Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 7, 2012

Richard C. Hoagland (et al.) on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” Landing Last Night


I attended a party at work for the Mars Science Laboratory (hereafter “Curiosity”) landing last night, so I wasn’t anywhere near the radio. I have to say that I am honestly a bit surprised everything worked exactly (or as near exactly) as planned and we had a very successful landing. A HUGE kudos/congratulations to all of the engineers who put that landing system together, and now the science team can start to learn more about Mars’ surface geology than hopefully most other landers put together.

That said, as promised on the Exposing PseudoAstronomy facebook page last night, Richard C. Hoagland was on Coast to Coast AM last night all four hours, each hour with a different person, discussing the landing. And I promised a blog post.

Warning: This post has snark. A non-trivial amount of it.

Hour the First

This was the hour that Curiosity landed. There was very little pseudoscience during this. A bit of wrong facts (such as the sky crane using steel cables to lower Curiosity when it used nylon), and a bit of Richard’s usual stuff, and then just four minutes before the top of the hour, we got to typical Richard.

There were prior two quotes perhaps worth mentioning. First: “There are several clues coming out of no less an authority than the White House that this mission, Curiosity, might be where NASA finally unveils a hint of the real Mars.” We know “real Mars” to Hoagland means ancient technology and life.

Second, in response to a question about finding fossils on Mars: “I am hearing officials – high officials in NASA – talking about Curiosity maybe spotting fossils. Now that means, politically, … if our trend curve / other data is accurate, this could be the mission where NASA comes clean and starts talking about actually what’s there on Mars.” I love how he always cites “officials” or “high officials.” Nameless, or course, to protect their identity, which also makes it uncheckable.

The typical Richard came out starting about 36:25 into the hour after George asked Richard what was “next” for Curiosity. Richard explained that it was going to be exploring the huge mound in the center of Gale Crater, Mt. Sharp, and that it would take years for the rover to get up to the top. But then we had: “The object itself – the mountain itself – [start talking in conspiracy voice as though he’s talking to a 3-year-old] doesn’t quite look … uh … ¿natural? Mount Sharp, the very peak, looks in fact like an eroded tetrahedron, like somebody – someone built this thing. This is going to sound totally nuts to all my enemies out there …”

Yup, pretty much. Immediately following that was a dig at, I think, Phil Plait as he mentioned hair-pulling but that some doing the hair-pulling don’t have much hair to begin with. He continued: “There is no commonly accepted mechanism for the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of this crater.”

Richard then proceeded to say that craters form when an asteroid strikes a surface, “blasting a huge hole in the surface of Mars. How do you get a mountain? covering the crater subsequently? Where’d the stuff come fro? to form the mountain?”

George: “It was brought there maybe.”

Richard: “Exactly! And some of the photographs that have been taken by MRO, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that I have on the Coast website … they look down on incredibly geometric ruin-like structures photographed right in the path that Curiosity has to drive. … It is only the beginning.”

Apparently, Richard has no idea how craters larger than about 6 km on Mars form. At approximately that diameter and larger, craters are so large and create such a compressive force that the surface rebounds in the center and you get a central peak. Look at any reasonably fresh crater larger than 15 km on the Moon and you’ll see a central peak. Same with Mars (but the cut-off there is ~6 km as I mentioned). That explains a fair amount of Gale, but the rest of it – and why it was selected as the landing site – is what are thought to be sedimentary deposits. In other words, deposits made by water. Not a 50-mile-wide and 3-mile-high pyramid made by intelligent beings stupid enough to believe in your hyperdimensional physics, Richard.

Hour the Second

This hour was with John Brandenburg. This is not meant to be a poisoning of the well ad hominem nor non sequitur, but Brandenburg was introduced as having written books entitled, “Life and Death on Mars,” and “Beyond Einstein’s Unified Field.” He was further introduced as a plasma physicist and someone who was trying to “complete the work of Einstein” on unifying the fundamental forces mathematically. When one hears that, especially on a show like Coast to Coast, one’s B.S. detector should be tweaked.

Richard monopolized a lot of the time in the early part of this hour – and what I later found to be most of the show – and he reiterated his claim that the central mound in Gale Crater is a collapsed arcology. Some evidence, you might ask? Of course: “It’s got headlights! … Why, since you’re not driving at night, … why do you need headlights at night? They’re going into the structure where they don’t have any light!” Q.E.D. right?

He went on: “As we go through the morning I’m going to lay out more data points – carefully researched so I don’t sound like a total idiot, cause people can go and confirm this themselves; now, if they interpret the data the same way, that’s up to them, but the data is there … .”

That actually is a remarkably honest statement and it’s one of Richard’s many “outs” that he usually includes, and it’s also, incidentally, the way that creationists will often argue: It’s all about your worldview, we’re all looking at the same data! The problem with Richard is that he has his conspiracy/artifacts/life agenda, and the data – no matter what they are – will always support that from his vantage point.

He went on to say that the Obama administration is holding an “October Surprise.” I’m looking forward to November when George will come back and ask Richard why there wasn’t any no one holds Richard to this except for callers who don’t make it through and Facebook fans who get banned.

Anyway, after the bottom-of-the-hour-break, John explained that he believes Mars once had a thriving biosphere, that the climate changed dramatically with the formation of Lyot Crater (a crater that I have extensively studied and written three papers on …) that doomed the planet. Before that, it had an oxygen atmosphere and thriving biosphere according to him.

Well, real quick, in my papers I date Lyot Crater to about 3.3-3.7 billion years ago. There’s some VERY preliminary work I’m doing that might make it more like 2 billion years old, but that is in no way shape nor form an age that should be used at the moment.

On Earth, it took until something like 2.4 billion years before we had an oxygen atmosphere which was the pollution of the first bacterial life. This is a case where John Brandenburg can “believe” anything he wants, but it’s up to him to provide the evidence that supports his ideas and counters the established observations that disagree with his ideas.

Which get more strange. At 24:44 into hour 2: “There seems to have been a very large nuclear event. … One hypothesis I’ve put forth … [is] this was a natural nuclear reactor … and you can find a big radiation scar on Mars from the gamma ray spectrometer.” Okay, yes, natural nuclear reactors happened, it happened in Africa on Earth a long time ago. But there is NO evidence it happened on Mars. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer was designed to search for evidence of sub-surface hydrogen that is thought to be bound in water. Not search for nuclear blast sites. John cites several lines of “evidence” for his model that, honestly, are not evidence for anything he’s suggesting, but to get the whole story, of course you need to go buy his book.

No argument would be complete, though, without the argument from persecution, which comes at about 26 minutes into the episode when he said that he was denounced not only by the US but by the Soviets. I didn’t know he put forth his ideas prior to the 1990s.

But it gets better. The story continues when Richard comes back from listening to the NASA press conference and points out (first) that one of their lines of evidence for bombs going off is that some craters are in chains which look like bombing runs. Um, no. Craters occur in chains for at least three reasons: Pit craters (they are collapse features overlying voided lava tubes, so follow the lava tube), secondary craters (my specialty, ejecta thrown out from the formation of a primary crater), and craters formed by an object that was broken up by the gravity of the planet (think Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact). Bombing runs would be the last thing any reputable scientist would suggest for the formation of a crater chain on Mars.

But it gets better. Richard points out that an instrument on Curiosity will be for investigating the radiation environment on Mars, but that because NASA keeps emphasizing “natural radiation,” they doth protest too much and so he thinks it’s code for, of course, radiation from whatever technology the ancient Martians had. It couldn’t be, possibly, because if they don’t say “natural radiation” some generic member of the public would wonder about it and ask why there’s radiation on Mars? (It’s because of a lack of atmosphere shielding it from NATURAL radiation from the sun and extra-solar system cosmic rays.) It’s why I keep trying to say “impact crater” instead of just “crater” (even though I fail) because “impact crater” is more specific. Even though it’s usually assumed. But no, it’s ’cause they’re using Curiosity to look for a way to date when the civil Mars war occurred that wiped everyone out.

The final “data point” we get from Richard in this hour that was supposed to feature Brandenburg in the first half and callers in the second half is that the White House christmas card from last year supposedly had, reflected in the blinds in the window, the logo for the Curiosity rover. Talk about pareidolia. And the fact that it was in the library, where no other White House christmas card has ever been photographed “before or since” (not sure how we’ve had a Christmas since 2011), is because they’re sending the message that Curiosity is going to uncover the ancient knowledge (represented by the books) of Mars.

2011 White House Christmas Card

2011 White House Christmas Card

How Richard puts this together is beyond me and likely would get him committed to many psychiatric institutes.

Hour the Third

It bears mentioning during this hour that Hoagland remarked about “typical NASA arrogance” when, during the press conference, the principle investigator for the mission was asked by a 10-year-old when “the kids” get to drive Curiosity on Mars. Hoagland stated that the PI had no sense of humor and bristled and said, “Well, there are 400 scientists ahead of her in line.” Richard’s response? Well, I already told you: “Typical NASA arrogance.” Hmm. How about “Basic fact and responding in a way that a child can understand.” As opposed to the reality, which is “never.” That would have been more of an arrogant response.

Most of this hour was relatively tame until around 24 minutes in. Robert Zubrin is, by most accounts a reasonably sane person and though he thinks that there are fossils on Mars, he doesn’t claim any of the pareidolia evidence that Sir Charles Schultz III does, he just thinks they’re there but we haven’t gathered evidence for them.

At 23:20, Richard interrupts, as he often does. In fact, there was a “debate” a few years ago between the two on Coast and Zubrin at one point effectively said, “Richard, if you’re not going to let me talk, if you keep interrupting me, I’m just going to hang up.”

Anyway, Richard claims that several NASA people have said that we might find fossils on Mars with Curiosity. I have not heard this. I would be very surprised if anyone connected with the team or a scientist or official at NASA stated that. I’d like to know who and when, Richard. If you skip over the one caller they took after that, to around 30 minutes in, Zubrin starts to question Richard’s statement. Then they start arguing. Hoagland believes they already know of fossils (and will disclose a few days before the US presidential election), Zubrin is more rational, which is always a big no-no on Coast.

They took one more call and Richard interrupted him.

Hour the Fourth

The guest this hour was Richard Hoagland. Oh, and some other guy who Richard didn’t really let talk. Something-something-something. (Looks up the name …) David Livingston.

David really didn’t bring anything to the table this hour because Richard kept talking. It was really just more of the same but Richard let his hair down a bit more and let himself talk more. Err, go more into his weird ideas. More conspiracy stuff, more “they know and this mission is going to let them talk about it and we have pictures of fossils” etc. etc. etc.

Final Thoughts

Can you tell I was a bit jaded by the end? Yeah …

Anyway, the only good thing to come out of it is, as usual, Hoagland kept saying throughout the night one of the only things that I fully support him on: The space program is awesome and the landing of Curiosity is a great accomplishment. More resources should be invested in space, and the landing of Curiosity has given the space program a very good and very needed P.R. boost.


  1. One of the post-landing presser scientists DID mention fossils, but in a comic way when discussing how fast the rover would cross the surface. He remarked cheerfully that the speed depended on how often some scientist raised his hand and said, we gotta stop here for a week and study these fossils, or some such reason. It was a light-hearted throw-away comment but as soon as I heard it I thought “hoagwash-bait”. Sure enough. You can’t make this stuff up.

    Comment by Jim Oberg — August 8, 2012 @ 3:58 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the clarification.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — August 8, 2012 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

    • Actually, and it might have been from the Google hangout that was running commentary on the landing, one of the commenters said that they had been told that looking for microscopic fossils was not in the mission, BUT if Curiosity did happen to find “macroscopic fossils” than that would be perfectly okay. That’s no saying anybody said it was a possibility, only that on the off-chance Curiosity spotted a sea shell or something it was acceptable for the rover to investigate further.

      Comment by Wil — August 8, 2012 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

  2. I hope you are right about this being a “P.R. boost” for NASA, but I was astonished at the paucity of Curiosity’s TV coverage: close to nil on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC: who were all far more fixated on a 9 second sprint of the Fastest Man in the World, the Olympics in general, and the Sikh shooting tragedy, or just plain junk night-time programming. Luckily I was able to watch many hours of the 7 minutes of terror on NASA’s Web channel, and all the technical talking heads of the mission. And a couple of days later enjoy Richard’s raconteurship on a YouTube audio of that C2C. What *are* those headlights for??

    Comment by Gene Scott Keyes — August 8, 2012 @ 11:59 am | Reply

    • I think it’s a PR boost in the sense it got any coverage, and every new photo from Curiosity is getting a lot of play in blogs and non-network news sites. I hate to adopt Coast’s anti-MSM (main-stream media) thing, but they really aren’t good at covering what a lot of people actually want to see.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — August 8, 2012 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

    • NPR has done several good spots. NBC Nightly News put it just after the first break last night, and it was pretty run-of-the-mill.

      Comment by Expat — August 8, 2012 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

      • I was mainly referring to live coverage, which was near zilch. But even the day after was lame; e.g., ABC Nightly News had it last, or next to last. Guess I’ll have to wait for Nova.

        Comment by Gene Scott Keyes — August 8, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    • I don’t rememberexactly (because I was 6 or 7) , but I believe we had to watch Voyager’s flybys on PBS with very little MSM coverage. I got all of my coverage on Huygens-Cassini from the web, and have no idea if there was MSM coverage or not. I have to say that the impression I get is the unmanned probes don’t get a lot of airtime in the MSM and never have.

      Comment by Wil — August 8, 2012 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

  3. I agree Mr. Hoagland is full of Sh$#, but I do find C2C and him pretty entertaining. He must really get your goat for you to waste hours of your time writing about him. You and Phil should take a chill pill and quit hating. He is just a guy entertaining people, nobody really takes him too seriously except you.

    Comment by digs344 — August 15, 2012 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

    • Hating is something I don’t do, but it is a common accusation.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — August 15, 2012 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

      • Hmmmmm, well you kinda come off as a hater, but if you say your not. Ill take your for it. I do like your blog, keep it up.

        Comment by digs344 — September 5, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

      • I don’t hate Richard. I find him exasperating, insincere, condescending, patronizing, and I think the vast majority of what he says is wrong and I have a fair amount of evidence to show that he knows it’s wrong (but I can’t read minds and have never spoken with him personally so will never say that I know this for a fact). That, admittedly, may come off as “hating” in the modern internet usage of the word, but honestly, at a personal level, I do not hate him, nor do I hate what he says, where “hate” is defined as: “feel intense or passionate dislike for.”

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 5, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

  4. I think “hate” is being used now in a way that doesn’t match its dictionary definition. Instead, it’s been watered down to just mean someone doesn’t like what someone else said, and spoke up about it. Doesn’t matter if what was initially stated was beyond absurd, and needs to be called out. Sure, everybody is entitled to an opinion, but if a person is going to make an outrageous claim, then strong evidence is needed to back it up. We’ve had far too many people talking about all sorts of strange things, and we’re supposed to just let them entertain us? What about the harm that some of them do? Okay, Mr. Hoagland is obviously not taken seriously, at least by some, but others do take what he’s saying as truth. Shouldn’t another person make an effort to let them in on the joke?

    Comment by Rick K. — September 5, 2012 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  5. ok ok “hating” was the wrong word. my bad.

    Comment by digs344 — October 2, 2012 @ 8:28 am | Reply

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