate the angle the Apollo relic would cover.

At 500 nm, Hubble has a resolving power of 0.05 arcseconds, and the pixels on Hubble’s detector are actually 0.1 arcsecond across. This corresponds to a spot size about 370 meters across.

The largest optical telescope on Earth – the Keck 10-m telescope, can theoretically resolve an object at the 0.013 arcsecond level, but this still is 1 order of magnitude too large (10x) to resolve any Apollo relic on the moon.

Future Plans

As of the time of writing this, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has just entered orbit of the moon. Its final orbit will place it very close to the surface, only about 50 km away during the nominal mission. The LROC (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera) has both a wide and narrow camera to it, and it will have a resolution of better than 1 meter. And, it WILL be photographing the Apollo landing sites, hopefully laying to rest these claims.

Pragmatically, however, I expect that true hoax believers will simply say that NASA has “Photoshopped” the images. As one poster on the “Above Top Secret” conspiracy site stated, “Haha, yeah… with photoshopped objects being inserted into the pictures. I couldn’t trust any NASA image to be a true representation of what is or isn’t there.”

And this is another example of a “true believer” mentality: Even after a claim is made out, it is answered, and then even further work is done to actually gather the evidence, it is dismissed out of hand as a simply more deceit.

June 23, 2009

The Apollo Moon Hoax: An Overview


Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a post … sorry folks, I’ve been busy with work and vacations and other stuff. But enough with excuses! In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landing by the lunar module “Eagle” piloted by Neil Armstrong and also manned by Buzz Aldrin, I am going to devote the next month of postings to a series that debunks the Apollo Moon Hoax.

In other words, the direct goal of these postings is NOT to prove we went to the moon, landing 12 men on the surface and bringing them successfully back (along with a load of lunar science). Rather, I will pick through the main hoax claims and show why each of them, in turn, is flawed.

The specific purpose of this introductory post is to discuss the hoax in general and why I will be debunking it as I state above.

All posts in this series:

Why the Hoax?

There is a small group of people who have made propagating the idea that the US government hoaxed the moon landings a significant part of their life’s work. In name, the four main people with whom I am familiar are Bill Kaysing (now deceased), David Percy (along with Mary Bennett), Ralph Rene, and Bart Sibrel. The two most active people in the “field” today are Rene and Sibrel, with Sibrel being the most visible.

One may ask, “Why do you think this was a hoax?” I cannot read these peoples’ minds, and I do not want to be accused of libel, so I am stating up-front that I do not attribute any of these reasons directly to any of those people. That said, in general, people like conspiracies and mysteries. It almost may seem anti-climactic to those Generation X and Y folks who were born over a decade after the landings that, “Yeah, we went to the moon.” It’s much more interesting to think that there is something else behind it. In addition, there is almost always an inherent distrust of “the Official story” and especially if that Official story comes from the government – a body that almost no one really trusts anymore.

But besides my attempt to psychoanalyze the conspiracy theorist mindset, there is a more direct, more visual reason: Anomalies. Anomalies are the conspiracy theorist’s bread and butter, the sustenance upon which they build their upside-down pyramid of cards.

Anomaly Hunting Defined

So that we’re all on the same page, I will define “anomaly hunting” for purposes of conspiracy theories: Anomaly hunting is searching for something – anything – that does not make sense to you within the context of the broader picture.

An example from the 9/11 Conspiracy is that when the Towers 1 and 2 collapsed, the debris/rubble only reached a few stories high, despite the skyscrapers originally reaching 110 stories high. How could they possibly have so little debris? There must have been something else going on – right?

Another example, this time from the JFK Assassination Conspiracy, is that the 6.5 x 52 mm Italian Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle that was used to shoot the president could NOT have been fired 3 times in the supposed 5.6 seconds that it was fired in (even though the Warren Commission found that it could have been up to 8 seconds). So there must have been a second shooter – right?

Well, to answer both of these … NO. These are apparent anomalies. They seem to make perfect sense when you present them at face-value because they appeal to general common sense. But there are really mundane explanations. First, for the Trade Towers, the explanation is that when one owns a building, they make money off of the empty space inside the building that people can then use for businesses (or living). The Trade Towers were up to 95% empty space by volume, and so when they collapsed, only the structure was what remained.

As for the speed of firing the rifle, it was only the first attempted reenactment by the Warren Commission that failed to duplicate the speed of firing. Since then – including CBS’s 11 volunteers in 1967 – many people have shown that it is a relatively easy task to shoot the rifle 3+ times in the time allotted, even if the minimum of 5.6 seconds is that time. A visual example of this was shown on Penn & Teller’s ‘Bullsh-t’ show, season 3 episode 3, where Penn successfully fired it 3 times in the space of 3.45 seconds.

Why Conspiracies Rely Upon Anomaly Hunting

So one may legitimately ask, “Why are conspiracies built upon anomalies?” The answer is because apparent “common sense” does not always apply. It is a very simple thing for me to look at a picture, hear about someone’s observation, or examine a video and see something that seems to defy what I expect to happen during a circumstance.

This is especially true when one talks about the environment of space, off Earth’s surface. Our every-day experience does not prepare us in any way for what to expect if we are in near-Earth orbit, on the moon, or elsewhere. The lack of air, the different gravity, lack of water, and other environmental factors change how things act and interact, giving rise to apparent anomalies.

Almost every single Moon Hoax claim deals with an apparent anomaly. From a lack of stars, to the C rock, to radiation belts, to the computer technology at the time, hoax proponents have come up with dozens of different anomalies within the Apollo program footage, photographs, statements, mission profile, and pretty much everything else that surrounds the program.

Final Thoughts

The next logical question may be, “Do conspiracy theorists have a coherent story, then, of what actually happened?” The answer may surprise you: No.

In general, the Moon Hoax evidences are almost all anomaly pointing-out from the Apollo program. Beyond that, each conspiracist has their own idea of what “really” happened, though they really do little to promote it when compared with how much work they do to find apparent flaws with the official explanation. And not all of their anomalies actually fit into their view of what happened, with many anomalies pointed out by other “researchers” contradicting their own ideas.

This is why my approach to debunking the Moon Hoax is to go through, claim by claim, and show why they are as they are. Once that is through, the conspiracists have nothing left to stand on because all observations can be explained by the “official” NASA story that we actually went to the moon.

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